Online learning has become standard in education, with 7.1 million postsecondary students reported to be taking at least one online course in fall 2012. A steady increase in the online student population demonstrates the significance that institutions place on reaching geographically removed students. As enrollments grow, research into online learning grows as well. This entry looks at various areas of online education scholarship, including research that compares learning outcomes in online and face-to-face conditions as well as research that looks at online learners, instructional design, and instructional effectiveness.

Comparing Face-to-Face and Online Conditions

Comparisons of online learning with traditional face-to-face classrooms have occupied research into online learning for quite some time. A significant amount of scholarship demonstrates that students in online education reach learning outcomes quite comparable with those attained in traditional face-to-face classrooms. A number of studies compare projects, tests, assignments, and so on and predominantly find that there is no significant difference in student performance and the quality of student learning between online and traditional classrooms. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis report that evaluated the results of various studies that compared learning outcomes of online and traditional courses. This meta-analysis showed that students who made online learning a part of their higher education strategies generally slightly outperformed their peers who took the same courses through face-to-face instruction.

There is also some contradictory scholarship that indicates that in some cases face-to-face students outperform online students in equivalent courses. Studies find that online students tend to spend less time in instruction, miss grading opportunities, and carry lower grade point averages. These findings indicate the need for further research into identifying the strengths and weaknesses of online instruction.

Understanding Online Learners

Online students are successful if they are self-directed, self-motivated, able to seek out answers and speak up when questions arise, and knowledgeable about technology. Successful online students are also determined to engage with their peers and create and sustain learning communities, an integral part of online education. The partial anonymity provided by online courses creates an environment where students feel free to express their true opinions and seek a platform to advance their beliefs. Students are more likely to be frank and open with others and to express themselves without fear of repercussion.

Some online learning scholarship evaluates the impact that online modes of communication play on flaming (i.e., hostile or insulting online communication) and student misbehavior. Various studies indicate that a proactive approach to teaching helps prevent or alleviate issues of student misbehavior in online classrooms. Specifically, instructors who communicate their expectations, discuss proper rules of netiquette with their students, and hold students accountable for their behavior tend to have fewer issues in their classrooms. Additionally, instructors and institutions are generally advised to hold students accountable for their misbehavior, as setting and upholding these expectations prevents issues from arising and/or escalating.

Studies also look at the demographics of online students, acknowledging the need to understand various personal characteristics, such as gender and physical abilities, and their potential impact on learning outcomes. For example, some studies find that women participate more during online courses than do men. Since the online mode of delivery creates partial anonymity for students, women who might feel otherwise oppressed or undervalued due to their gender may feel freer to express their opinions and be accepted by others.

Disabled students, who may choose to pursue online education due to restrictions they experience as a result of their physical or cognitive disabilities, are currently underrepresented in online education. While research on these students is limited, it indicates that online education is not ready to embrace disabled students. Online courses are not developed with disabled students in mind, and instructors are not able to accommodate students with various disabilities, such as visual and hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and challenging physical conditions, as readily as they are in face-to-face classrooms. This area of scholarship is still emerging.

Instructional Design

Since success of online education relies largely on well-developed online courses, instructional design is an important area of online scholarship. Some institutions leave course design to individual instructors, others hire outside companies to develop courses that are then taught by their instructors, while still others use in-house instructional designers paired with subject matter experts. Developing online courses demands effort and knowledge. Generally, it is recommended that those who will be teaching these courses develop them, as these individuals have the best understanding of effective course facilitation. It is also acknowledged that instructional design is not a single-person process. Courses that are reviewed by a number of experts, such as technology experts, design experts, and subject matter experts are more likely to be effective. Strong instructional design must also acknowledge that online students are generally geographically removed from the institution, and autonomous control must be given to these learners to meet their learning goals. Online learners require enough structure to be well equipped with the processes and understand the steps needed to be successful in their learning, yet not too much as to feel completely overwhelmed and limited in their freedom to proceed at their own learning pace. Finally, effectively designed courses account for and tailor to individual learning styles that exist in any learning environment.

Instructional Effectiveness

Online learning flourishes under self-directedness and individualized motivation; therefore, instructional research has focused on identifying effective strategies that lead to successful learning outcomes. Online instructors are no longer simply deliverers of knowledge. Instead, knowledge is created by and with students within active learning communities where student interests and needs drive and construct learning. Instructors are encouraged to act as subject matter expects but behave as facilitators and guides.

Another area of research looks at the impact that communication between instructors and students has on affective, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. Research indicates that instructors who actively participate in courses, communicate frequently and effectively with students, and provide guidance and support to remote students tend to be more motivating and engaging to students. Motivation affects learning, persistence, retention, achievement, and course satisfaction.

Research and scholarship into online education is vast and always expanding. Continuous development of new technologies and new ways to deliver and conduct online learning gives rise to new areas of research and creates the need for further advancement of existing scholarship.

See alsoLearning Outcomes; Systems Approach to Instructional Design

  • online education
  • online learning
  • online courses
  • instructional design
  • disabled students
  • learning outcomes
  • scholarships
Daria S. LaFave

Further Readings

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade change: Tracking online education in the United States. Wellesley, MA: Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from
Helms, J. L. (2014). Comparing student performance in online and face-to-face delivery modalities. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1), 147160.
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.
Meyer, K. A., & Murrell, V. (2014). A national study of training content and activities for faculty development for online teaching. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1), 318.
Moore, M. G. (Ed.). (2013). Handbook of distance education. New York, NY: Routledge.
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