The effectiveness of online versus traditional learning

school-clipart1  image from here.  

As college students, many of us spend at least 15 hours a week sitting in a classroom.  Our course loads are dominated by in class lectures and outside readings, following the traditional learning module.  The working definition of this learning philosophy is:

“Teacher-centered delivery of instruction to classes of students who are the receivers of information.”

Education Advocate Julie Hudson argues, “Unlike alternatives to the usual public school model, traditional schooling means that state-approved standards in all the curricular areas will be covered.”

However, a study by the SRI International, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, calls into question the effectiveness of traditional learning versus online learning.  The study came to a jaw-dropping conclusion: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

I spent 12 years in public schools, and am currently continuing my education in a traditional learning setting here at Penn State, and was shocked by this finding.  Would I be smarter and perform better if I spent my time learning on a computer instead of in a classroom?

Let’s dissect this study:

  •  It collected data from 1996 to 2008.
  • The SRI looked at 99 studies where there was quantitative data comparing online and traditional learning performance in courses.
  • The study looked at learners of all ages; including grades K-12, college students, and education programs for adults.
  • Statistically speaking, the study found “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.”

“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, in an article with the New York Times.

Since this research was observational, there are countless reasons that could explain this conclusion other than online learning is flat out better than traditional learning.

The causality here is that online learning yields better results than traditional learning.  However, reverse causality has not been ruled out.  What if the students taking online classes are smarter than their traditional counterparts, and thus do better? There is no way to prove this through experimental manipulation because this research was based on data from 99 different observational studies.

However, the fact the study looked at 99 different observational studies and concluded the same findings across the board, means it is highly unlikely these results are due to chance.

All in all, this research is not to be discounted.  The 9 percent difference between online and traditional learners in similar courses is a statistically profound finding.  A subsequent experiment should look to delve into why this is the case, to determine if it is how the students are learning that is creating this achievement gap.

5 thoughts on “The effectiveness of online versus traditional learning

  1. Megan Fleming Post author

    I’m also taking an online class here at Penn State. It’s one credit, and required for my major. Unfortunately the amount of time I find myself having to work on the material is significantly more than the work in my one credit traditional learning seminar. The point you raised is a good one: that students taking an online class are forced to rely on themselves, and therefore do their work and subsequently preform better than their traditional counterparts. This article ( points out some more pros and cons to both traditional and online learning environments.

  2. ram5928

    I am very surprised by the fact that your research concluded that online classes are more effective than traditional classroom teaching. I find this hard to believe because I am in an online class and it is challenging because you have to teach yourself all the new information and then you get tested on it. It is hard not having someone explain to me something if I do not understand or if there are other ways of doing something. I researched this topic myself and found that online classes are considered to be more challenging. While online classes can be convenient to students because students complete the work on their own time, online classes are not necessarily better than traditional classes. Online courses are definitely different than traditional classes and it is hard to say which is better. People learn and do better in different types of environments. Online classes may not be as effective for me, but they might be more effective for another person. While there is science behind it, I think the effectiveness of online courses and traditional courses can attribute to a person’s personal stance on which situation they learn the most from.

  3. Jonathan Roger Marcus

    At Penn State a lot of my homework and assignments are all given online. I think that it is easier to learn online because of the surrounding environment. For example when I do my Math 22 or Spanish homework I sit in a comfortable place and listen to music. This calms me down and makes it easier for me to focus. But at the same time if I get confused I do not have a teacher or TA to answer my questions. Each type of class (online or in person) has their perks and downfalls but I think that in the end of the day an online class gives a college student the most freedom and responsibility.

  4. Kathryn Lauren Filling

    I take an online class here at Penn State and I have to say that I do not like it that much. It is nice not having to meet in a traditional class setting every week, but I have to teach everything to myself. My professor assigns us weekly reading and then gives us a weekly assessment. It is not a very challenging class because the material is not that difficult, but if it were in depth and difficult to understand information, I think I would really struggle. Although, I am doing better in my online class than some of my other classes. I feel like I can just look up any of the information during my tests because they are all open book and get a good grade on it, but I am not learning as much as I would during a traditional class. Maybe performance is better online, but students retain more during traditional class…just a thought!

  5. Anne Curry Heffernan

    I find this shocking as well. One reason that the online learning seems to be more effective is because online learners have to be more self disciplined and responsible. This is because they have only themselves to rely on to get online, and do the work in order to do well in their online classes. Currently I am taking an online class, and I definitely prefer traditional style learning. In a classroom students have access to ask questions easily, and are handed the information directly from the professor, rather than just reading it all online, which can get boring.

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