Teachers College, Columbia University

Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis

Proponents of postsecondary online education were buoyed by a 2009 meta-analysis sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education suggesting that student learning outcomes in online courses are superior to those in traditional face-to-face courses.

This paper demonstrates that this finding does not hold for the studies included in the meta-analysis that pertain to fully online, semester-length college courses; among these studies, there is no trend in favor of the online course mode. Furthermore, the authors argue that because these studies examine courses that were taken by relatively well-prepared university students, their results may not generalize to traditionally underserved populations.

The authors conclude that while advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access and improve student progression through college, the Department of Education report does not provide evidence that fully online college courses produce superior learning outcomes, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students.

Partly in response to this CCRC analysis, the U.S. Department of Education released a revised edition of the report in September 2010.