A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that students involved in blended learning programs generally performed better than students who participated in face-to-face instruction. According to the study, “The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.”
The study, entitled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, involved a rigorous evaluation of more than a thousand recent studies of online learning. Of the collection of empirical studies examined, the research team identified forty-six studies that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis involved examining the conclusions of the various studies in order to construct a general conclusion (composite estimate) regarding online learning.
The research analysis is based around four important questions:
- “How does the effectiveness of online learning compare with that of face-to-face instruction?”
- “Does supplementing face-to-face instruction with online instruction enhance learning?”
- “What practices are associated with more effective online learning?”
- “What conditions influence the effectiveness of online learning?”
Not only are all four questions very interesting but they are the sorts of questions commonly asked by educators when considering the efficacy of online learning.
In terms of the effectiveness of online learning compared to face-to-face instruction, the study found that “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.”
The study also found that blended learning measurably enhanced student learning as compared with instruction solely based on face-to-face interaction. Moreover, it found that the effectiveness of online learning programs seems “quite broad across different content and learning types.”
The study identified three important best practices related to online instruction:
- “Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.” The study seems to indicate that online learning environments improve student learning when students are able to manipulate instruction based on their particular learning needs or when the online curriculum provides learning mechanisms that trigger student reflection or self monitoring of learning.
- Online learning is more effective when the curriculum includes blended learning elements (e.g., face-to-face interaction, online collaboration, independent practice, etc.).
- Effective online learning environments include a variety of learning activities. The simple inclusion of online learning activities such as video or online quizzes do not necessarily improve student learning. Although these sorts of instructional activities are often recommended by educators, the study was not able to find a significant connection between the activities and improved student achievement.
Although the authors of the study determined that blended learning measurably increased student learning, they were not willing to simply attribute the higher achievement to the instructional approach itself.
It’s also interesting to note that the study concluded that time on task is more beneficial to learning in an online environment than in a face-to-face environment. This seems to confirm what many educators already know: Online learning activities enable teachers to effectively differentiate instruction and tailor learning to meet individual student needs. It seems to make sense, then, that online learning can be highly effective because it enables educators to design instruction that addresses the specific learning needs of students, provide more efficient and individualized student remediation, and individualize instruction based on student aptitude, different learning styles, and interests.
The study did acknowledge that the implications of the its findings are limited and more research regarding online learning is needed. Moreover, the implications for K-12 are very limited due to the small sample of k-12 based research analyzed in the study.
Nevertheless, the study’s analysis is very important. As many schools today face difficult economic challenges, blended learning programs may provide a more efficient and cost effective way to deliver instruction. At the classroom level, blended learning seems to offer important advantages over traditional face-to-face instruction. Perhaps the most important advantage is improved use of instructional time. By utilizing effective blended learning practices, teachers can better maximize limited instructional time while providing interesting and meaningful student-centered learning activities.
Related Article: “What is Blended Learning?“