by Punkie Spelts

The U.S. Department of Education has published a new study that found “online learning has been modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.” (p.51)

The 93-page meta-analysis examined 99 comparative studies conducted between 1996 and 2008. Some of the studies were done in kindergarten through 12th grade settings, but most were done in colleges and adult continuing education programs, including military and medical training.

The 99 studies were chosen because they compared online and classroom learning performance with strict criteria including:
• All of the studies used controlled designs
• All of the reported effects were based on objective measures

The above criteria make the study a reliable and constructive resource. However, the report cautions readers against interpreting studies of instruction in different media too liberally because results can vary widely depending on the exact methods used.

The most significant positive outcomes were noted when learners were actively interacting with the material or with other learners, and additional improved performance was noted when reflective opportunities were included in the learning process.

According to Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International, “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.” (See this article in The New York Times, August 20, 2009.)
Once considered inferior to traditional education, online education is rapidly becoming highly interactive with the implementation of social media, collaborative tools, Web-based video, instant messaging and more. As evidence mounts for the value of online education, experts are predicting a surge of interest and development in online courses.

This will undoubtedly lead to changes in how universities and other higher education facilities offer their courses to students. Today Arizona State University boasts a total of 5,000 students in their continuing education courses. Other large colleges, such as San Diego State and the University of Southern California, offer similar courses online and all are expecting those numbers to double or even triple in the next few years as students use these tools to their advantage.

This is good news for those in fields that can take advantage of online resources to further their education, and it gives an element of respect to online education that has been lacking in the past.


  • U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2009.
  • “Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom,” Steve Lohr, The New York Times, August 20, 2009

Punkie Spelts is a massage therapist living in Southern California. She is also a Web publisher and writes extensively for multiple Web sites, such as Health Positive!, and many other research sites including