Barack ObamaPresident Obama: right on tech

By Bob Harrison

One of the first things President Obama did on taking office was to announce the closure of the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison. A less reported action was his decision to double expenditure on technology in education.

Now Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, a study by the US Department of Education, suggests he made the right decision.

The findings, derived from a systematic search for empirical studies of the effectiveness of online learning and a meta-analysis of those studies which contrasted face-to-face and online, provide some illuminating insights into the relative advantages of face-to-face, online and blended learning. It should be urgently considered by all those involved in education policy and especially expensive capital projects such as Building Schools for the Future (BSF), Building Colleges for the Future (BCF) and the Primary Capital Programme (PCP).

If blended learning is emerging as more effective, and possibly efficient, should we really be building quite as many schools and colleges when blended, virtual and mobile learning could provide alternatives?

There are many successful examples of alternatives in the US (Stanford Virtual High School) and the UK (, but this study really does challenge the current thinking and mindsets of education planners and policy makers.

The key findings include:

  • Limited research on effectiveness of online learning in schools
  • Learners who took all or part of their class online perform better than just face to face
  • Combining face to face and online is more effective than purely online or face to face.
  • Learners online spent more time on task
  • How the online was delivered made little difference to learning outcomes
  • Online approaches showed benefits across content and learner types.
  • Variation of online materials and medium produced largest improvements
  • Giving learners control of their interactions with media and the opportunity for reflection enhances learning.

The conclusions are compelling:

  • “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches.
  • "Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction."

However, several caveats are in order. "Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.”

This landscape study has profound implications for education within the US and the UK and should feature in the deliberations of whichever government is in power. There are enormous issues related to capital projects as well as the initial training of teachers and continued professional development of the education workforce which emanate from this study and an urgent national debate is needed on the issue.

Closing down Guantanamo Bay seems relatively easy by comparison!

More Information

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, a study by the
U.S. Department of Education

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for School Leadership, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website

Picture (top): official portrait of Barack Obama (by Pete Souza)

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