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Is Online Learning Effective?

Over the past few years, advances in technology have seen a surge in online learning and in hybrid teaching, with an estimated 5.4 million students having participated in at least one online course during their education. With current circumstances across the globe, there’s an even higher demand for online courses as more and more students are forced to learn remotely. 

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But is online education as effective as the traditional classroom environment?

A recent study


by professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Tsinghua University argue that for university students, ‘the amount learned is somewhat greater than the traditional lecture-based course.’ What do they put it down to? Interactive engagement pedagogy. That is, where students' online course involves regular participation in small group discussions/projects and assisting with peer-to-peer learning via video-link. These findings come as no surprise, as we are already aware of the powers that active learning harnesses.

To measure online courses’ effectiveness for university students, it is a fairly comprehensive study. However, in terms of elementary and high-school students there has only been little research conducted to assess the effect of online learning.

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From the research that has been conducted, one of the most prominent studies was led by a team put together by the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The study randomly assigned students who had failed second-semester Algebra to either a face-to-face or online course over their summer break to study for a re-sit. The results found students had a lower success rate at passing their re-sits when studying online, compared to those participating in a physical summer school. Students also tended to rate their course as more difficult online than in the face-to-face setting.

Of course, online courses are still relatively new to the education market, meaning research is limited and sometimes does not account for discrepancies, such as individual learning styles. For example, students who are visual learners may be better suited to an online course, where there is an abundance of reading materials that can be viewed at any time. 


One review published in 2015 analysed various learner characteristics and their relation with success and satisfaction with online learning. According to the review, students who are higher in emotional intelligence tended to be more successful in online learning environments, showing greater self-discipline and better organisational skills. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that when students enrol into an online course they usually sign up with the expected knowledge that they will need to guide and evaluate their own learning, determining themselves when they may require additional help and resources.

What research doesn’t account for is the outliers. For example, if students struggle to grasp technology, or if the technology itself faults, then students are less likely to engage and may miss critical information. Similarly, if the online courses themselves are not presented in an easy-to-understand and visually appealing way, then this could be an additional reason why students may disengage from the platform and not perform as well as they would in a physical learning environment. 

It’s clear that online learning isn’t going to suit everyone’s academic needs and wants, just as the traditional classroom setting doesn’t suit all pupils’ learning styles. There are strong considerations that need to be made when thinking about how students will adapt to online learning. As education providers, we need to carefully consider students’ needs, and tailor courses to suit different learning styles, especially during these unprecedented times. With the demand for online education becoming more in demand, that means creating bespoke programmes to suit the individual, until they are able to return to the classroom. Physical or virtual, our mission should always be to deliver students with exceptional education, no matter where they are. 

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Online education: Effective for university students with interactive engagement, but limited research for K-12. Study shows lower success rates and difficulty with online courses. Tailoring to individual learning styles and technology proficiency is crucial.

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