Online learning—for students and for teachers—is one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology. The National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that the number of K-12 public school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in the two years from 2002-03 to 2004-05. On the basis of a more recent district survey, Picciano and Seaman (2009) estimated that more than a million K– 12 students took online courses in school year 2007–08. Online learning overlaps with the broader category of distance learning, which encompasses earlier technologies such as correspondence courses, educational television and videoconferencing. Earlier studies of distance learning concluded that these technologies were not significantly different from regular classroom learning in terms of effectiveness.
Policymakers reasoned that if online instruction is no worse than traditional instruction in terms of student outcomes, then online education initiatives could be justified on the basis of cost efficiency or need to provide access to learners in settings where face-to-face instruction is not feasible. The question of the relative efficacy of online and face-to-face instruction needs to be revisited, however, in light of today’s online learning applications, which can take advantage of a wide range of Web resources, including not only multimedia but also Web-based applications and new collaboration technologies. These forms of online learning are a far cry from the televised broadcasts and video-conferencing that characterized earlier generations of distance education. Moreover, interest in hybrid approaches that blend in-class and online activities is increasing. Policy-makers and practitioners want to know about the effectiveness of Internet based, interactive online learning approaches and need information about the conditions under which online learning is effective.
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. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so. However, several caveats are in order: Despite what appears to be strong support for blended 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 blended 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. In addition, although the types of research designs used by the studies in the meta-analysis were strong (i.e., experimental or controlled quasi-experimental), many of the studies suffered from weaknesses such as small sample sizes; failure to report retention rates for students in the conditions being contrasted; and, in many cases, potential bias stemming from the author’s dual roles as experimenters and instructors.