Is Online Learning Effective or Not? A Comprehensive Look

Not only is online learning more effective for students, it's also better for the environment.

Online courses

consume 90% less energy and release 85% less CO2 per student than traditional in-person courses, according to the UK Open University. Distance learning is not only more efficient, but it can also be just as effective as regular school classes, even more so for some students. A substantial research base developed by Karl Alexander at Johns Hopkins University and many others shows that students, especially those with fewer resources at home, learn less when they are not in school.

However, virtual courses allow students to access lessons and exercises and interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had shut down schools even a decade or two earlier. So, while we may be skeptical of online learning, it's also time to embrace and improve it. This requires work; we know from research that pedagogy is important. Educators can't just scan the textbook, record the lesson, put it online and expect the same or better learning.

Using a dataset containing nearly 500,000 courses taken by more than 40,000 students at community and technical colleges in Washington State, this study examines the achievement gap between online and in-person courses and how the size of that gap differs between student subgroups and subjects. The important point of this study is that there was no attempt to redesign the courses for an online learning environment. We measured the effect on learning outcomes of a prototypical interactive learning online statistics course by randomly assigning students from six public college campuses to take the course in a hybrid format (with machine-guided instruction) accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction each week or a traditional format (as typically offered on your campus, typically with approximately three hours of in-person instruction per week). The best online learning combines elements where students go at their own pace, in their own time, and are prepared to think deeply and critically about the topic, combined with elements where students connect to the Internet at the same time and interact with other students, their teacher and their content.

But just because students who struggle in in-person classes are even more likely to struggle online doesn't mean it's inevitable. Research has shown that students in online learning performed better than those receiving in-person instruction, but you have to do it right. This study is important because it looks at the long-term success rate of online learning, rather than short-term outcomes, such as course completion or course grades. At the time, there was little incentive for students to study online, as the offer of courses was extremely limited. This is mandatory reading in any discussion of comparisons between online and in-person teaching, and especially for those who will have disadvantaged students in their online courses.