Department of Education Study Finds that Online Education is Beneficial to Student Learning
The U.S. Department of Education released the findings of a meta-analysis conducted by its Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development on Friday that confirm what online educators have known for years: “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
Online education has gained tremendous momentum in the last several years. A November 2008 report titled, “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008” published by the Sloan Consortium notes that during the fall 2007 semester, some 3.9 million students were taking at least one course online, representing a twelve percent increase over the previous year. During the same semester, twenty percent of all college students were taking at least one course online. An Eduventures report from November 2006 predicted this growth; that report found that half of the 2,000 potential students surveyed indicated that they would be interested in completing a degree online.
Though the recently released Department of Education report focuses on online formats for K-12 education, the findings are relevant for online education in general. The 2006 Eduventures report notes that online education was most popular among adult learners. The Department of Education report, however, notes that “the number of K-12 public school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in the two years from 2002-03 to 2004-05.” In total, the report states that more than a million K-12 students took online courses during the 2007-2008 school year. Such statistics are promising for online colleges and universities like APUS. If K-12 students excel in online education in their early education, it seems likely that they may continue with the online format for undergraduate, graduate, and even doctoral degrees. In Disrupting Class, authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson predict that 25 percent of K-12 classes will be online by 2014 and 50 percent by 2019. (For a review of Disrupting Class, see my August 2008 blog article.)
In considering the reasons why online courses are growing in popularity, the Department of Education report notes that the ability for students to use their time in a flexible manner boosted online education’s popularity. According to the study, “learners in the online condition spent more time on tasks than students in the face-to-face condition” finding “a greater benefit for online learning.” There are obvious cost-saving benefits to online formats and some that are not as obvious including the ability to attend class from one’s home and saving money on the gas a traditional student needs to commute to classes at a brick and mortar institution.
Additionally, online education expands access to many who may otherwise lack educational opportunities. Online education could provide significant benefits to those living in rural areas, for example. The diverse student population found in online classrooms promotes a meaningful exchange of ideas and points of view that is often absent in more traditional classrooms which, especially in traditional K-12 schools are comprised of students from a particular geographic location. Christensen and his co-authors argue that advances in technology will allow K-12 educators to meet the needs of their students more than ever before. In the event of smaller school districts with limitations of special teachers, foreign languages like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese could be offered online. Already, there are providers who offer online advanced placement courses for school districts unable to find qualified teachers.
The implications of the report’s findings for the online education industry are significant. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying of the meta-analysis and its findings, “’This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide.’”
Today’s students are embracing technology in almost everything they do. Cell phones, MP3 players, laptop computers, and portable gaming devices are the norm for anyone who can afford them and the cost of technology continues to decrease every day. The online education market is a part of the technology revolution. Institutions that embrace online degree programs are expanding access to education for many of America’s students. Higher education is notorious for its perceived conservation of traditional pedagogies and unwillingness to utilize new technologies to transform the ways that students learn. With the advent of online education, however, the world of higher education is breaking out of that mold and students are benefitting in the process.
In addition to affording students some flexibility in their schedules, opportunities for learning are dramatically increased in the online format. Because students are not tied to classrooms and able to complete work on a more flexible schedule, they are also able to dedicate time to even more non-traditional educational opportunities including volunteer work, memberships in clubs and organizations, and other extracurricular activities that certainly provide invaluable experience. Working individuals often find that earning a degree online allows them the ability to continue with their careers while working toward attaining their degrees. In general, I believe that such opportunities help encourage the development of a more well-rounded student and individual.
The meta-analysis released Friday by the Department of Education is not the first study that recognized the advance of online education for students’ learning outcomes. Coming from the arm of the federal government, its recognized stature makes this report more significant. As the nation struggles to develop citizens who can effectively compete in our globalizing world, online education is becoming an appealing alternative to traditional brick and mortar classrooms. With the current economic crisis unfolding as it is, many more individuals will find the economic benefits of online education (ie: lower tuitions, no commuting costs, etc.) worthwhile, allowing online program providers the opportunity to enhance the technologies offered in their classrooms.