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The Effectiveness of Online Learning


This research paper is an examination of the effectiveness of online learning. This is an important topic due to the number of post secondary students taking courses online. In 2009 the number of students taking post-secondary courses had risen to 44%. This number is expected to rise to more than 80% by 2014. The proponents of online learning explain that it has the advantage of increasing access to high-quality teachers, greater scheduling flexibility, and helping individuals to be more comfortable with popular technologies. A meta-analysis by Means et al. was done to investigate the effectiveness of online learning in comparison to in person methods. This research was sponsored by the United States Department of Education in hopes that it would provide a critical analysis which could be used for regulations and policies regarding online education. It was found that students using online learning did better than those with traditional face-to-face methods at a statistical significance level of p < .01. It was also found that students learning online tended to spend more time with the material than students who were taught face-to-face. When the time students were allowed to spend learning the material was held constant, the online learning was still more effective at a p < .05. Online learning combined with teaching in person was found to be more effective than either method alone. Meta-analyses by Shachar & Neumann as well as Sitzmann, Kraiger, Stewart & Wisher indicated that the most effective method of teaching was combining online learning with traditional classroom instruction. The paper briefly describes Successmaker software, which is used to help kindergarten through 8th grade students learn a variety of subjects. The paper concludes with a discussion of ethical and legal issues involved in doing research online and being involved with learning activities based on the Internet.


Education Online

Between 2004 and 2009 overall enrollments in secondary learning in the United States increased by 2% annually. However, the enrollment for online learning increased at a rate of 13% per annum during the same time. It is estimated that approximately one fourth of all students enrolled in post-secondary education were taking online courses during 2008. By 2009, the number of post-secondary students taking online courses had risen to 44%. It is further projected that by the year 2014 more than 80% of students enrolled in post-secondary education within the United States will have at least some of their courses online.

Proponents of online learning point out that there are a number of benefits to this mode of teaching. The increased access to teachers allows instructors of the highest quality to share their knowledge with students who would otherwise be unable to attend their courses due to limitations such as economic, political, or geographic constraints. Monetary restrictions are lifted due to the reduced price per credit hour of online learning and ability for students to continue working at their present job while taking the courses.

Another advantage to online learning is the increased scheduling flexibility of the courses. Many online classes are self-paced and allow students to have access to the learning material at any time. Also, most students study the material from their home and are not limited by travel concerns. The majority of courses can be paused depending on the needs of the student.

As technology is integrated into ever-increasing segments of society, the need for students to be skilled at using high technology is greater. Online learning has the advantage of simultaneously teaching students a subject while helping them learn the intricacies of technology.

The increase in online learning has led to an interest in the effectiveness of this medium. The remainder of this paper will explore studies conducted in order to evaluate the effectiveness of online learning.

What Is Online Learning?

Online learning now covers a wide range of activities. This type of learning includes information provided over the World Wide Web in much the same way as a textbook. It also includes collaboration with others in social simulations similar to massive multiplayer role-playing games. An example of this includes grade school students who are learning to read while working with a professional scientist to help design research projects. There are also teenagers working on achieving their General Education Degrees by taking online high school courses. Teachers at many different levels, in a variety of disciplines, can now earn credit for professional development by taking courses online. There are also several online communities for teachers who provide resources for other educational professionals.

There are a variety of ways to classify online learning activities. One of these is to determine if the activity is meant to serve as a replacement for more traditional in person instruction. These activities are frequently known as virtual courses. Other activities may serve as an enhancement of the more traditional type of learning. In this situation, the knowledge provided online is in addition to traditional learning in a classroom. This can be an important distinction. The virtual course is meant to be equivalent to the conventional learning experience and it is considered successful only when it achieves the same learning as the classroom experience. When the online activity is used as an enhancement, the expectation is that students will learn more than from the classroom experience alone. Other ways to classify online learning consist of determining the type of learning experience and if the activity is synchronous in time with traditional methods of teaching.


From 2004 until 2009 the enrollment in secondary learning in the United States increased annually by 2%, while online learning increased at a rate of 13%. Proponents of online learning point out that it increases access to teachers, provides flexibility in scheduling, and serves to help students be more familiar with technology. The increasing rate at which students are learning online has led to interest in the effectiveness of this teaching modality.


A meta-analysis was done by Means et al. to investigate the effectiveness of online learning in comparison to in person methods of teaching. The study was funded by the United States Department of Education in order to provide information for forming policies and regulations regarding online education. The analysis investigated if in person instruction benefited from supplementation with online learning. It also examined the conditions which provide for effective online learning.

The meta-analysis conducted by Means et al. covered a broad range of student ages, learning levels, and subjects. One unexpected finding was that there were no controlled quasi-experimental or experimental studies comparing face-to-face instruction with online learning for kindergarten through 12th grade students prior to 2007. An expanded literature search revealed that there were 99 studies, which compared face-to-face teaching with online learning. However, there were only 46 of these which provided data sufficient for estimation of independent effect sizes. These 46 studies provided 51 independent effects, which could be used to perform the meta-analysis and yielded a composite estimate of the effect size. Studies with students older than the average 12th grader comprised 44 of the effect sizes. This composite estimate was computed by calculating the mean for the treatment groups and subtracting the mean for the control groups. This figure was then divided by the pooled standard deviation of the studies.

The results of the meta-analysis conducted by Means et al. revealed that students who used online learning performed better than those who learned completely by the traditional in person teaching methods. There was an average effect size of 0.24 greater for those who used online learning. This effect was significant at p < .01. It should be noted that the learning conditions between in person and online were quite different on many dimensions. For example, the online learners generally spent more time on their learning task.

The studies who examined students studying online who spent more time than in the face-to-face condition indicated greater advantages of the online learning. When face-to-face and online learners spent an equal amount of time on the task, the online learners still had an effect which was 0.19 points higher. This is statistically significant at p < .05. It should be noted that when students were allowed to spend as much time as they wished the online learners' effect increased to 0.46 higher than the traditional learners.

The majority of differences between face-to-face learning and online learning did not significantly affect the teaching effectiveness of either approach. There were 13 online learning factors, which were examined in relation to face-to-face teaching. There were only two variables, which were statistically significant for differences. The first significant finding was that teaching which combined in person and online learning was more effective than either alone. The second finding was that when students learning online were allowed to spend more time with the material, there was a substantial increase in how well they learned.

Online learning was found to be more effective for a variety of students. The students had a mean effect from online learning of 0.35 points higher, which is statistically significant at p < .001. Graduate students and practicing professionals also benefited more from online learning with a difference of 0.17, which was statistically significant at p < .05. There was a greater effect level of learning online for the kindergarten through 12th grade students; however, the difference was not statistically significant in the majority of studies.

The meta-analysis done by Means et al. also found that the increased effectiveness of online learning versus in person teaching was more pronounced when the instructional approach varied. The only variable which was found to be statistically significant was equivalence of curriculum and instruction. When this variable was held constant, the online learning had an effect which was 0.20 greater than in person learning. When this variable was not held constant, the online learning had an effect which was 0.42 more than the traditional approaches.

Reviewing the narrative of the studies used for the meta-analysis revealed other interesting findings. For example, the research did not find that increasing the level of online media enhanced learning. Also, online quizzes were not found to be more effective than the assignment of homework. It was found that online learning was improved by allowing students to control the level of interaction they had with media. It is suggested that this is due to the student choices requiring self-monitoring and reflection by the learner. It was found that guidance for groups of student learning online was less effective than for individuals learning in the new format. Guidance was found to influence how students interact online, but not the level of their learning.

The findings of the meta-analysis done by Means et al. indicate that online learning is generally more effective than conventional face-to-face instruction. However, the combination of online learning and face-to-face teaching was found to be the most effective. It should also be remembered that the superior effect of online learning may not be due to the medium of presentation. Instead, the results may be due to students spending more time with the material they learn online. Also, the online learning generally provided students with more opportunities for collaboration.

The meta-analysis of Means et al. demonstrated that undergraduate and graduate students, as well as practicing professionals benefited more from online learning than in person teaching methods. However, there was not a significant effect for students in the kindergarten through 12th grade. This may be due to the lack of studies for this age group and suggests a need for further research.

A meta-analysis was done by Shachar & Neumann to investigate the academic performance of students who had learned the material online versus those who have attended traditional classes. These researchers use the term "distance learning" to indicate online learning due to many of the students living in geographically distant locations from the teacher. However, their research applies to anyone learning material online.

The meta-analysis conducted by Shachar & Neumann sought to investigate three areas of interest regarding online learning. The first area to be investigated was the difference between the academic performances of students in online learning programs versus those in traditional programs over the past 20 years. The second area of interest concerned identifying periods of online education during the last two decades. The 3rd area of interest was concerned with any trends, which developed during the past 20 years in regard to the performance of individuals, who learned the material online.

These 3 areas of interest developed into research questions. The first question asks if there is a difference between the academic performances of students in online learning versus traditional classroom instruction. The 2nd question asks if there is a statistically significant difference between the performances of students in the past 20 years when they are separated by periods of progression in online learning. The final question is if there are consistent changes through time in the effectiveness of online learning relative to traditional approaches.

The meta-analysis by Shachar & Neumann used 125 studies and included 20,800 students. There were 9,300 students learning online and 11,500 who attended traditional classroom instruction. The results of the meta-analysis were based on the effect sizes of these 125 studies. The studies were taken from the time between 1990 and 2009. The years were broken down into four time frames of online learning. The first time frame was from 1991 until 1998. The 2nd frame of time was from 1999 until 2000. The 3rd frame of time extended from 2001 until 2002. The 4th timeframe was from 2003 until 2009. There were 38 studies in the first timeframe, 33 in the 2nd timeframe, 29 in the 3rd timeframe and 25 in the final timeframe.

The first finding of the meta-analysis done by Shachar & Neumann that the overall performance of students during the 20 year timeframe from 1990 until the end of 2009, indicates a statistically significant positive effect of online learning. In fact, the online learning tended to outperform the traditional learning. Additionally, the rate of the increasing effectiveness of online learning was more pronounced in the more recent timeframe. The growth in the first timeframe was 63% and grew to a rate of 84% during the 4th timeframe.

One trend identified by Shachar & Neumann is the increasing prevalence of online learning. During the 2000-2001 academic school year, there was approximately 1.3% of university students enrolled in online learning programs, which granted degrees. This rate had increased to 12.1% of students by 2009. This amounts to well over 2 million college students in the United States taking online courses, which granted degrees.

Another significant trend in online learning for higher education is its status as a legitimate form of learning. In the early 1990s online learning was considered by many academicians as an inferior way to learn. However, by 2009 there were many universities and students who viewed online learning as equivalent to traditional techniques. There are now many universities, which offer the same courses and degrees online as they do in their traditional program. In fact, many of these institutions offer degrees, which do not specify whether the learning was done traditionally or online.

The widespread acceptance of online learning in the 21st century is a result of several factors. Both the increased level of high-speed Internet access and improvements in technology has increased the effectiveness of online learning. There has also been a steady trend toward adult learners in higher education studying while maintaining a full-time job or attending to family responsibilities. These individuals have a preference of learning online due to the increased flexibility of time. The economic downturn of the 21st century decreased support for many traditional higher education institutions. This resulted in the traditional education programs not having the opportunity to increase their quality at the same rate as the less expensive online programs. This may be a harbinger of a trend which will further increase during the next decade.

A meta-analysis was done by Sitzmann, Kraiger, Stewart & Wisher to investigate the effectiveness of Web based learning versus that of traditional classroom techniques. These researchers explained that web-based instruction can be favored by government, higher education, or industry due to the opportunity for making use of the vast amounts of knowledge, which are available online. The web-based instruction has the advantage of instant updating, sharing of information, and instantaneous distribution. These researchers point out that more than 50% of technology-related courses were provided online in 2004. The researchers for this meta-analysis designated web-based instruction as the WBI, traditional classroom instruction as CI, and traditional classroom instruction supplemented by web-based instruction as WBI-S.

The first objective of these researchers was to determine how well web-based instruction does in relation to traditional teaching methods in the classroom. The effectiveness of the online instruction was separated into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge refers to the learners' memories for facts, principles, and relationships regarding the subject being taught. Declarative learning results in superior cognitive strategies for applying knowledge, increased verbal knowledge, and better organization of facts related to the subject. Procedural knowledge consisted of the ability to perform actions associated with tasks. Gaining procedural knowledge results in individuals being able to organize steps of a process which allows for successful completion of the task. This creates automaticity during task performance and frees the individual's mind allowing for the completion of cognitive work while performing the task.

The meta-analysis of Sitzmann et al. was done in hopes of investigating several hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that the web-based instruction would be more effective than a traditional classroom teaching in relation to declarative knowledge. The 2nd hypothesis was that the on line instruction would also be superior for individuals attempting to learn procedural items. The 3rd hypothesis was that people who had learned through web-based instruction would have superior reactions to the education than those who learned procedures with the traditional classroom instruction. The 4th hypothesis was that the classroom instruction which had supplementation with the web-based learning would be superior at teaching declarative knowledge relative to classroom instruction alone. The 5th hypothesis was that the web-based supplementation of traditional classroom instruction would also be superior at teaching procedural knowledge relative to classroom instruction alone.

The results of the meta-analysis done by Sitzmann et al. indicated that web-based instruction was 6% more effective than classroom instruction for teaching declarative knowledge. The classroom instruction and online methods were equally efficient for teaching procedural knowledge. Also, the reactions of students who were trained with classroom instruction and web-based instruction were similar. There was no statistically significant difference.

The meta-analysis done by Sitzmann et al. found that traditional classroom instruction which was supplemented with the web-based instruction was 13% more effective for teaching declarative knowledge and 20% better for teaching procedural knowledge.

In discussing the results of the meta-analysis, Sitzmann et al. pointed out that those who advocate web-based instruction point out the advantages of using multimedia, guided learning, and customizing the learning experience. However, the critics of online learning say that there is nothing unique about learning with this type of medium.

The results of the meta-analysis suggested that the web-based instruction was superior to traditional classroom instruction for teaching declarative knowledge. The 2 methods were relatively equivalent in regard to teaching procedural knowledge. One possible reason for the increased effectiveness of web-based instruction in regard to declarative knowledge is content. Many of the web-based programs examined in the meta-analysis provided more extensive material of the topic. Also, the online courses required that a variety of instructional methods be used to learn the material. Combining this with the requirement for increased interaction with the learning materials, may be the reason for the superior performance of online learning in relation to declarative knowledge. These findings suggest that the instructional methods and educational materials used are more important than the media in which they are presented.

The results of the meta-analysis done by Sitzmann et al. have practical implications for learning institutions and organizations training employees. The finding that online learning is at least as effective as traditional techniques, while generally being provided at a lower cost, indicated that online methods are more cost-effective. Traditional teaching combined with web-based learning is suggested for material which must be completely mastered. For example, this might be the best method for teaching both pilots and surgeons critical knowledge upon which other people's lives depend.


The meta-analysis done by Means et al. investigated the effectiveness of online learning in relation to traditional teaching methods. The study was funded by the United States Department of Education in hopes of providing information for policy formation regarding online teaching. The study covered a wide range of student ages, subjects, and learning levels. The results showed that students who learned online performed better than those who were taught with traditional classroom methods. The research also indicated that the most effective method for teaching involved in person instruction, which was combined with online teaching methods. These researchers suggest that online learning is often more effective due to students spending more time with the material.

The meta-analysis done by Shachar & Neumann investigated the academic performance of students in traditional classroom settings versus those learning online. This meta-analysis included 11,500 students who were receiving instruction in classrooms and 9,300 who were learning online. These researchers found that from 1990 until the end of 2009 online learning was more effective than traditional classroom teaching. Like the research by Means et al. the meta-analysis of Shachar & Neumann found that the most effective teaching method was the combination of online instruction and classroom methods.

A meta-analysis done by Sitzmann et al. investigated the effectiveness of traditional classroom techniques versus web-based learning. These researchers found that online learning was superior to the classroom for learning declarative knowledge. However, the two different presentation methods were similar in learning procedural knowledge. The meta-analysis indicated that traditional classroom instruction supplemented by web-based instruction was 13% more effective for teaching declarative knowledge, and 20% better for procedural knowledge, than classroom instruction alone.


An interesting application of high technology to learning is the Pearson Publishing Company's Success maker software. This software is designed for kindergarten through 8th grade. The software provides instruction in a variety of topics, which is interactive, visual, and well-balanced. The software also provides teachers with a variety of reports. These reports include cumulative performance, areas of difficulty, last session, and detailed analyses of student progress.

The success maker software provides scaffolded instruction, which gives immediate correction and feedback to the student. There is a consistent delivery of visual and audio feedback throughout the grade level. The feedback is provided in a context which allows a richer understanding of skills and concepts. The software provides support, including the reinstating of questions, offering instructions repeatedly when necessary, clarifying and explaining a difficult subject, as well as providing explanations to the correct answers.

The success maker software allows teachers to specify the curriculum based upon the state in which they are located. This allows students to meet certain standards, which are specific to their geographic location. Teachers also have the option to allow the proprietary success maker motion to lead students through the material at their own speed. This feature allows students to remain interested if they are learning quickly. It also allows students who require more time to learn the concept prior to moving on to higher levels.

The success maker software combines the advantages of being based on the latest education theories and designed by experts with many years of experience. There is a customer advisory panel composed of principles, teachers, and success maker administrators. This group ensures that the software presents information in a manner which reflects contemporary teaching methodologies. There is also an internal advisory council which works directly with schools and design consultants.

Note: The ethical and legal issues discussed below pertain to individuals doing research over the Internet. However, they also apply to individuals engaged in online learning activities.


A major part of this project consisted of the literature review which was done with the use of the Internet. There are those who believe society will only survive the 21st century by establishing ethics in relation to new technology. This is especially true in relation to research, which is being done over the Internet. There is a danger that individuals, who make extensive use of technology and avoid interacting with others directly, will develop a psychological distance which results in an increased level of unethical behavior.

There are a variety of ways in which ethics can be abused. This is especially true when doing Internet research. The majority of breaches in ethics are not intentional. Committing the unethical act is simply a matter of being unaware of the policies which must be observed. This can be avoided by researchers fully reviewing the policies and guidelines of their organization, Internet provider, and any networks which they use.

There are a number of Internet policies, which are common and designed to guide researchers toward ethical behavior. An example of a common policy is asking individuals not to attempt to hack into other computers. Using a research institution's information resources for personal gain is also a common breach of ethics. When information is gained over the Internet, it is important to know what information can be posted without breaching confidentiality of other people or institutions. It is generally not acceptable to repost messages, unless permission has been granted to do so. The disruption of network activities, introduction of computer viruses, and distribution of unsolicited advertising over communication networks are obvious breaches of ethical behavior.


There are a number of legal issues, which can arise with Internet research. The copyright of material on the Internet is frequently similar to that given to authors of printed works. This can apply to information, music, art, literature, or nearly anything else, which is present on an Internet site. It is important for researchers working on the Internet to understand how they can use information and observe the legalities of copyright protection.

There are also a number of issues, which arise in regard to licensing of software. Some software is considered to be "freeware" which can be copied and used legally by anyone without charge. However, there are many proprietary software applications, which provide licenses for use. It is often illegal to use or copy this software without a license. Licenses can be granted by request or after payment of a fee. The illegal duplicating or copying of software without authorization is known as "piracy". Many people believe that making illegal copies of software for friends or personal use, known as "soft lifting", is not as illegal. However, this behavior is also considered piracy.

Researchers using the Internet can observe several precautions, which ensure they are not engaging in illegal activity. The first precaution is to use only legally obtaining copies of software in laboratories, classrooms, or a library. It is often the case that vendors will grant discounts to researchers working for educational institutions or toward the common good. Software which is copied for backup purposes should be stored in a secure location. It is important that the Internet researcher purchase any proprietary software, which is used on their personal computer.


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Web Learning and Tablet Technology in Classroom. Essay News. Online: https://essaynews.com/other/place-tablet-technology-education-123/