Dr Taylor is leading a free CIRL professional development webinar on project-based learning, on 17 November from 4-5pm GMT. The link will be available on CIRL’s Eventbrite page soon and the webinar recording will be added to CIRL’s Resources and Professional Development page.
What does the secondary research literature tell us about distance learning?
This blogpost offers a literature review on online distance learning, which is thematically divided into four sections. I first consider what the literature tells us about the efficacy of online distance learning (section 1) and the importance of building a learning community (section 2). I then discuss what the literature says in response to two questions: ‘Does online distance learning work better for some students?’ (section 3) and ‘Can online distance learning support the development of self-regulated learning?’ (section 4).
In this review, the following key terms are defined as follows:
- Distance learning: a ‘form of education in which the main elements include physical separation of teachers and students during instruction and the use of various technologies to facilitate student-teacher and student-student communication.’
- Online learning: ‘education that takes place over the internet’. This can be subdivided into asynchronous online coursesthat do not take place in real-time and synchronous online courses in which teacher and student interact online simultaneously.
- Blended learning: a hybrid mode of interaction which combines face-to-face in-person meetings with online interaction. As blended learning is a hybrid model, either the face-to-face or the online elements may be dominant. So, for example, blended learning can occur when online instructional tools are used to support face-to-face learning in a classroom, or when some face-to-face instruction is interspersed with online learning as part of a longer course.
- A virtual school: ‘an entity approved by a state or governing body that offers courses through distance delivery – most commonly using the internet’.
- Self-regulated learning: ‘the modulation of affective, cognitive and behavioural processes throughout a learning experience in order to reach a desired level of achievement’. Self-regulating learning skills have been described as abilities such as planning, managing and controlling the learning process. Processes that occur during self-regulated learning include goal setting, metacognition and self-assessment.
1. The Efficacy of Online Distance Learning
Educators have traditionally expressed scepticism about the prospects of reproducing outcomes equivalent to traditional face-to-face instruction by means of online distance learning, according to Paul VanPortfliet and Michael Anderson. In a study comparing outcomes from online and hybrid courses, VanPortfliet and Anderson note that it is believed that academic achievement and retention are worse for students following distance learning programmes than for those being taught in traditional classroom settings. An explanation cited for this relative lack of efficacy traces it back to a lack of contact between students, their teacher and their peers in the online learning environment.
That said, there is also evidence of equivalence across a number of outcome measures. A 2004 meta-analysis by Cathy Cavanaugh et al of 116 effect sizes measured across 14 K-12 web-delivered distance learning programmes between 1999 and 2004 found that there was no significant difference in outcomes between virtual and face-to-face schools.
A 2015 study by Heather Kauffmann explored factors predictive of student success and satisfaction with online learning. Kauffmann notes that several studies have found that online learning programmes lead to outcomes that are comparable to those of face-to-face programmes.
VanPortfliet and Anderson note that research into hybrid instruction indicates that students achieve outcomes that match, if not exceed, outcomes from other instructional modalities. In particular, academic achievement by students in hybrid programmes is consistently higher than that of students engaged in purely online programmes.
The ongoing discussion in the literature suggests that it is difficult to draw general conclusions about the efficacy of online learning as such, not least because it constitutes in significant ways a distinctive mode of learning when compared with real-world instruction. It is perhaps better, then, to look more specifically at questions such as the comparative strengths and challenges of moving to virtual schooling, the conditions which need to be in place for it to function well and the manner in which this transition is experienced by learners with different capabilities.
2. The Importance of Building a Learning Community
A helpful summary of research about online learning by Jonathan Beale at CIRL contains an outline of principles concerning successful online distance learning programmes.The summary explores research-based recommendations for effective teaching and learning practices in online and blended environments made by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad in their 2016 work, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips. A central emphasis of these recommendations is that successful online learning depends upon the formation of an online learning community, and this is only possible if there is regular online interaction between teachers and students:
Why is presence so important in the online environment? When faculty actively interact and engage students in a face-to-face classroom, the class evolves as a group and develops intellectual and personal bonds. The same type of community bonding happens in an online setting if the faculty presence is felt consistently.
The significance of relationship building is noted in the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute’s Teacher Guide to Online Learning:
Creating a human-to-human bond with your online students, as well as with their parents/guardians and the student’s local online mentor, is critical in determining student success in your online course. This can be accomplished through effective individual and group communication, encouraging engagement in the course, productive and growth-focused feedback, and multiple opportunities for students to ask questions and learn in a way that is meaningful to them.
Research into virtual learning emphasises the importance of the connection between students and their teachers. This can be lost if there is no ‘live’ contact element at all. As Beale notes, this does not necessarily mean that every lesson needs to include a video meeting, though there is a beneficial psychological impact of knowing that the teacher is still in contact and regular face-to-face online discussions can enable this. There are other forms – a discussion thread which begins during a lesson and is open throughout can perform the same role, though in cases where meeting functions are available, students may be directed to use these rather than email.
As well as the teacher-student relationship, student-student links are important. There is evidence of improved learning when students are asked to share their learning experiences with each other.
Beale’s research summary also emphasizes the importance of a supportive and encouraging online environment. Distance learning is challenging for students and the experience can be frustrating and de-motivating if technology fails (e.g., if work gets lost or a live session cannot be joined due to a connection failure or time-zone difference). More than ever, teachers need to work at providing positive encouragement to their students, praising and rewarding success and acknowledging challenges when they exist. It is also valuable if teachers can identify new skills that students are acquiring – not least skills in problem-solving, using information technology and resilience – and encourage their classes when they see evidence of these.
3. Does online distance learning work better for some students?
Given that, more or less by definition, students participating in an online distance learning programme will be operating with a greater degree of autonomy, it may be expected that those who will be best suited to online learning will be those with the greatest propensity for self-regulated learning. This view is advanced in a review of the literature on virtual schools up until 2009, by Michael Barbour and Thomas Reeves:
The benefits associated with virtual schooling are expanding educational access, providing high-quality learning opportunities, improving student outcomes and skills, allowing for educational choice, and achieving administrative efficiency. However, the research to support these conjectures is limited at best. The challenges associated with virtual schooling include the conclusion that the only students typically successful in online learning environments are those who have independent orientations towards learning, highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills. These characteristics are typically associated with adult learners. This stems from the fact that research into and practice of distance education has typically been targeted to adult learners.
Given the lack of evidence noted by Barbour and Reeves, a more cautious conclusion would be that we may expect to find a relationship between outcomes from online distance learning programmes and the propensity of students for self-regulated learning, rather than the conclusion that this capacity is a precondition of success.
Kauffmann notes that students with the capacity for self-regulated learning tend to achieve better outcomes from online courses. This result is not surprising, given that in online learning more responsibility is placed on the learner.
A 2019 review of 35 studies into online learning by Jacqueline Wong et al explores the connection between online learning and self-regulated learning. The study highlights the significance of supports for self-regulated learning such as the use of prompts or feedback in promoting the development and deployment of strategies for self-regulated learning, leading to better achievement in online learning:
In online learning environments where the instructor presence is low, learners have to make the decisions regarding when to study or how to approach the study materials. Therefore, learners’ ability to self-regulate their own learning becomes a crucial factor in their learning success … [S]upporting self-regulated learning strategies can help learners become better at regulating their learning, which in turn could enhance their learning performance.
In a 2005 study of ‘Virtual High School’ (VHS), the oldest provider of distance learning courses to high school students in the United States, Susan Lowes notes that the VHS’s pedagogical approach ‘emphasizes student-centered teaching; collaborative, problem-based learning; small-group work; and authentic performance-based assessment’. This approach, Lowes comments, is aligned with a growing body of literature on the characteristics of successful online courses.
Taking a more student-centred approach during online instruction fits with features of the online environment. It is natural to make more use of asynchronous assignments and to expect students to take more responsibility for their study, given that they are not subject to direct supervision in a classroom setting and may be accessing course materials outside of a conventional timetable.
4. Can online distance learning support the development of self-regulated learning?
It may be the case that, even if Barbour and Reeves are correct in claiming that only those students with an ‘independent orientation towards learning’typically achieve successful outcomes from online distance learning programmes, a countervailing relationship obtains insofar as participation in an online distance learning programme may foster the development of the propensity for self-regulated learning.
A controlled study in 2018 by Ruchan Uz and Adem Uzun of 167 undergraduate students on a programming language course compared blended learning with a traditional learning environment. The study found that, for the purpose of developing self-regulated learning skills, blended instruction was more effective than traditional instruction.
In a 2011 review of 55 empirical studies, Matthew Bernacki, Anita Aguilar and James Byrnes noted that research suggests that:
[T]echnologically enhanced learning environments … represent an opportunity for students to build their ability to self-regulate, and for some, leverage their ability to apply self-regulated learning … to acquire knowledge.
Their review suggests that the use of technologically enhanced learning environments can promote self-regulated learning and that such environments are best used by learners who can self-regulate their learning.
However, an investigation by Peter Serdyukov and Robyn Hill into whether online students do learn independently argues that independent learning requires active promotion as well as a desire to promote autonomy on the part of the instructor and the necessary skills and motivation on the part of students. Where these conditions are not met, the aspiration to autonomy is frustrated, which can lead to negative outcomes from the online learning experience.
Bernacki, Aguilar and Brynes employed an Opportunity-Propensity (O-P) framework. The O-P framework was introduced by Brynes and Miller in a 2007 paper exploring the relative importance of predictors of math and science achievement, where it was described as follows:
This framework assumes that high achievement is a function of three categories of factors: (a) opportunity factors (e.g., coursework), (b) propensity factors (e.g., prerequisite skills, motivation), and (c) distal factors (e.g., SES).
It is plausible to suggest that the two-way relationship between self-regulated learning skills and successful participation in an online distance learning programme can be explained in terms of the opportunities online distance learning offers in three areas: first, to develop self-regulated learning skills afforded by the online distance learning environment; second, the prior propensity of learners to self-regulate their learning; and third, changes in distal factors (such as exclusive mediation of learning through online platforms to IT and parental involvement in learning).
Summary of Secondary Research Literature
The following points can be made about online distance learning based on the foregoing review:
- Successful online learning depends upon the formation of an online learning community. Regular online interaction between teachers and students is important in the development of an online community. Teacher-student and student-student links are part of this.
- Students with the capacity for self-regulated learning tend to achieve better outcomes from online courses.
- There is some evidence that online distance learning programmes can be used to help develop self-regulated learning skills. This is provided that both teacher and student are motivated by the goal of building autonomy.
- There is support in the research literature for using collaborative, problem-based learning and authentic performance-based assessment within online learning programmes.
Coda: review and revise
It is fair to say that the move to an entirely distance learning programme is the single biggest and most rapid change that many educators will ever have had to make. As with any large-scale rapid and fundamental innovation, it is hard to get everything right. We need to be willing to revise and refine. This may mean adapting to use a new software platform across the whole school if problems are found with existing provision, or it may be an adjustment to expectations about lesson length or frequency of feedback. Keeping distance learning programmes under review is also essential as we look towards a possible future in which it will co-exist with face-to-face teaching.
This literature review is an edited version of the literature review in my report, ‘An Investigation of Online Distance Learning at Cranleigh’, September 2020, which can be downloaded here. In that report, the literature review is used to establish several conclusions about the implementation of online learning programmes. Those findings are compared to trends discernible in the responses to a questionnaire survey of three year groups at Cranleigh School (years 9, 10 and 12). The programme of study for these year groups was designed to provide continuity of delivery of the curriculum, in contrast to the programmes developed for years 11 and 13, where a customised programme of study was developed to bridge the gap created by the withdrawal of national public examinations during the summer term of 2020.
 Joshua Stern, ‘Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning’.
 Fordham University, ‘Types of Online Learning’.
 Michael K. Barbour and Thomas C. Reeves, ‘The reality of virtual schools: A review of the literature’, Computers & Education 52.2 (2009), pp. 402-416.
 Maaike A. van Houten‐Schat et al, ‘Self‐regulated learning in the clinical context: a systematic review’, Medical Education 52.10 (2018), pp. 1008-1015.
 René F. Kizilcec, Mar Pérez-Sanagustín & Jorge J. Maldonado, ‘Self-regulated learning strategies predict learner behavior and goal attainment in Massive Open Online Courses’, Computers & education 104 (2017), pp. 18-33.
 Sofie M. M. Loyens, Joshua Magda and Remy M. J. P. Rikers, ‘Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning’, Educational Psychology Review 20.4 (2008), pp. 411-427.
 Paul VanPortfliet and Michael Anderson, ‘Moving from online to hybrid course delivery: Increasing positive student outcomes’, Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching 6.1 (2013), pp. 80-87.
 Cathy Cavanaugh et al, ‘The effects of distance education on K-12 student outcomes: A meta-analysis’, Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL), 2004.
 Heather Kauffman, ‘A review of predictive factors of student success in and satisfaction with online learning’, Research in Learning Technology 23 (2015).
 VanPortfliet & Anderson, op. cit., pp 82 – 83.
 Judith V. Boettcher & Rita-Marie Conrad, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (Second Edition; San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016).
 Ibid. Boettcher & Conrad’s chapter is reprinted with permission in this article, from which the quotation is taken.
 Joan Van Tassel & Joseph Schmitz, ‘Enhancing learning in the virtual classroom’, Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching 6.1 (2013), pp. 37-53.
 Michael K. Barbour & Thomas C. Reeves, ‘The reality of virtual schools: A review of the literature’, Computers & Education 52.2 (2009), pp. 402-416.
 Heather Kauffman, ‘A review of predictive factors of student success in and satisfaction with online learning’, Research in Learning Technology 23 (2015).
 Jacqueline Wong et al, ‘Supporting self-regulated learning in online learning environments and MOOCs: A systematic review’, International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction 35.4-5 (2019), pp. 356-373.
 Ruchan Uz & Adem Uzun, ‘The Influence of Blended Learning Environment on Self-Regulated and Self-Directed Learning Skills of Learners’, European Journal of Educational Research 7.4 (2018), pp. 877-886.
 Matthew L. Bernacki, Anita C. Aguilar & James P. Byrnes, ‘Self-regulated learning and technology-enhanced learning environments: An opportunity-propensity analysis’, Fostering self-regulated learning through ICT, IGI Global (2011), pp. 1-26.
 Peter Serdyukov & R. Hill, ‘Flying with clipped wings: Are students independent in online college classes’, Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching 6.1 (2013), pp. 52-65.
 James P. Byrnes & David C. Miller, ‘The relative importance of predictors of math and science achievement: An opportunity–propensity analysis’, Contemporary Educational Psychology 32.4 (2007), pp. 599-629.