Review: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices In Online Learning

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By Gess Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

Do you have opinions about the effectiveness of online courses? Traditional face-to-face courses? Courses that combine face-to-face and online instruction (blended courses)? Would you like empirical evidence to inform your opinions? This report from the US Department of Education is a rigorous analysis of methodologically sound empirical studies that address these questions.

Methodology. The researchers began with a search of the educational literature from 1998-2008 and identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. The authors then screened the 1132 studies to find those that (a) contrasted online or blended instruction to face-to-face instruction, (b) measured objective student learning outcomes (rather than student or teacher perceptions of course quality) in online, blended, and face-to-face formats, and (c) used a rigorous research design, including treatment and control groups. Only 45 studies satisfied these conditions. Of those studies, most involved higher education (37 undergraduate, 4 graduate) and many assessed professional education (18 medical; 10 teacher development). None of the studies addressed legal education.

Results. Major findings of the meta-analysis of the 45 empirical studies include:

  • Students in online learning situations performed better than those receiving only face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements (blended instruction) had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  • The positive learning effects of online or blended courses were strongest when the online instruction was instructor directed or when students worked collaboratively, rather than circumstances where students worked independently.
  • Student learning in online and blended course was enhanced when the course incorporated mechanisms that promote student reflection and self-monitoring of their level of understanding.

Implications. This report has significant implications for legal education practice and research. Simple existing electronic resources make it relatively easy to incorporate elements of online instruction in law courses. For example, platforms for course websites such as Blackboard and TWEN facilitate online discussion, quizzes, and wikis. CALI has hundreds of lessons designed for a wide variety of law courses. The absence of legal education studies in the report highlights an important research opportunity. Many law teachers are experimenting with online elements in their courses. It is time to engage in rigorous assessment of the effects of those experiments on student learning. This report is an excellent starting point because it identifies the characteristics of high-quality empirical research of the effectiveness of online, blended, and face-to-face instruction.

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