Technology's Impact on Effective Teaching Strategies

The United States Department of Education published a report over the summer titled, "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning; A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies" (Center for Technology in Learning, 2009). What's interesting about this report is that it confirms what those of us who teach or have taught either distance or online courses already know and moves us beyond what is often commonly believed: that there is no significant difference between online learning and the face-to-face experience.

The report abstract reads as follow:

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, 51 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed 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). (p.ix)

The report clarifies that it does not address all student populations, as the analysis found most of the significant studies within higher education. Consequently, the report data are only relevant in the specific contexts of the studies analyzed. In general, however, the report supports the notion that there seems to be evidence that it is the learning process that matters more than the technology tools used. Additionally, the overall challenge remains that more studies must be done with a variety of student populations and also that we must continue to explore ways to evaluate learning within technology-rich learning environments.

The report identified several key findings within the studies reviewed, which I will list here and discuss briefly before summarizing what I see as future trends for these kinds of studies.

The report summarized existing literature in the field and established the following:

  • Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction;
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction;
  • Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning;
  • Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly;
  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types; and
  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction. (p. xiv)

As the report pointed out, there have been many studies in higher education, rather than K-12, that support the above notions. For those of us who teach online or blended courses, we know this from experience as well: The focus of student success is not on technology or technology tools but their critical use in the progress of the learning process.

Of central importance is the student and the instructional design of the course. Adequately supporting and providing space for the individual learning needs of students through significant time-on-task and varied input of material from a variety of media are vital to the success of the course. Additionally, while technology can be used to mediate the instructional flow and learning process, it does not "teach." Teachers teach, and students learn, and sometimes teachers learn while students teach. In other words, it is a dynamic and constructive process involving all participants and mediated by technology. This is also why it remains such a challenge to fully measure student learning in dynamic environments without innovative assessment designs and the applied use of technology within those assessments.

The report continued by identifying several key findings as listed below and noting the following: "Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes. When a study contrasts blended and purely online conditions, student learning is usually comparable across the two conditions."

Key findings:

  • Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes. The research does not support the use of some frequently recommended online learning practices. Inclusion of more media in an online application does not appear to enhance learning. The practice of providing online quizzes does not seem to be more effective than other tactics, such as assigning homework.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. Studies indicate that manipulations that trigger learner activity or learner reflection and self-monitoring of understanding are effective when students pursue online learning as individuals.
  • Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners. When groups of students are learning together online, support mechanisms such as guiding questions generally influence the way students interact, but not the amount they learn. (p. xvi)

The report provides a fairly useful meta-analysis of current studies in the field and cites the reoccurring ideas that emerge to suggest that the amount of technology used or the increase in variety of types does not have influence. Additionally, online assessment tools are not more effective than traditional homework, and providing individual choice to learners is critical. Finally, the suggestion is that discussion guidance is only that; guiding discussion is not necessarily increasing learning. One significant finding is the importance of student reflection: "The clearest recommendation for practice that can be made on the basis of the Category 3 synthesis is to incorporate mechanisms that promote student reflection on their level of understanding." (p. 48)

Generally Effective Instruction
My major response to the report is that what constitutes effective instruction remains the same regardless of delivery mode. In that sense "no significant difference" remains intact. That is:

  • Engaging students in their own learning process, providing for individual learning to take place within the context of a course and in a larger group of students;
  • Encouraging self reflection throughout the process that supports learning progress; and
  • Establishing the learning outcomes of a course as the main motivator for design and delivery.

While technology has changed what is possible and how students can be supported and resourced in their learning, the principles of effective instruction never really change. The technology is not what drives learning but simply what mediates and supports the process; therefore, it is vital that professors, instructors and teachers remain focused on the overall process of learning and their own teaching strategies and methods throughout. What has significantly changed is the way in which these effective teaching strategies can be achieved at a higher level using new technology.

Unnecessary Categories
One major advance in instruction that does not seem to be reflected in the report but that is a growing reality for anyone teaching distance, online, or blended is that these categories are becoming less helpful. New technology is ubiquitous in nature, and, as such, the lines that divided these modes of delivery in the past are now not only blended but decidedly merged into an integrated delivery. The Internet has not only changed education completely, but it has made so many direct applications and resources available for students that it no longer sits outside the classroom.

No longer should there be a vast difference in experience for students in face-to-face and online simply because the available technology tools can provide, as the report suggested, a more effective way to learn. Technology tools such as Web 2.0 services can also provide students with opportunities for expanding their learning community and for collaboration at a higher level than ever before. As students look simply for relevant and flexible courses of study that work with their program of study and life challenges, not modes of delivery, so instructional design and the study of the effectiveness to learning should reflect that integrated reality.

K-12 Opportunities
In the school system the challenge remains to move away from standardized testing and standards-based curricula to a focus on the learning experience of students. As the existing studies would suggest, given how lock-stepped K-12 curricula are, the success of online tools is limited. As teachers and school boards allow more latitude and actual innovation to happen, the more likely online tools will show the same or similar results. As the report suggested, of course, more studies are needed specifically with this population of students: "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." (p. 54)

In general, then, much is significantly different when online tools are used in instruction simply because the contexts of learning and tools used, as well as modes of delivery, differ so greatly. What remains the same is that effective learning can still be measured; however, more studies are required to explore what kinds of measures most effectively capture the learning effectiveness according the learning outcomes as supported with technology use.