Online Learning in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Empirical Literature (2013 – 2014)

D. Derek Wu, Ithaka S+R, Mar 17, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

According to this article, the long-established 'no significant difference' between online and in-class learning outcomes is upheld. Yet "there remains a need for greater methodological rigor in the research on learning outcomes associated with online and hybrid instruction." On the one hand, I agree that academic research in the field is often poor (one of the studies cited is your typical "class of psychology students at a midwestern university"). On the other hand, I don't think the author is fair in his assessment of some of the better studies - the critiques, for example, of Xu and Jaggars (2014, "500,000 online and face-to-face courses taken by more than 40,000 degree-seeking students") are picky and pedantic.

Finally, I would add my usual caution that with online learning, we don't expect merely the same outcome, we expect different outcomes. A study like this is like comparing air and rail by distance travelled and on-time ratings, and finding no significant difference in the outcome. But when travelling by air, we travel much faster, and to locations not accessible by train, and a controlled point-for-point comparison would miss this result.

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