How to Make a Case for Online Learning

Demonstrating that a particular medium of teaching or learning is effective can be done in only one way, that is, by showing improved learning outcomes. This is how a drug passes clinical trials. It requires proof that it is both safe and effective. Nothing less must be expected with a proposed education reform. So far, the use of technology specifically online learning has been promoted with promises. It is surprising that even with just promises, capital is pouring in. Money amounting now to billions of dollars have now been flowing from venture capitalists into education technology start ups. Can the simple flow of capital provide the necessary impetus for meaningful reforms in education? This is an important question to raise especially with the amount of money and effort going into these technological innovations in education.

I was chatting with a professor from Northwestern University and he shared with me an informal study that they had with General Chemistry class. In one section, students are not allowed to use any technology, only pencils and papers, while in another section, students are allowed to use laptops, IPads, and other devices. For two years, the class that is limited to pencils and papers outperformed the other class that has access to technology. This is in fact the first question to ask. Does online learning really work? Does technology really enhance learning?

Instead of the above questions, online learning has been more focused on providing wider access. Online learning holds the promise of liberating education. After all, online commerce went that way. With capital, there is now online shopping, online trading, online dating, etc. Why not online learning? But there is one major difference, online learning is not about a commodity. People shopping for a dress to wear is not the same as people shopping for learning. Online learning is not that different from a public library. Yes, there is convenience. With search engines, it is a lot easier to find what one is looking for. But this convenience only caters to impatience and works against learning how to delay gratification. Self control is one of the characteristics that correlate very well with strong academic performance. The fact that someone can get information with a click of a mouse is not different from the high one gets by taking heroin. This is addicting and it has been shown to have similar effects on both structure and function of the brain. Still, the similarity between online learning and public library rests on the fact that learning pretty much depends solely on the initiative of the learner. Online learning requires a lot from the student. Oftentimes, adults see online programs as "interesting". Caution must be exercised here, however, since frequently someone who thinks an online program in chemistry is interesting is in fact a chemist already. I think online videos of chemistry experiments, cartoons that explain molecular concepts are very interesting. But I doubt if a non chemist will actually find these materials equally captivating. One last question that needs to be asked since a lot of these materials are already available is whether students actually like this stuff. Research needs to be done in this area. There is a meta analysis of online learning studies published by the US Department of Education in 2010:

A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 50 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).
Before one concludes from the above that online learning is better, one must pay attention to the last couple of sentences. First, there are not that many rigorous published studies out there on this topic. Second, due to the fact that the size is small, generalizations are not advisable especially since most of these studies have nothing to do with K-12. Yet, instead of doing the research, proponents of online learning keep pushing their ideas by pointing to something else. Katherine Mangu-Ward, who is not an educator, puts the blame on teachers unions. In her piece on Slate, "Will Teachers Unions Kill Virtual Learning?", she says:
Truly amazing new products have transformative power. And competing with free isn’t impossible. But online education entrepreneurs looking to break into the K–12 market will have to do much more to come up with a product that’s a little better than what’s already out there. They have to come up with something truly new and mind-blowing, because to survive they’re going to have to short-circuit, bypass, or rewire the entire education bureaucracy. Good luck with that.
Thus, to reiterate, online learning needs to be based on evidence. This has nothing to do with teachers. I repeat the last paragraph of the US Department of Education study to remind us of what is important:
The impetus for this meta-analysis of recent empirical studies of online learning was the need to develop research-based insights into online learning practices for K–12 students. The research team realized at the outset that a look at online learning studies in a broader set of fields would be necessary to assemble sufficient empirical research for meta-analysis. As it happened, the initial search of the literature published between 1996 and 2006 found no studies contrasting K–12 online learning with face-to-face instruction that met methodological quality criteria. By performing a second literature search with an expanded time frame (through July 2008), the team was able to greatly expand the corpus of studies with controlled designs and to identify five controlled studies of K–12 online learning with seven contrasts between online and face-to-face conditions. This expanded corpus still comprises a very small number of studies, especially considering the extent to which secondary schools are using online courses and the rapid growth
of online instruction in K–12 education as a whole. Educators making decisions about online learning need rigorous research examining the effectiveness of online learning for different types of students and subject matter as well as studies of the relative effectiveness of different online learning practices.
With a drug, Food and Drug Administration approval will not come without rigorous clinical trials. Why should we expect less from education.