New DOE study: Online learning outperforms the live classroom

by Marty Crossland on October 6, 2009

Well, a major study has formally analyzed and found out what a lot of us in online learning suspected or even thought we knew all along. This brand new study just released from the Department of Education is a comprehensive meta-analysis (that is, it is a comprehensive analysis of a large number of individual studies summarized analytically). The study started with 1,332 studies about online learning. They winnowed this set down to 46 rigorous studies that compared at least one element of online versus face-to-face learning, and from this group derived 51 effects.

Some of their key findings that I found most relevant are:

  1. For older (i.e. adult) learners, students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  2. Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  3. Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than learners in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning.
  4. Most of the variations in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly.
  5. The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.
  6. Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction.
  7. Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes.
  8. Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in an online class.
  9. Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learning reflection.
  10. Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners.

The authors provide these comments in the Conclusions section of their Executive Summary:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction.

However, several caveats are in order: Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium. In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.

Read the full study. It is really fascinating and encouraging.

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