This report on online education is being framed by the media as showing that online education beats face-to-face instruction in the classroom. So should we replace Mrs. Krabappel with a bevy of netbooks and a wireless router ?
Not so fast. The research is far too weak to draw the conclusion that teachers can be replaced with online instruction.To their credit, the authors admit this up front:
"The most unexpected finding was that an extensive initial search of the published literature from 1996 through 2006 found no experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies that both compared the learning effectiveness of online and face-to-face instruction for K–12 students and provided sufficient data for inclusion in a meta-analysis."
What were the limitations in the existing research that led the authors to this gloomy conclusion (which did not come across in the press reports)?
I) Internal validity
Out of 1000+ studies the authors reviewed, 33 were randomized trials, and 13 were comparison-control with decent controls. The rest, ewww. The RCTs did show pretty big positive effects (0.2 SD), however, and we know that research is not democratic. So, what's the problem?
..which leads us to...
II) External Validity
a) Just one of the 33 randomized trials (and four of the 13 comparison-control studies) took place in a K-12 school. The rest were in colleges or training programs for medical professionals.
b) None of the (five) K-12 studies compared face-to-face instruction with online learning, which is the comparison the we all have in mind when we read the media reports. Rather, the studies compared 1) face-to-face instruction with 2) face-to-face-instruction PLUS online learning. No teachers were taken out of the equation for the treatment or control group.
The bottom line (which did not come across in the press reports...) is that this research tells us nothing about whether online learning and face-to-face instruction in K-12 are substitutes in the learning process. It does provide us some evidence, however, that they are complements.