Online versus Face-to-Face learning – the actual report

The SRI study mentioned in my earlier post set out to answer the following questions:

1. How does the effectiveness of online learning compare with that of face-to-face instruction?
2. Does supplementing face-to-face instruction with online instruction enhance learning?
3. What practices are associated with more effective online learning?
4. What conditions influence the effectiveness of online learning?

The abstract states

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, 51 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed 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 finding 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).

The italics are mine.

Out of over a thousand studies, 51 met the criteria for meta-analysis. Interesting. Blending online instuction with face-to-face instruction had better outcomes than just face-to-face – but those situations often involved more total instruction time. And there were only a small number of studies on K-12 students. That is the area most important to me, and the one I will be commenting upon as I go. Of the 51 studies in the meta-analysis, 5 were conducted on K-12 students.

One study compared face-to-face versus blended instruction of 463 7th and 8th grade Spanish students in West Virginia. 7 schools using standard face-to-face teaching (by certified Spanish language teachers) were compared to 21 schools that lacked the resources for a face-to-face only class. The blended classes were taught using a certified Spanish teacher who reviewed the student’s work via email and over the phone, online lessons designed by the Spanish teacher, and a certified teacher (but not in Spanish) monitoring the students during class to keep them on task. The schools were matched for average language arts achievements. The students were evaluated using multiple-choice tests. Face-to-face students did significantly better than the blended students.

Another study compared Louisiana students in Algebra I: face-to-face versus blended. Two groups (232 in the f2f, 231 in blended) of equivalent students from multiple schools yielded a result where the blended students outperformed the “business as usual” students.

A third study, in Maryland, compared 8th graders studying a unit on slavery and the Underground Railroad using face-to-face versus a blended approach. 971 students were in the study, with slightly better test scores earned by the students in the blended group. A subset of six teachers from this study (3 in f2f, 3 in blended) taught the same unit a second time in the same school year. Using regression analysis on the results of 863 students, it was determined that the 3 teachers using the blended course material made better use of it the second time and obtained more improvement from their second group of students. The f2f teachers did not improve in their fourth study, using the Maryland same teachers from the above study,

A fourth study, of 113 Taiwanese 5th graders, compared a blended science curriculum – including simulated online labs – to a standard curriculum. The students using the online labs did slightly better in terms of pre-instruction versus post-instruction test scores.

A fifth study, of only 35 elementary students in special education, compared blended instruction versus face-to-face for organizing content and structure of ideas for writing. The blended students improved slightly more than the face-to-face.

The results for K-12 students are not nearly as clear cut as the results for the rest of the groups studied. Two of the five studies cited used only a small number of students. And none of the studies for K-12 compared online only to blended or face-to-face instruction.

Intriguing, but with respect to K-12 students, not the knockout victory for online schooling that the headline proclaimed.

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