New research shows online and blended learning “better than traditional instruction”

A new study which analysed 1,500 academic papers dating back to the year 2000 has concluded that online or blended learning is preferable to conventional teaching in schools.

The large-scale review of research, conducted by the University of Dundee, reveals that 61% (946) of the 1,540 studies showed that digital technology was ‘better than traditional instruction’, while 115 (7%) found it the same. Only 2% (29) found digital technology worse than traditional instruction, although publication bias has to be considered.

Professor Keith Topping, from the University’s School of Education and Social Work, led the review of research looking at online and blended learning undertaken from schools. The review also investigated Educational Games, Computer Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL) and Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), all of which have the potential to be used outside school.

They discovered that the majority of studies carried out in this area found blended and online learning better than traditional instruction. Educational games and CAI were also shown to be very effective and, while these are not yet widely used outside school, they could be made available for this purpose.

Blended and online learning were shown to have positive effects on performance when compared to traditional classroom teaching at both primary and secondary schools. Science and Maths were the most popular subjects, but positive results were shown across a wide range of other subject areas, including reading and writing, critical thinking, art and music, and health.

The research showed that girls perform better than boys and “low ability” children make the biggest achievement gains when taught using online and blended learning techniques.

Online learning has become commonplace during lockdown and will play an increasing role in curricula in future as teachers seek to harness digital technology to deliver an efficient and effective 21st century education for pupils and students.

Professor Topping, who argues that digital teaching and learning should be pursued post-pandemic, said: “This review is particularly relevant at a time when schools have been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to implement some of these measures due to pupils being unable to attend in person.

“The past six months have been hugely disruptive for the education of children but it would be a mistake to pivot back to the status quo without pausing to consider what benefits online and blended learning can bring in the long run.”

Co-author Dr Walter Douglas, of The Kelvin Centre in Glasgow, said, “Girls generally do better with online and blended learning, suggesting that the presumed greater competence of boys at information technology is a myth.”

Professor Topping and his colleagues searched eight separate research databases for studies related to digital learning in schools. They analysed 1,540 studies from all over the world, and found that CAI performed the best of all five categories, with Blended Learning and Games next equal. Online and CSCL were joint bottom but fewer papers had looked at these categories than the others. Overall, 72% of studies found that some form of digital technology performed better than traditional instruction.

Educational games and computer-supported collaborative learning were also shown to have benefits that merit further investigation.

One of the biggest concerns about learning during lockdown was that it would create a digital divide between those with access to technology and those without, exacerbating an existing attainment gap along socio-economic lines.

The scoping review found that the positive effects of online and blended learning were more marked for students of low ability, but that this depended on equipment support. If disadvantaged students have no access to equipment at home it may be that they need to access it in school, but not in class.

“Disadvantaged and rural students show positive results where access to digital technology is made readily available,” continued Professor Topping. “Low ability children were found in several studies to respond to digital technology more positively than average children.

“There was also a number of positive studies of digital technology for children in the early years or at nursery or playgroup, as well as those with very various special needs, such as Autism or Downs Syndrome. A wide range of students from ethnic minorities also show positive results.”

The review can be read here. Professor Topping and his colleagues will continue to work with the findings from these studies in order to develop recommendations for effective online/blended learning practice.

Some key findings from Professor Topping’s work:

  • Practice: This paper has been written primarily for teachers (many of whom will doubtless be content with the Executive Summary, perhaps accompanied by dipping into other sections as they feel the need). The return to school risks losing the innovations in online and blended learning deployed by schools during the pandemic. Even though marshalled at high speed without the benefit of much planning time, these innovations do indicate a new way of working for schools.
  • While wholly online learning is probably not relevant for most pupils except those in remote areas, blended learning certainly offers promise. A system of accessing learning at home or in the public library during the morning with activities and discussion relating to that learning at school in the afternoon is certainly one schools might wish to experiment with.
  • Policy: Local and national government needs to develop local and national policies for online and blended learning from schools. At present governmental thinking is not sufficiently informed by the evidence base. It may be that teacher unions will be concerned by the suggested shift in teacher practice, but there is no suggestion that fewer teachers will be needed; if anything, more (but better trained) teachers will be needed.