Online Education Beats the Classroom

01/07/2011 08:46



A recent 93-page report on online education, conducted by

SRI International for the Department of Education, has a

starchy academic title, but a most intriguing conclusion:


“On average, students in online learning conditions

performed better than those receiving face-to-face



The report examined the comparative research on online

versus traditional classroom teaching from 1996 to 2008.

Some of it was in K-12 settings, but most of the comparative

studies were done in colleges and adult continuing-education

programs of various kinds, from medical training to the


Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which

there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom

performance for the same courses. The analysis for the

Department of Education found that, on average, students

doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th

percentile in tested performance, compared with the average

classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile. That is a

modest but statistically meaningful difference.


“The study’s major significance lies in

demonstrating that online learning today is not just

better than nothing — it actually tends to be better


the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at

SRI International.

This hardly means that we’ll be saying good-bye to

classrooms. But the report does suggest that online

education could be set to expand sharply over the next few

years, as evidence mounts of its value.

Until fairly recently, online education amounted to little

more than electronic versions of the old-line correspondence

courses. That has really changed with arrival of Web-based

video, instant messaging and collaboration tools.


The real promise of online education, experts say, is

providing learning experiences that are more

tailored to individual students than is possible in

classrooms. That enables more “learning by doing,”

which many students find more engaging and



“We are at an inflection point in online education,” said

Philip R. Regier, the dean of Arizona State University’s

Online and Extended Campus program.

The biggest near-term growth, Mr. Regier predicts, will be in

continuing education programs. Today, Arizona State has

5,000 students in its continuing education programs, both

through in-person classes and online. In three to five years,

he estimates, that number could triple, with nearly all the

growth coming online.

But Mr. Regier also thinks online education will continue to

make further inroads in transforming college campuses as

well. Universities — and many K-12 schools — now widely

use online learning management systems, like Blackboard or

the open-source Moodle. But that is mostly for posting

assignments, reading lists, and class schedules and hosting

some Web discussion boards.

Mr. Regier sees things evolving fairly rapidly, accelerated by

the increasing use of social networking technology. More and

more, students will help and teach each other, he said. For

example, it will be assumed that college students know the

basics of calculus, and the classroom time will focus on

applying the math to real-world problems — perhaps in

exploring the physics of climate change or modeling trends

in stock prices, he said.

“The technology will be used to create learning communities

among students in new ways,” Mr. Regier said. “People are

correct when they say online education will take things out

the classroom. But they are wrong, I think, when they

assume it will make learning an independent, personal

activity. Learning has to occur in a community.”