Study: Students learn more online

Online students outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction, concludes a SRI report for the Department of Education.  The report analyzed some K-12 studies, but primarily looked at college students  and adults in training programs.  It found online students averaged a 59th percentile ranking, while classroom students in the same course ended up in the 50th percentile.

Philip R. Regier, the dean of Arizona State University’s Online and Extended Campus program, predicts more use of social networking technology to create “learning communities” in which students collaborate.

“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.”

E-books are going to replace huge, pricey printed textbooks, predicts Jim Cullen, who was asked by his school to pick a new U.S. history textbook.  He hopes the new e-books don’t imitate the current mega-textbooks, which have become almost unreadable.

They’re all just so damn busy — open up to a random page, and you’ll see a map here, an illustration there, information in the margins, headers, subheads, captions, tables. . . . Students tell me such features are appealing to them. Having lots of illustrations in particular makes the individual pages, often flowing in two columns of text, seem less dismaying. I get that. But as someone who likes and is serious about reading, I find all this activity distracting and am always surprised at just how hard it is for me to stay focused on those occasions where I decide I’m really going to read the textbook. . . . The problem is even worse when I try to read a traditional textbook in e-book form, since most e-books simply mimetically reproduce the print book without making much effort to present the material in a computer-screen friendly manner. That, I think, has to change.

If I were to write an e-textbook, I think I’d tell a story with minimal illustrations and let students click their way to documents, photos, maps, songs, bios, “day in the life” sidebars, etc.

About Joanne


  1. The obvious problem with this data: the online students self-selected that option in most cases. Any classroom teacher will point out that when a student is given choice, it seems that the results are better.

    That said, it is time for more public schools to find ways to embrace the online option.

  2. “If I were to write an e-textbook, I think I’d tell a story with minimal illustrations and let students click their way to documents, photos, maps, songs, bios, “day in the life” sidebars, etc.”

    I know a unit study isn’t the same thing, but this statement reminded me of Amanda Bennet’s unit studies ( She includes many relevant clickable links within pdf files in her unit studies.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    Philip Regier, I believe, is correct in emphasizing the social/community aspects of learning. In fact, sense of learning community is emerging as a key element in online learning at the post-secondary level. I haven’t seen so much of that yet in the K-12 online offerings, which frequently mimic work at your own pace workbooks. I think that we need to look much more deeply into the potential of online learning for K-12, either within a physical classroom community, or in communities that unite learners across geographical divides.

  4. Learning communities can be organized by parents, students, etc.. It’s not necessary for the instructional supplier to organize them.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    Notice that the online-only classes turned out to be only a tiny bit better than completely face-to-face classes, and there were many caveats– the students might self-select, etc. On the other hand, the hybrid classes were quite a bit better than the face-to-face classes.

    So the best practice seems to be including some online work (online homework for math and language, for example) as a component of otherwise face-to-face classes.

  6. Please pay attention to the actual study, and not to the various snippets highlighting it. Read at least the complete executive summary ( ).

    – Of the 50+ useful studies, only 5 covered K-12 range, mostly high school.

    – The time spent on learning was not equal. In general, the on-line students spent more time on learning. This immediately points to followup (unanswered) questions:
    — What is the efficiency of learning (i.e., per equal time).
    — What would students in traditional setting but spending more time learn? There are results of extended learning time studies that unsurprisingly show correlation between time and achievement.

    On the other hand there is a question of interest — possibly students with on-line learning were willing, or able to, spend more time. It is unclear that they would do the same, especially on their own, in traditional setting. Certainly few traditional setting allow for structured longer learning time.

    Bottom line, don’t over-interpret the study. Its findings are very limited. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) the principal investigator from SRI over-touts its implications.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    “Learning communities can be organized by parents, students, etc.. It’s not necessary for the instructional supplier to organize them.”

    pm–I think it’s gotta be integrated with the learning experience–not an add-on.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    Ze-ev–I haven’t had a chance to read the whole study, but the question you raise about time is interesting, particularly when considered in conjunction with other time-related research. One issue with time, in a traditional setting, is that so little of it is actually applied to either time on task, or even less to engaged time in which the student is actually learning. What would interest me is whether the online environment has a different allocation of these kinds of time. Either because of a greater facility to set pace individuallly, or because of the different approach. In a traditional classroom the student shows up, and with luck stays until the bell and leaves, 42 minutes later. In an online environment, the student logs on, works and then logs off when finished, or bored or interrupted. Perhaps the more elastic time frame, combined with more individualized pacing, is a key difference. Or not. Needs more research.

  9. Amy Ramsey says:

    This is very interesting. There is now an assessment for personality traits that is normed for ages 12- 22 that shows basically how our young adults are hardwired! Part of this tells us what is the best way for our students to learn. Not everyone is created the same and they don’t learn the same. I have a student that falls into the “left brain” category and needs to learn and study in alternative settings to the traditional classroom environment. Once I discovered this, life has been much better.

    Great conversation!

  10. the obvious says:

    Online classes are selective. Just to figure them out, the bottom 1/3 of the population is eliminated.
    Additionally, online classes eliminate a lot of wasted instructional time.
    How many times have you been bored waiting for the teacher to explain something to someone, that you “got” 15 minutes ago.

  11. tim-10-ber says:

    Great conversation —

    Margo/Mom – I have the same questions/thoughts as you.

    The Obvious — yes, in normal circumstances the lower third might be eliminated from this type of learning, but why does it have to be that way? If meaningful and high quality online learning were incorporated in the normal school day wouldn’t this allow all children to try it? For those that needed extra help they could receive it in the traditional classroom setting while the other students were in the library or computer lab or other setting working on line. Seems to me online learning might be a great way to better leverage effective teachers and keep the middle and higher achieving students from being bored while allowing more individualized instruction for those that need it. Of course, the programs being used have to be of the highest quality…

    Not all students will do well on line but I bet there would be a wide enough array of offerings most students could find something that interests them for online learning for at least one period a day or even after school.

    The possibilities are unlimited…