TechChange is excited to launch a new blog series dedicated to e-Learning for educators and trainers.  The series will highlight emerging technologies, best practices in instructional design and pedagogy, and important industry trends.

The very nature of the way we learn and the way we teach are continually transformed by the implementation of online technologies in education and training. According to a recent report, Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009 online enrollments in higher education are increasing at a rate of 17%, far exceeding the meager 1.2% overall growth in higher education.  More than one in four higher education students now take at least one course online.  Increases in distance learning enrollments at community colleges are even higher at 22%, according to the Instructional Technology Council’s Distance Education Survey Results.

Academic institutions are not the only ones embracing the demand for e-learning. Governmental agencies, for-profit companies, and non-profit organizations alike increasingly utilize online technologies as a cost-effective method for extending the reach of their education and training programs.  E-learning increases learning opportunities for those geographically separated, and its flexible format is especially suited for busy individuals juggling work and family demands.

Effectiveness of E-Learning

An updated research report by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) recently found that on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those learning the same material through conventional face-to-face (F2F) instruction.  The DoE’s report, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies” (Sept. 2010), also found “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”  This combination of delivery methods is often referred to as ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ instruction.  The report cautions that it is important to keep in mind that the “observed advantage for blended learning conditions is not necessarily rooted in the media used per se and may reflect differences in content, pedagogy and learning time.”

The Department of Education backs its claim through a meticulous methodology that examined more than 1,000 empirical studies of online learning between 1996 and 2008. A small sample of independent studies were selected from the pool for meta-analysis.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed than in those studies where online learners worked independently. The mean effect sizes for collaborative instruction and for instructor-directed instruction were significantly positive whereas the mean effect size for independent learning was not.
  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Online learning appeared to be an effective option for both undergraduates and for graduate students and professionals in a wide range of academic and professional studies.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The DoE report also cited previous studies that found that learning outcomes improve when online tools are used to prompt student reflection.  Prompting students to engage in self-expression  and self-monitoring strategies positively impacts learning and outcomes.  Moreover, formative online self-assessment tools lead to better student performance than using traditional tests.

The report’s key findings are both interesting and relevant to educators and trainers, but it is important to consider one of the caveats of the report:

“Despite what appears to be strong support for blended learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for blended learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.”

The important message here is that the medium itself is not necessarily what increases the effectiveness of learning- it is the effective use of online tools.  Online tools enable increased opportunities for collaborative learning, particularly for learners separated geographically.  E-learning tools also offer students new opportunities for self-directed learning outside of a physical classroom.

From my own experience I can attest that a mixed format can be an effective learning environment for students. I co-teach a class at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP)’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding which uses a hybrid or blended method of instruction.  Often we run out of time during a rich discussion in our F2F class.  But through our Moodle online learning management system we are able to simply continue the discussion online after class.  Those who didn’t have a chance to ask a question are given an opportunity to do so, and some participants who feel more comfortable communicating in writing share their thoughts online.Through Moodle we can also post an array of podcasts, videos, and recommeded articles for students who want to explore a specific topic more deeply.

Leveraging online teaching tools increases opportunities for learning, but they don’t necessarily guarantee a good learning experience.  Sound instructional design and effective pedagogy are needed for both F2F and online instruction.  No online tools, no matter how flashy or expensive, can rescue a poorly designed or delivered class- either F2F or online.


I don’t know about you, but I was surprised by the a results of this report.  e-Learning often carries negative stereotypes as being boring, static, and unengaging.  How many of us have paid good money for a mediocre online learning experience?  e-Learning is relatively new, only a couple decades old.  So, it’s encouraging to know that this teaching and training tool has quickly proven to be as effective as F2F instruction.

I am encouraged by one of the report’s key findings: “Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.”  I am a believer in the potential of games and simulations to enhance the learning process.  For adult learners, I believe there is great training potential for single-player, scenario based simulations which present a problem or task that a learner is asked to work through.  (An upcoming blog post will be dedicated solely to this topic.)  I also believe platforms such as USIP’s Open Source Simulation have great potential for multi-party learners to “play” with or against each other to practice solving real life challenges.

As someone who makes a living producing multimedia training tools, I naturally have a hard time accepting one of the report’s key findings: “Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.”  However, upon careful inspection, the report is addressing the amount student’s learn through video- not the educational value or impact.

I believe it is important that educators and trainers present a diversity of curricula tailored for different types of learners.  Some people, like myself, are visual learners. Others prefer written or oral delivery.  Neglecting visuals (such as video) does learners a disservice.  With the ever increasing popularity of streaming video in the web, people are increasingly demanding visuals as part of their online experiences.  While hardware and software were once confined only to professionals, most individuals now have the capabilities to produce their own multimedia content.  Learning is no longer seen as a one-way process of an expert pontificating to a classroom of students. Rather, learning in the 21st Century is collaborative by nature, respecting learners’ pre-existing knowledge and life experiences as contributions to the group learning process.

In addition to the key finding about video, I am perplexed that the report stated “online quizzes do not influence the amount students learn…”  The purpose of online quizzes is for assessment, not for teaching new material.

F2F instruction is as old as our earliest ancestors and there will always be a place to sit face to face with an expect. But in its relatively short lifespan, e-Learning’s impact has already been tremendous, driving the evolution of teaching and training with the accelerated emersion of online tools and technologies.  The  landscape by which we conduct our education and training programs is evolving.  Eventually, we will be forced to adapt, otherwise our programs run the risk becoming outdated, or worse case scenario- obsolete.

Dominic Volonnino is co-founder of TechChange and is a faculty member in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.  Contact Dominic at dominic [at]

Related article by D.Volonnino:

Image © ted_major.

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