Is online learning effective? Here's what the research says

Young boy sat in front of laptop watching teacher
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As the pandemic gripped the globe last year, there was a rush to take classrooms online as home schooling came into effect. Many parents became concerned about their child’s mental health, along with the lack of in-person teacher and peer interaction, and the quality of the learning their child would experience from home. 

Recent student reviews of the best online learning platforms suggest that e-learning can be both enjoyable and informative, with plenty of the massive open online courses earning a big thumbs-up from distance learners. 

But what about younger learners? Here, we investigate how both college-level students and K-12 pupils react to online learning.

Is online learning better than classroom teaching for college students? 

Most research suggests that online learning is as effective as in-person classes, at least for older students. Some studies suggest that it might even be more effective than the traditional methods of lectures and classroom teaching.

A 2014 study by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) compared students taking a physics class in person to their online peers, and discovered that the amount learned in the online course was slightly greater than in the traditional course. A 2009 study found similar results, with research showing no difference in student performance between online and face-to-face learners. And a big old meta-analysis from 2006 found that on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those doing face-to-face learning.

College student sat at laptop in empty classroom

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So far, so good. It appears that these kind of results occur no matter the subject, too. A 2021 efficacy study from language learning platform Busuu compared Spanish learners who used a combination of Busuu’s self study courses and one-to-one online lessons with traditional teaching methods. Busuu found that participants were able to show improvements within 28 to 76 hours on average – this is much faster than the average US college semester study time of between 90 and 11 hours of face-to-face learning.

What’s it like for younger students? 

There's a lot less research to look at when it comes to younger pupils. Most of the big studies that have been conducted either focus on college students or adult learners. To get some insight, we chatted with the experts.

When done correctly, online learning can provide a novel, interactive, multimedia way of learning and revising

According to Kristina Murkett, a qualified teacher and private tutor at The Profs with 5 years’ teaching experience, online learning can be extremely effective. But like all teaching, it all comes down to the skill of the teacher and the engagement of the pupils.

“When done correctly, online learning can provide a novel, interactive, multimedia way of learning and revising, and there's no doubt that platforms and apps are improving all the time to be as user-friendly for students and teachers as possible. However, you need to know your audience: a two-hour Zoom lecture for pupils [aged 11 - 12] is going to be tricky – there's no way you can hold their attention for that long.”

Boy at laptop in class with mother holding baby in background

(Image credit: Getty images)

What are the positives – and negatives – of online learning versus classroom learning?

For older, remote students, online learning has more advantages, and in small chunks (for example, online tuition) it can be highly effective. However, Kristina believes the communal aspect of classroom learning is impossible to fully replicate “and there is so much social education that happens in face-to-face interactions that is vital for all students (especially younger students).”

Every student is different – for example, some students may find it very hard to concentrate with online learning when there are so many digital distractions, whereas other students might find it easier to organise themselves online.

But there are lots of advantages to online learning. For example, less confident students might be more willing to participate in a virtual environment. “They may prefer typing their answers rather than saying them out loud, as they may feel less 'under the spotlight'.”

Pros and cons

PRO Less confident pupils may find it easier to contribute in virtual settings

CON Screen fatigue can affect concentration

PRO Students will hone computer skills as they learn

CON Not all pupils have a good tech set-up at home

PRO Lessons can be easily recorded and used for revision

Online learning also presents an opportunity for students to hone their computer skills. For teachers, online technology means engaging activities such as games and quizzes can be easily incorporated into lessons, and if recorded, this also provides a useful resource for student revision.

But in a group setting it can be harder to gauge engagement with online learning, especially with a large class. There is also a fatigue that comes with staring at a screen all day; it may be harder to sustain enthusiasm without the buzz of a classroom community all around you.

The hardware and setting also comes into play with online lessons. “Some students obviously also have better setups than others – for example, some students may have access to technology, fast Wi-Fi and a quiet space in which to work, but sadly this is definitely the minority rather than the majority,” adds Kristina.

What’s online learning like for teachers? 

Georgina Durrant, author of 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play, is a private tutor for children with special educational needs (SEN). When the pandemic hit, she had no choice but to move to online tuition. “Initially myself and the families of the children I tutored were concerned that this method of teaching would be particularly challenging for children with SEN.” 

There are the obvious downsides of not being sat next to a child to be able to check their work, support them with it and keep them focused. But she has observed some real advantages to online tuition – to the extent that some families may choose to go with one of the best online tutoring services over in-person tuition. 

Teacher recording lesson pointing at whiteboard in background

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“Firstly, for some children, having a tutor physically in their house and their space can be challenging – having me on the screen can feel a lot less intense. They can turn the camera off, for example when they are concentrating on something, they can move off screen for a few minutes to write down their answers or can do their tuition with their parents sitting with them.”

Technology wise, there’s also some huge advantages to online tuition, with new collaborative tools available. “Children can screen share with me, we can work on a worksheet together on the screen, they can ‘draw’ on my Power Point presentation, and we can even use visualisers to show workings out on paper.”

For Georgina personally, a huge advantage is that she is now no longer limited by geography. “I can be tutoring a child in London at 4pm and then a child in Leeds at 5pm! There’s no travelling, no time wasted setting up and I can have an impact on children across the country, not just in my local area. This also means parents have a much greater choice of tutors as they too can access a tutor who is based anywhere in the country, choosing them on their experience and qualifications rather than their location.”

Kavi Shah

Kavi Shah is an experienced freelance writer and editor who covers various topics for Top Ten Reviews, including photography, education and languages.