Though educators and administrators have debates on the topic, an increasing amount of research shows that online education is beneficial to student learning. And now the U.S. Department of Education is seems to be taking sides in favor of online education as well: a study conducted by the department revealed that online learning has advantages over face-to-face education.

Entitled “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” the meta-analysis and review of online learning studies showed evidence that on average, students who took online courses performed better than students who took traditionally classes. Additionally, those who took “blended” courses — a mix of online and face-to-face classes, performed even higher than the other two groups of students.

With many colleges reporting that blended learning is the fastest growing area of enrollment at their schools, the study results will most probably have positive reinforcement on this trend.

Still, the report noted that some areas of online learning do not effect students’ performance results. For example, the use of video or online quizzes does not appear to enhance the learning process, according to the study.

One significant influence on the learning process is the amount of time spent studying. And online learners spend more time studying, according to the research by the Department of Education.

“Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning,” the report says.

Therefore, technology may not be the main beneficial factor in online education, but online education is still an environment for producing quality learning.

“One should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction,” the report says.

Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that the study gives support to the case of online education, but also shows why much more research is necessary.

“We should not take the report as saying it is simply better to move to online learning,” he said in The Evidence on Online Education. “These results demonstrate why more research is needed — broadly based research that moves well beyond case studies conducted by distance education practitioners, research focused on student retention in online environments and especially research that looks behind the instructional medium to isolate the characteristics of instruction that produce positive results.”

The conclusion of the study noted a few potential faults in the research, including small sample sizes in the studies, failure to report retention rates for students in the conditions compared and potential bias of authors since they were both the experimenters and instructors.

Gold summarized the bottom line when it comes to education, saying that the key to quality education does not lie in the tools, but in the mind of the student.

“Successful education has always been about engaging students whether it is in an online environment, face to face or in a blended setting,” he said. “And fundamental to that is having faculty who are fully supported and engaged in that process as well.”

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