Online education, continued: the right question; a long-winded (and unfinished) answer

A reader posted this this response to my most recent post, on online education:

“Here’s the burning question: Which method of instruction is most conducive to learning?

I m not sure we know how to make that evaluation, and even if we did the answer will likely differ from student to student.

I was hoping your post would provide some insight into the overall effectiveness of online instruction. I know how difficult the question is to address, but can you compare the quality of learning experienced by your “regular” students versus those who take an online course? In my mind, everything else is secondary.”

Since many states are just beginning to offer online courses as a part of the regular public school curriculum, there’s not a lot of reliable data out there. Probably the most often cited “meta study” — that is, review of the research literature — comes from a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Education. I’m posting the study’s summary conclusions, and putting the bottom line and an important qualification in all caps. You can also follow the link to the full study.

By the way, I’ll answer the second part of the question, about my personal experience, in an upcoming series of posts.

Here’s what the report had to say:

“A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified “more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 50 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. THE META-ANALYSIS FOUND THAT, ON AVERAGE, STUDENTS IN ONLINE LEARNING CONDITIONS PERFORMED MODESTLY BETTER THAN THOSE RECEIVING FACE-TO-FACE INSTRUCTION.. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes–measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation–was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. AN UNEXPECTED FIDING WAS THE SMALL NUMBER OF RIGOROUS PUBLISHED STUDIES CONTRASTING ONLINE AND FACE-TO-FACE LEARNING CONDITIONS FOR K-12 STUDENTS. IN LIGHT OF THIS SMALL CORPUS, CAUTION IS REQUIRED IN GENERALIZING TO THE k-12 POPULATION BECAUSE THE RESULTS ARE DERIVED FOR THE MOST PART FROM STUDIES IN OTHER SETTINGS (E.G., MEDICAL TRAINING, HIGHER EDUCATION.)

Here’s the link to the full study.

Realize, by the way, that this kind of research isn’t going to capture my commentator’s chief insight, which is that online courses are likely to work better for some students than others. Blog readers know how firmly I believe in the “diff’rent strokes” model of reform. I’ll have more to say about that in my next, more personal, post.

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