Online learning study looks at research

by Barb Axlelson

Online learning is one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology, according to the recently-released report Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (

The impetus for the analysis was the need to develop research-based insights into online learning for K–12 students. A broader set of fields was studied to assemble sufficient empirical research for meta-analysis.

The research literature (1996 to July 2008) found more than 1,000 empirical studies of online learning. On average, students of online learning performed better than those with face-to-face instruction.

Blended conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction often featured additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions.

Institutions of higher education and corporate training have adopted online learning. K–12 schools were slower to join in. A small number of rigorous published studies contrasted online and face-to-face learning in K–12. The literature focused not only on K–12 but also on career technology, medical and higher education, plus corporate and military training. Analytic findings with implications for K–12 learning are reported, but readers of the report are cautioned that results are derived mainly from other settings (e.g;, medical training, higher education).

A range of online learning practices could have different effectiveness for K–12 than for older students. The report says, “It is certainly possible that younger students could benefit more from a different degree of teacher or computer-based guidance than would college students and older learners. Without new random assignment or controlled quasi-experimental studies of the effects of online learning options for K–12 students, policy-makers will lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness of these emerging alternatives to face-to-face instruction.”

Modern online learning embraces Web resources, including multimedia, Web-based applications and new collaboration technologies. Hybrid approaches to blend in-class and online activities is increasing.

The majority of available studies suggest the following:

  • Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes.
  • Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.
  • Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners.