Online Education: Better Than Traditional School?
Online education used to be nothing more than correspondence school on the screen. Heavy on writing and reading, it offered very little in the way of interactive learning, teacher feedback, and other perks of the traditional classroom. But today’s online education programs look nothing like they did decades ago—and some studies suggest they surpass traditional education.
A 2009 study, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, released by the U.S. Department of Education, took a look at over a thousand empirical studies of online education from 1998 to 2008, narrowing that down to 51 studies to examine in-depth—44 of which emphasized the performance of older learners.
The online education programs examined were comprised mostly of higher education programs—college- and graduate-level—although a few K-12 programs were also included. From this exhaustive review, the researchers concluded that on average, students in online learning programs performed better than those in a traditional classroom setting.
The results stated that not only did online learners perform better, by-and-large, than traditional students—but also that:
- Students in blended classrooms—those that combined traditional and online instructional elements—did better than both purely online and purely traditional students.
- On-task students in online classrooms got more benefit from their studies than on-task students in traditional classrooms.
- The type of online learning didn’t seem to make much of a difference—out of thirteen online learning methods studied.
- Online learning was found to be an effective method for many ages and subject matters. This includes college-level, graduate and professional studies—and many different types of degree programs.
- Blended or hybrid learning—instruction that includes both online and traditional elements—appears to be the most effective of all.
Why were online learning programs found to be more effective? The researchers pinpointed several factors that may have made a difference when reviewing numerous online-vs.-traditional education studies. They included:
- Learning time - The studies suggested that online mediums allowed more time for learning than the traditional classroom. In a brick-and-mortar school, students are in the classroom for only a set amount of time, whereas in an online education program, students can watch video lectures multiple times and spend as much time as they need to participating in online interactive learning programs.
- Individualized instruction - There were few studies that looked at online learning programs that automatically adjusted to take into account the learner’s performance, questions or other needs, but those that did found very positive results in comparison to traditional schools. In a classroom setting, it’s much more difficult for a teacher to individualize instruction.
- Opportunities for collaboration - In the studies, collaboration with other students produced better ultimate results—in both traditional and online classrooms.
- Opportunities for reflection - Learning mechanisms that prompt students to reflect on what they’ve learned so far automatically, at the end of a learning module, produce good results according to the study. These reflection mechanisms include automatic “self-assessment” questions asking students to think about what they learned, their own learning methods and their performance in class.
At first, it appears that online learning as a medium provides stronger benefits to students than traditional learning—but the researchers were hesitant to conclude that across the board. Instead, they suggested that it’s learning time, preparation, and opportunities for collaboration that enhance learning. While online learning administered effectively can produce very good results, simply adapting an existing curriculum to an online format won’t necessarily increase performance without addition of other improvements. As an example, universities such as Gwynedd Mercy University have made great strides in adapting difficult cirriculum to an online format for their nursing students.
Overall, while the results of this study are intriguing, they shouldn’t be taken as the last word on online education’s effectiveness against the traditional classroom. The studies included in the review didn’t always provide a clear comparison of programs—that is, the programs being compared weren’t always exactly the same, with the single difference being that one was online education and one was traditional. In addition, some studies suffered from other weaknesses, such as small study samples.
However, this review does seem to confirm that the quality of online learning has vastly improved in the past decade—and that online education is a legitimate and highly effective way to learn.
New York Times: Online Learning: More Effective Than the Classroom?
Ed.gov: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (PDF)
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