The Times reports today on an “intriguing conclusions: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”   The finding comes form a meta-analysis report prepared for the Department of Education, and, it is important to note, that most of the comparative studies it considered were done in educational settings above K-12 education.

Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile. That is a modest but statistically meaningful difference.“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International.

This is an important, short article, and offers much food for thought.   I think the inferences the article draws are correct– that on-line learning is going to continue to grow, and is going to play ever larger role in both university and, though less so, in K-12 learning.      But it is fascinating to read some of the reasons for the “real promise” of online education.   One is that they provide  “learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms.”  We need to make classroom learning more tailored to individual students in our classrooms to compete.   Second, online learning “enables more “learning by doing,” which many students find more engaging and useful.”   I want to jump up and down reading this: yes, we can accept that in its present form, classroom/schoolhouse learning may feature less ‘learning by doing’ than on-line learning, but the implication to take here is NOT that we should move to more on-line learning, but that we need to move our classroom/schoolhouse learning to more learning by doing.   This is not complicated people; we know students learn more, learn best, by doing (we have known since Aristotle!), and we know students have to be engaged and provided meaning to their learning to be best motivated.      If on-line teaching is better accomplishing this kind of learning, it is ultimately a reflection on the poverty of classroom learning, not the strengths of on-line learning.

The article goes on to suggest that on-line learning better facilitates social learning, via internet networks.  “More and more, students will help and teach each other, he said.”  Let us take note: let’s use digital tools and social networks to better facilitate our student collaborative learning.

The article does, near its end,  finally catch-up with my own thinking: that rather than see online and classroom learning as being opposites in competition with each other, let’s see how they can best mutually reinforce each other.   Let students use online tools to aid their understanding  (like a St. Gregory teacher does with podcast science lectures) and better collaborate, and then use classroom learning for active, problem-solving learning.  The Times explains it this way:

“The technology will be used to create learning communities among students in new ways,” Mr. Regier said. “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.”… “For example, it will be assumed that college students know the basics of calculus, and the classroom time will focus on applying the math to real-world problems — perhaps in exploring the physics of climate change or modeling trends in stock prices, he said.”