Hyperbole about Online Learning is Not Supported by Research

Renowned education scholar and recently retired Stanford University School of Education emeritus professor, Larry Cuban, says that false expectations have been created about the potential of the internet to transform education. He says that there is little sound research to support the hyperbole around online learning. Instead, its evangelists have gathered “a grab bag of defect-filled studies claiming student achievement gains”.

Regardless of the quality of research on new technologies, cheerleaders continue to trumpet online learning as the “disruptive innovation” that will replace regular schools. Advocates spread the gospel of blended schools using exaggerated claims to sprinkle over holes and cracks in the innovation. Promoters of these innovations overestimate the power of their words and underestimate the facts of variation in students, how online instruction is delivered, teaching quality, and research designs. They attribute achievement gains (or losses) to online instruction while disregarding its diversity thus contributing to romantic myths about powerful technologies solving grave problems. Claims about online learning revolutionizing teaching and student learning are, to put it charitably, just claims.

According to Cuban, surprisingly few rigorous studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students have been published. Only a few meet the minimum quality threshold for design, sampling, and methodologies.

One recent meta-analysis of studies carried out for the US Department of Education stated that a systematic search of the research literature from 1994 through 2008 found only five experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies that compared the learning effectiveness of online and face-to-face instruction for K–12 students. These studies included seven measured effects – two from 8th grade students in social studies classes, one for 8th and 9th grade students doing algebra, two from a study of middle school students doing Spanish, one for 5th grade students in science classes in Taiwan, and one from elementary-age students in special education classes.

K-12 students taking online courses or in virtual full-time schools do not appear to perform even marginally above students who are in teacher-led classrooms. The meta-analysis found a significant positive effect for online learning for undergraduate and other older students but not for K-12 students. It concluded:

Without new random assignment or controlled quasi-experimental studies of the effects of online learning options for K–12 students, policy-makers will lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness of these emerging alternatives to face-to-face instruction. [p. xviii]

Cuban concludes from this analysis that:

….there is clearly insufficient evidence to launch major online initiatives in either elementary or secondary schools. For those policymakers who seek to appear rational and prize research findings, the pantry is nearly empty….
The fact remains that no one knows for sure for which students virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions.

He says that much of what is reported as research on internet learning is shoddy:

While only a few analyses of online instruction approach the gold standard of experimental or quasi-experimental studies, a great deal of research has been (and continues to be) done. Unfortunately, much of it is poor quality. Most studies fall far below minimum standards researchers have established to determine the effectiveness of an educational program or procedure. Bias is evident in the sampling of students and teachers included in studies. Bias also appears in studies funded by technology vendors. Moreover, there is far too much reliance on teacher and principal surveys and self-reports of student engagement and achievement. Finally, among those studies that claim higher test scores as a result of online instruction, few studies control for obvious factors that could explain the rise in test scores.

He warns policy makers to be especially vigilant about biased claims by companies selling online learning. Slip-shod research has not stopped champions of online instruction from pressing policy makers to include such studies in their recommendations and use such research to persuade practitioners of the merits of virtual schooling for children. He gives the example of a White Paper published by Intel Corporation which contains both the high and low of research about online instruction in one capsule summary:

While few rigorous experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies on eLearning’s benefits have been published, a critical mass of evidence indicates that investments in eLearning can deliver substantial positive effects. [p.8]

Cuban does not deny the potential for online learning, only that more rigorous research is needed to provide evidence about which students under what conditions will benefit from it:

With the current excitement over virtual learning and blended schools unlikely to abate in the immediate future and interest in spending ever larger amounts of money on online instruction, asking decision-makers about the evidence supporting expansion of online instruction is, at the least, a question that demands answers that can be reviewed and analyzed publicly.

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