Getting it Right: Is Online Learning REALLY Better?

If you read a new Education Department study about online education and were not a professional researcher, it would be reasonable to come away thinking that on-line education helped students perform better than face-to-face instruction.

I did.

After all, the 93-page report says that the researchers “found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
I found this to be such a startling conclusion that, if true, could spell the end of traditional education.

So I turned to professional education researchers at Columbia University to help me. When Shanna Jaggars, a senior research associate at Columbia’s Community College Research Center took a thorough look, a different picture emerged.

Here are some of the things she found:

*Though the authors conclude that on-line learning was better than face to face, they also present evidence suggesting that the better outcomes may not have been a result of the on-line media itself.

(For those who want the details: The report is called “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning / A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” conducted by SRI International. A “meta-analysis” is a review of a group of studies on the same subject. The authors found more than 1,000 studies conducted from 1996 to 2008 but settled on 51 that seemed complete enough to review. Most of the reviewed studies were done in colleges and adult continuing-education programs of numerous kinds. A minority involved K-12 education.)

*Within each reviewed study, on-line and face-to-face courses were often no equivalent in terms of instructional features. The observed positive effects may be due to more time on task, curriculum or other features of instruction.

*Thus the report does not support a conclusion that a significant shift from face-to-face to on-line courses would necessarily improve student outcomes. Instead, colleges should ensure that all courses, whether online or face-to-face, are of high quality.
*Researchers believe that students withdraw from on-line courses at higher rates than those in face-to-face classes. It is possible that the on-line courses retained the more motivated students.

*The authors in the report do not discuss whether the courses included in the reviewed studies are typical of most online courses.

Well, that all presents a somewhat different picture, doesn’t it?

I asked the co-authors of the study to respond.

Two of them, Marianne Bakia and Robert Murphy, said in an e-mail: “It is important to note that the meta-analysis does not support simply putting existing face to face courses online. It is not the Internet as a medium that is associated with student learning. If instruction is bad in a face to face context, simply putting it online won’t make it any better. However, the online platform does seem to support effective ways to redesign instruction and increase student time on task.”

They also said that while their work drew on the best available data, “unfortunately” the studies included in the analysis did not systematically address completion rates. And they said they “don’t have sufficient information” about the kinds of courses to know how representative they are.

The unanswered questions, then, remain.

This is not to say that the Ed Department meta-analysis is without value.

But this is to say that we all need to be careful about what we read and how much to read into conclusions.

New education studies come out every day. Some are revelatory. Some are garbage. I
It is important to see how the studies were conducted, who conducted them and how valid the conclusions really are. But the truth is that non-researchers (that means you and me) can’t always figure this out. We don’t know what we can’t see in an academic study.

It really is up to the research community to be clearer about the successes and the limitations of their work--and for those who see something that isn’t kosher to blow the whistle.

Let me know if you see a study or report that you wonder about and would like explained.

Every Tuesday in this space, we'll try to take a look at who's Getting it Right--and who's not.

By Washington Post editors  |  September 1, 2009; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  Getting it Right Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | | Digg | Stumble Previous: Q & A on Learning
Next: Stop Sending Sick Kids to School


"Researchers believe that students withdraw from on-line courses at higher rates than those in face-to-face classes. It is possible that the on-line courses retained the more motivated students."

Based on our household's and some friends' experience with online courses, I believe student's are more willing to take an online course if they are comfortable with the subject matter. The first thing they'll say is that they prefer moving at their own pace, which is usually faster than the classroom equivalent. If the subject matter is foreign to them, they'll avoid the online version. Alternatively, some students take online courses simultaneously with or before classroom courses if the subject is unusually hard and/or the classroom teacher is known to be tough.

For the above scenarios alone, I don't think there can be a fair comparison of online and classroom education. Nevertheless, it's wonderful that the motivated students have the online option.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 1, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Our daughter is being home-schooled and is now beginning her 5th year and is two years ahead of her age group. Her curriculum is a combination of on-line (a high-quality program provided by via a DC public charter school) and face-to-face enrichment in music, theater, art, math, and science (the latter two by the fabulous Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program). When I read the SRI study I took this from it: when students are able to blend on-line with face-to-face, and are able to spend sustained periods of time on a specific subject, they do better overall then either exclusively face-to-face or on-line. And in fact that is exactly what we have experienced. The future is not 100% on-line, nor is it 100% in classrooms, but is in a blend that provides the ideal mix for each student as an individual. The idea that we could factory-produce learners (in any fashion) needs to be relegated to history.

Posted by: rogernebel | September 1, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Regardless of the myriads of research projects that are bound to report on face-to-face vs online classes, I hope that we all think for ourselves on the pros and cons of each of these two conduits.
1) they are pretty much apples and
oranges; unique advantages to each,
unique disadvantages to each

2) those of us who have had the luxury
of attending good universities and
colleges AND having had the later
on-line experiences might want to
remember that unique rush of
stepping into a world where we met
IN PERSON, other students from all
over the country if not from all
over the world; face-to-face
education is not just about the
instructor in one class; it is about
human interaction,learning to figure
out body language,social cues,
environmental impact; it's an education that is not really measureable in its richness......I feel that young students who are told they can do everything online are really missing out.

3. Hands-on education, in particular,
is just that - it's real....very
difficult to appreciate real
painting, architecture,acting,lab
work, dance,etc., etc. on screen.
I would much rather go to a local
gallery and experience the ambiance
as well as the art than experience
the greatest museum in the world on-
line - and I've been to both local
and world-class museums.

Conclusions: Research on this topic needs
to be extensive and inclusive of all
manners of human learning, not just
narrow "who gets the answers best"

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 1, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Where education research gets in trouble is when it is used to justify the "magic bullet" approach to educating all children. Online learning may help some kids, sometimes, and under certain circumstances. But it is being touted as the magic cure-all for what ails public education. To be honest, online education researchers should investigate what the percentage is of the school population that might be BETTER served with online instruction than the current class-room model.

Posted by: moreflowers | September 1, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2009 The Washington Post Company