Since 2012, Ithaka S+R has periodically reviewed the empirical literature on the impact of online and hybrid instruction on student outcomes. As reported in the 2013 review, very few studies employ rigorous methodologies; of those that do, the findings indicate that students do about as well in online or hybrid courses as they do in face-to-face versions of the same course.
For the latest update in this series, “Online Learning in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Empirical Literature (2013-2014),” Derek Wu reviewed twelve studies published in 2013 and 2014, and reports consistent results.
The most methodologically robust studies find no significant differences in performance between students who took an online or hybrid course and those who took a face-to-face version of the same course. However, only three of the twelve studies used experimental or quasi-experimental research designs that yield a causal inference. The vast majority of studies are vulnerable to various threats to validity, ranging from sample selection and omitted variable bias to inconsistencies in how delivery formats are defined.
The most methodologically rigorous studies in this review join a growing list of similarly rigorous research finding that students in online and hybrid formats perform about as well as their counterparts in face-to-face sections. Yet, we identify several areas where more research is needed:
- What are the cost implications of online instruction? If reducing costs remains one of the drivers for online education, then the research needs to address the efficiency of online and hybrid formats.
- What elements of online courses lead to positive or negative student learning outcomes? Online instruction is not monolithic, and further research is needed to understand the characteristics of effective or ineffective modes of course delivery.
- Are online courses an effective and efficient means to teach upper level and humanities courses? Much of the research to date has focused on the online delivery of STEM or introductory courses.
- What are the ramifications of online learning on longer-term student outcomes? No study goes beyond course-specific outcomes to analyze the longer-term academic outcomes of students who take online and hybrid courses, such as retention, graduation rate, and time-to-degree.
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