Setting New Standards with Online Education

-By Nancy Salvato

“The full-time residential model of higher education is getting too expensive for a larger share of the American population.” (The College of 2020: Students) Is it any wonder “more and more students are looking for lower-cost alternatives to attending college?”

What does the future hold for higher education?

  • White students will likely be outnumbered by minority students on college campuses.
  • People will need to rely on more and more formalized education to advance their careers or change to new ones.
  • It is estimated that ten years from now, the average cost for a 4 year public college in-state resident will be $31,949.28 per year. (Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority)
  • Almost one third of the 121 institutions that responded to a survey believed that by 2020, students will take over half their courses entirely online. (The College of 2020: Students)

Although “anytime, anywhere learning” has contributed to online learning’s popularity because this medium of instruction provides convenient access to learning for those “who cannot or choose not to attend the traditional face-to-face offerings,” (A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies) online education offers an even greater advantage because it can be delivered more cost efficiently and savings are passed onto the student. This is, in part, because instructors can handle larger numbers of students without sacrificing quality. Most important, a recent meta-analysis (combined result of multiple experiments) and review of empirical online learning research prepared for the U.S. Department of Education found that the learning outcomes are usually equivalent or better than “comparable face-to-face instruction.”

The more recent findings comparing Web-based and classroom-based learning (Sitzmann et al. 2006) found online learning to be superior to classroom-based instruction in terms of declarative knowledge [know the answer to] outcomes, and equivalent in terms of procedural learning [know how to] outcomes.

On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. However, these differences were not necessarily rooted in the media used. In general, advantages for online learning reflected differences in content, pedagogy and learning time. The majority of the studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning. Efficacy, or effectiveness, of blended and purely online learning approaches depends on the instructional elements of the two conditions. Often, blended delivery instruction (face-to-face and online) provided more opportunity for collaborative activities not received by students in control conditions. Online learners who spent more time on task than students in face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning. It’s important to note that, as a group, these studies do not provide a basis for choosing online versus blended instructional conditions.

“The medium is simply a carrier of content and is unlikely to affect learning per se (Clark 1983, 1994).” (IBID) As a matter of fact, “SAT scores and gender were stronger predictors of student performance on the posttest with conceptual and procedural items than was the type of online unit to which students were exposed.”

What Practices appear to have a positive effect in online learning? Interestingly enough, video or online quizzes have little influence on the amount students learn in online classes.

Best Practices:

  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.
  • Prompts urging students to reflect on their learning improved outcomes.
  • Providing students instruction in how to self regulate learning yielded stronger learning results.
  • A course instructor moderating discussion groups can be useful when students are given a scenario to which they must respond.
  • “Social scripts” structuring how students interact with each other “have been found to influence the way students engage with each other.”

What does this mean for 21st century higher education? This is exactly what President Obama is talking about when he discusses expanding access to higher education. The evidence indicates that for those who want to learn and be able to demonstrate and apply their knowledge, online education is a viable, affordable way to alternative to more traditional means of obtaining postsecondary education. It will allow people from all economic classes to take advantage of opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to them. Best of all, no longer will students be required to take on excessive, unmanageable debt to get ahead. Everyone has been given the ultimate gift: equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness.


Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies

Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority

The College of 2020: Students (Executive Summary)

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, ( a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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