Online versus Traditional Learning

The number of students who took at least one online course surpassed 6 million in 2011. This growth rate of 10 percent from the previous year outpaces the 2 percent growth of higher education in general. An online course is typically defined as a class where 80 percent of the material is found online.These include programs where students communicate to instructors or peers via video conference, email, or forum. Students learn from education content in the form of pre-recorded video lectures, online exercises, and other media. The majority of higher education institutions report than online learning is an integral part of their curriculum; however there is a minority group of academic leaders who are concerned that online instruction is not equal to traditional face-to-face instruction.  Some corporate leaders and employers also do not value online degrees as highly as diplomas from brick-and-mortar institutions.


Advantages of online learning include:

1. Allows more flexible access to instructional content from any place or time

2. Enables teachers to instruct more students at a time

3. More cost-efficient than traditional teaching methods, especially in rural areas


Some disadvantages of online learning are:

1. Employers still skeptical about online degrees

2. Face-to-face instruction needed to recognize individual student attributes and potential

3. Lacks collaborative research and development found in research universities


AuthorsSubject AreaGrade LevelEffect Size
Rockman et al. (2007)Spanish7-8-0.15/-0.24
Carey et al. (2007)Algebra IK-12+0.37
Long et al. (2005)History8+0.03
Long et al. (2005, w2)History8+0.55
Sun et al. (2008)Science Lab5+0.26
Englert et al. (2007)Writing1-5+0.74


Figure 1: Studies on online learning and K-12 education and their effectivenesses. (Effect size is an indicator of effectiveness. A more positive effect size for online learning means a better performance compared to traditional learning, and vice versa.)

Studies show that online instruction has a moderate increase in student performance in all subject areas except Spanish. Research on K-12 education is still sparse.


AuthorsEffect Size (Online)Retention Rate %
Retention Rate %
Bello et al. (2005)+0.278100100
Caldwell (2006)+0.132100100
Hairston (2007)+0.0287058.33
Harris et al. (2008)-0.28584.2194.44
Jang et al. (2005)-0.53085.7187.93
Lowry (2007)-0.2818093.55
McConnell et al. (2001)+0.80010099.94
Caldwell (2006)+0.251100100
Day et al. (1998)+1.11389.6696.55
Maki et al. (2002)+0.17191.0188.10
O’Dwyer et al. (2007)+0.37388.5164.4
Schilling et al. (2006)+0.58568.6659.62
Schilling et al. (2006)+0.92666.4286.54
Urban (2006)+0.26496.8673.85
Zacharia (2007)+0.57010095.56


Figure 2: Studies on hybrid versus purely virtual instruction and their effectivenesses.

Studies show that online instruction has a generally positive impact on student performance, with no consistent improvement in retention rate.


MethodEffect Size
Independent instruction+0.050
Collaborative instruction+0.249
Non-live computer communication with instructor+0.239
Live and non-live computer communication with instructor+0.036
Non-live computer communication with peers+0.272
Live and non-live computer communication with peers+0.168
Lesson less than one month+0.140
Lesson more than one month+0.234
Text-based only+0.208
Text + other media+0.200
With audio and video+0.092
Without audio and video+0.254
Computer-based elements+0.182
No computer-based elements+0.234
Face-to-face time with instructor during lesson+0.298
Face-to-face time with instructor before or after lesson+0.050
No face-to-face time with instructor+0.150
Face-to-face time with peers during lesson+0.300
Face-to-face time with peers before or after lesson+0.001
No face-to-face time with peers+0.184
Opportunity to practice+0.212
No opportunity to practice+0.159
No feedback+0.203


Figure 3: Types of teaching methods and their effectivenesses.

Students appear to perform best when lessons are directed by instructors face-to-face without the aid of computers, audio, and video. Students also perform better when lesson durations exceed one month and have the opportunity to practice and apply their knowledge.


PlatformSubject AreaNumber EnrolledCompletion Rate %
EdXComputer Science100,00011
CourseraData Analysis50,89912.6


Figure 4: Small sample of dropout rates of university-level courses, their subject areas, and enrollment.

Online courses have a high dropout rate, most likely because the majority of students enroll to sample and explore different courses. This demonstrates that the majority of students use open courseware to supplement their traditional course load.


Key Findings:

1. Students using online learning methods performed slightly better on average than those using traditional methods

2. A combination of online plus traditional teaching methods produced better results than purely online or purely traditional teaching methods

3. Collaborative online instruction produced better results than independent online instruction

4. There is no significant difference, result-wise, between different online teaching methods

5. Online learning methods are more successful for undergraduate and graduate students than K-12 students

6. Only a few substantial research studies have been published on online learning for K-12 students

7. Students learn better individually through online programs than in groups through online programs



Published by Anne Johnson Landry

Anne works as Committee Counsel and Policy Advisor to Senator Brownsberger.