Smith Jaggars, S. and Bailey, T. (2010) Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

From the abstract:

Proponents of postsecondary online education were recently buoyed by a meta-analysis sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education suggesting that, in many cases, student learning outcomes in online courses are superior to those in traditional face-to-face courses. This finding does not hold, however, for the studies included in the meta-analysis that pertain to fully online, semester-length college courses; among these studies, there is no trend in favor of the online course mode. What is more, these studies consider courses that were taken by relatively well-prepared university students, so their results may not generalize to traditionally underserved populations. Therefore, while advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.


This is a study that should be read by all those proposing to research the differences between online and face-to-face teaching. It is a very nice dissection of the U.S. Department of Education study:

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

The Columbia University researchers found that of the 28 ‘rigorous, scientific studies’ that compared online vs face-to-face teaching in the Department of Education study, only seven looked at ‘typical’ semester-long courses, and these were all in universities. Close examination of these seven studies by the Columbia University group found (p.10) that ‘Overall, then, the online courses showed no strong advantage or disadvantage in terms of learning outcomes among the samples of students under study.’

More interestingly, Smith Jaggers and Bailey argued that the U.S. Department of Education study produced no evidence to indicate that online learning is widening access to low-income or other disadvantaged learners, nor is there anything else in the literature to support this argument for online learning (a dangerous conclusion, because it only needs one study to come to light to challenge the Columbia University conclusion – in other words, never say never in research. Does anyone know of such a study that looks at whether online learning widens access to disadvantaged groups?).

None of this is surprising. Anyone wanting to do comparative research between face-to-face and technology delivered teaching should say over and over again what Wilbur Schramm said as long ago as 1974: we should not ask whether one means of delivery is better than another, but what are the conditions that determine the appropriate choice of technology.

My view of meta-analysis research is that it should be dumped in the garbage, as far as education is concerned. The in-condition variables are always greater than the between-condition variables, and these are lost in meta-analyses. In other words, it depends on how well the teaching is done, whatever the medium.

So, coming back to the Smith Jaggers and Bailey conclusion: can online learning widen access to disadvantaged groups? Well, first, this may be a bit of a straw man. I don’t recall much of the rationale for online learning in the literature being that it can recruit students from high school who can’t get into college – or don’t want to go. This is a tough market to reach, by any means, and often these students do not have the confidence or independent learning skills to study wholly online. The main justification from my perspective for fully online learning (apart from the skills it develops) is that it suits best adult and lifelong learners who cannot otherwise access college, but have pretty good learning skills already (and may well already have a conventional community college or university education). Online learning may be used to help some kinds of high school drop-outs, but it would need to be combined with a whole range of other strategies, such as personal counselling and one-on-one learner support.

So can online learning widen access to disadvantaged groups? Yes, probably, if the right conditions are there, such as quality learner support, subsidized programs, etc. However, the same conditions could equally apply to face-to-face programs – or different conditions. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor the Columbia University study provides any evidence on this question, and trying to make this sort of comparison is a waste of time. So focus on the conditions that support teaching and learning, accepting that there likely to be some conditions where online teaching is more or less appropriate than other conditions.

Now try to explain this to your professor who wants a simple answer to the question as to whether online teaching is ‘as good as’ face-to-face teaching. The answer is of course, ‘Yes, provided that…..’ or ‘it all depends….’

See also:

Wojciechowska, I. (2010) Continuing debate over online education Inside Higher Education, July 16


  1. […] Das würde mir schon reichen. Aber Tony Bates schiebt noch einen Hinweis nach: “Anyone wanting to do comparative research between face-to-face and technology delivered teaching should say over and over again what Wilbur Schramm said as long ago as 1974: we should not ask whether one means of delivery is better than another, but what are the conditions that determine the appropriate choice of technology.” Tony Bates, e-learning & distance education resources, 20. Juli 2010 […]

  2. Not quite sure what the question is, Missy. Do you mean gradually moving to online learning over time in the same course, i.e. starting face-to-face, gradually adding online components then moving it all online? If so, then the answer is still: ‘It depends.’

    A course offered fully online will almost certainly have to be designed differently from one that started as a face-to-face course, for a variety of reasons. It will also depend on your preferred pedagogy.

    If you are happy with delivering lectures in class with little follow-up or discussion, then you move these online and do nothing else, then it probably doesn’t matter, although I would expect the completion rate to decline for the online students. If on the other hand you rely heavily on in-class discussion, then you would need to redesign for the online discussion, which will be better if asynchronous, not synchronous

    The point is that there are strong design principles for online learning that have been built up through research and experience (see E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research).

    Although some of the principles are the same as for ‘good’ classroom teaching (such as clearly defined and communicated learning outcomes), others are much more important for online teaching, such ss controlling for student and instructor workload, spacing assignments and activities through the course, and regular and individualized feedback.

    One wouldn’t design a plane like a bus, even though they both travel; why would one design online teaching the same as for face-to-face classes? The context is quite different, so should be the design.

    • My exeprence is that it is the medium that is critical. In some cases there are very effective face to face media. In some cases what may be very effective media for one person may be challenging for another. I may get a great deal of learing from face to face teaching. Another person maty find that boring!. So it in the mediator of the learning and how the learning is presented. In a project exploring learing solutions for aging knowledge workers a groupof us developed an alogrythem called MISTRAL. It identifies the most suitable leaning solution mix based on an input of simeple data. Visit teh browser at
      Michael kenny

  3. This is really a interested topic in comparison between F2F and Online learning. My hypothesis is that there is a great difference between younger people and boomers. do you agree with me.

  4. I take this comment about conditions, and I agree that there are many living in conditions that seem to make the idea of enjoying the benefits of online learning a pipe dream. But the conclusion to that argument need not be to ignore technology. I think there should be an overriding view that says lets see how technology can help. People living in the sticks did not settle for candles because of their circumstances, they made a plan and electricity was delivered to them.

    Getting on the band wagon of defending the “old way” because of circumstances tells me that the circumstances are being used as a defence against innovation. I am personally quite perplexed that my kids still attend class in the same way I did 40 years ago. Everything else has moved on. Production, travel, banking, are all using web technologies to manage process, deliver service as a standard offering, but schools, even though our kids live online for every other activity, they still carry books to school, they do their assignments on paper, and still sit for 45 minutes listening to a lecture. This is crazy. Lectures are the worst way to teach, (5% retention). That fact alone gives online learning a 100 yard start. But a video lecture with some probing questions beforehand switches the whole thing around, and suddenly you getting 60 – 70% retention. and you can replay as many times as you like, thanks to technology. In the longer run it will be more cost effective to solve this issue of circumstance with the help of technology, rather than think that because people are poor and don’t currently have access, means this is not an option.

    Bill Gates says, and I agree with him, the best education will come from the Internet in five years.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here