Online works at least as well as a traditional classroom when studied in adult and professional learning contexts. The efficacy in K-12 isn’t in question–it does work, students do learn–but the effectiveness has yet to be properly ascertained. These are the conclusions of a meta-analysis published by the Department of Education (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). The report pursues implications for K-12 education, but I think these ‘findings’ are not much more than suggestions for further research. However, it is possible for K-12 educators to introduce more blended learning (or fully online) as deemed appropriate by teacher experience in a given grade level.
The reason I am hesitant to extrapolate the report’s conclusions to K-12 is based on learner capabilities. Of the one hundred or so studies that fit the criteria for meta-analysis, ninety-seven were in adult and/or professional education settings, such as military and health professional development. The motivations for these learners is surely different from those in compulsory schooling. While many school-aged kids are quite capable of learning online, others lack the desire, ability, or support to succeed in an online learning environment. Additionally, digital learning requires a slightly different skill set than does traditional classroom learning. A simple coin flip would reveal much about the benefits for ‘classroom’ management: some students will benefit from fewer social distractions, others will become distracted by other technologies (social media and the like) or household conditions. Thus, it is once again down to the old teaching maxim of ‘know thy audience’ and implement digital tools accordingly.
Lastly, since humans are social beings and much of learning has a social aspect, I am still waiting for reliable methods for fostering beneficial student interactions. As Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) prominently noted long ago, good teaching involves building cooperation and interpersonal, reciprocative learning among students and teaching with new technologies is no different. I suspect the ultimate solution to developing consistently helpful methods of socialized learning is in another principle of good practice: respect for diverse ways of learning. In short, variety of student interaction should be the order of the day.