There’s no doubt that eLearning is a hot topic these days, and even the government is interested in more closely examining it to determine its effectiveness for delivering educational results. An important study by the US Department of Education several years back did exactly that, conducting a meta-analysis of 45 different studies that looked at various aspects of eLearning. It’s worth taking a deeper look at just what that study revealed.

The Government’s Take on eLearning Effectiveness

The study’s objectives were to take a look at the following four research 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 good thing about this study is that it focused exclusively on web-based instruction, and only included in its final analysis those studies that used rigorous random-assignment or controlled quasi-experimental designs. Of the 1,132 identified studies of online learning that took place between 1996 and 2008, 99 of them included comparing online and face-to-face conditions, but only 45 provided sufficient data to compute or estimate a variety of different effect sizes. Most of the qualifying studies were published from 2004 on.

The following findings, although not earth-shattering, are significant:

  • Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. This is a nice nod to eLearning’s effectiveness relative to more traditional modes of instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction. Taking the blended approach can have some real advantages, which is worth keeping in mind. Of course, designing good blended learning experiences also takes significantly more time and resources to get it right.
  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed than in those studies where online learners worked independently. This one is important to highlight because it shows the collaboration is better than entirely self-paced/self-directed efforts.
  • Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly. The exceptions to this are the two aspects previously mentioned – blended approaches and collaboration.
  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. This is another nice nod to eLearning’s effectiveness across different learners and content areas.
  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction. You’ve heard that variety is the spice of life, and it appears to hold true in the eLearning environment as well.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. Studies indicate that manipulations that trigger learner activity or learner reflection and self-monitoring of understanding are effective when students pursue online learning as individuals. What’s interesting here is that just throwing more and different kinds of media at learners doesn’t necessarily increase learning. It highlights the fact that in eLearning it’s not about the media type, it’s about the content.

If you want to take a look at the original study, you can find it at the following link: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Overall, I find the results to be strongly supportive of eLearning for adults in a variety of organizational types.