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Online learning: Are we asking the right questions?

  • 13 May 2020
  • By Rachel Ambler, Gervas Huxley and Mike Peacey

This blog was kindly contributed by Rachel Ambler, an independent researcher, Gervas Huxley, Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, and Mike Peacey, Senior Lecturer at the New College of the Humanities.

Without warning, and almost overnight, the higher education sector has embarked on a whole-scale experiment in online learning. There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for both students and teaching staff, but what can the academic literature tell us about online learning?

In this review of the literature, we define online learning as ‘a learner’s interaction with content and/or people via the Internet for the purpose of learning’. For example, students interact by watching a pre-recorded lecture online (interaction with content) or participating in an online discussion group (interaction with people). An important distinction that the literature makes is between synchronous and asynchronous learning – whether student and teacher are online at the same time. A Zoom meeting is ‘synchronous’ whereas an instructor-moderated Facebook discussion is ‘asynchronous’.

Universities were early adopters of the internet for research and this has trickled down into teaching. For the past two decades, teaching resources have slowly migrated online, initially for administrative purposes. Reading lists and lecture handouts, that once were given out in lectures, are now accessed via a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The phrase ‘blended learning’ is used in situations where learning takes place both online and in the classroom. The timeline below shows the adoption of online learning.

More recently, the technology to provide synchronous online communication has become accessible to almost all academics. The current pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of these technologies for teaching. The closure of university campuses has left lecturers with no choice but to experiment with 100 per cent online learning. We believe that when universities re-open, increased use of online learning will be the new normal.

Until now, the resource-allocation decision has been primarily about contact hours, class size, and the provision of physical learning space. Online or blended learning adds another layer of decision-making:

  • synchronous (same time, different place); and
  • asynchronous (different time, different place).

When traditional classes and lectures are replaced with synchronous, online learning, staff time constraints remain, but physical space constraints disappear.

There is a small but growing empirical literature that compares learning gain between traditional and online learning. In an ideal world, there would be a host of studies comparing classroom-based learning with synchronous online learning, with students randomised to one or other environment. Unfortunately, few such studies exist and the literature does not always distinguish between different kinds of online learning. Researchers are still at an early stage in answering the fundamental question: if a student learns online, will their learning gain be better or worse than if they had learnt in a classroom?

If you read the Times Higher Education (THE) or The Times at the beginning of April this year, you might think that this question had been answered. In coverage of a newly published paper, the THE declared ‘online is fine’ and The Times reported ‘Online university as good as the real thing’. Headlines of this kind risk over-interpreting the results of one small study, as this blog explains.

In a random controlled trial in 2013, Figlio et al. divided Economics students into two groups – one group attended a lecture whilst the other group watched a recording of the same lecture online. The live-lecture attendees performed better in their exams than their online-only counterparts. This was a small study, with only 312 observations. A larger but non-randomised study (2.3 million observations), published in the American Economic Review in 2017, found similar results. At a large not-for-profit university in the US, students chose to take courses either online or face-to-face, with two-thirds of all courses being taken online. Bettinger et al. found that, on average, students taking a course in person received a B- while their online peers achieved a C.

The recently published paper by Chirikov et al. which received the favourable press coverage, finds no difference in exam performance between online, blended and in-person instruction, although students are less satisfied with their courses. The authors argue that resource-constrained universities could save money by outsourcing their lecturing to highly-ranked institutions. To test this theory, academics from top Russian universities recorded Engineering lectures and 325 students were randomly assigned to one of three groups. An online group was taught wholly online with access to the recorded lectures but no discussion groups. A blended group accessed the online lecture and attended a discussion group at their home university. A traditional group attended a live lecture and discussion group, both at their home university. There were minimal differences between final exam scores across all three groups.

The blended learning results from this paper follow the trend of previous research. Other papers had also found no difference in outcomes between traditional and blended learning. In 2016, Alpert et al. randomised Economics students to classroom, blended and online learning groups. The classroom group attended a weekly discussion group and a weekly lecture. The blended group attended a weekly discussion group and watched a lecture online. The online group accessed an asynchronous discussion group via Facebook and watched a lecture online. The same instructor taught all formats. Exam results were worse for the online group but there was little difference in results between the blended and classroom group.

The following table shows the differences between these four studies. Across the rows, coloured cells indicate where class, instructor or resources are the same between learning formats. As an example, in the first paper the orange cells show that the same instructor taught both live and recorded lectures. Comparing the colour patterns between the papers, demonstrates some of the difficulties of interpreting the literature – each paper compares something different.

In addition to learning gains, some of the online learning papers use dropout as a measure of outcomes, asking: Are online students more or less likely to finish their course than classroom-based learners? Within the distance education community, nearly everyone agrees that online learning increases dropout rates. Bernard states ‘we already know that dropout in … courses is higher than in classroom settings’. Bettinger et al. find ‘evidence that taking a course online instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college’. This is particularly worrying as university students who leave a course in term three still have to pay back all of the tuition fee loan for that year.

One difficulty with interpreting the literature is that most of the studies look at asynchronous learning. It is assumed that online-only students either never interact with their teachers or only interact via online asynchronous discussion boards. This excludes any online replication of face-to-face learning, such as the video-conferencing that students are now experiencing. Choosing when to deliver asynchronous or synchronous online learning is the single most important online learning decision for universities. We urgently need more evidence of the impact of synchronous online learning on outcomes.

In most of the studies, the way that learning is blended is for small groups to learn face-to-face, with lectures online. The implicit assumption is that, for larger groups, student-teacher interaction matters less. Therefore a lecture is more suited to an asynchronous online format than a discussion group. If social distancing continues, it may not be possible for large lecture halls to re-open. But academics will be able to take advantage of available recording technology, albeit in an empty lecture hall. Lectures could then be uploaded, providing asynchronous online learning. This would benefit students in different time zones.

This is just one example of the many opportunities to experiment with (and gather data about) blended learning. For blended learning, the decision is more complicated than the former staff time allocation choice. Now we must choose the best bundle of face-to-face, online, synchronous and asynchronous learning. That bundle may look very different from the current synchronous learning moved online experience.

Universities could use sophisticated interactive learning platforms, especially for Mathematical subjects for question and answer practice. We will always need teachers face-to-face in small groups and ideally in an actual classroom. But universities collaborate with each other daily on research. Why don’t they collaborate more on teaching? Why don’t universities share their best lectures (particularly for more generic first- and second-year courses)?

New technology is usually first used to do what has always been done. In the race to get teaching online, there has not been time for innovation or implementation of interactive online learning. Practice needs to keep up with current advances in technology. Students are digital natives, already skilled in online communication.

Asking the question ‘If a student learns online, will their learning gain be better or worse than if they had learnt in a classroom?’, at a time when universities have no choice but to teach online, may be opening Pandora’s box but higher education classrooms will not be closed forever. 100 per cent online learning will end. Social distancing will do what inertia has prevented – shift higher education learning into a blended format. We need more evidence than we currently have of the benefits of online and blended learning. The research needs to catch up with the technology and to study synchronous online learning in more depth. We believe that there will always be a role for synchronous learning, we also believe in the disruptive potential of high-quality asynchronous lectures delivered by world class teachers.


  1. Cath Brown says:

    I find it rather depressing that so many of these studies looked at comparisons with “watching a lecture online” – in other words, setting up online as a poor relation of face to face, adapted from it, rather than a thing in itself.

    ( I don’t understand the primacy given to the lecture format. It was a pretty rubbish way of learning when I did my conventional university degree anyway.)

    By all means compare distance (which doesn’t have to be online), face to face, blended etc. But compare good, designed examples of each – or you’re stuck in a deficit model.

  2. Annie Grant says:

    I am concerned by the lack of attention that has been given in many of the discussion of on-line learning to the impact on those with diverse learning styles. These include neurodivergent students, including those with Autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc, and also those with some physical and mental health difficulties. For some, there may be advantages, but for others significant disadvantages, including the peer support that can be vital for many. Specialist learning advisory staff will also have to reconsider and revaluate the advice they offer to students in respect of this very different learning environment.

  3. John Mullen says:

    I know this may be new to many, but I have been teaching online at 4 Universities (some consecutive, some concurrent) for over 10 years. And it works.

  4. Cath Brown says:

    The suggestion that peer support is unavailable in online learning is just plain wrong.

    The peer support most Open University students get, for example, is tremendous.

    I do wish people wouldn’t conflate the unfortunate practices probably inevitable in “rushed through in a pandemic” online with remote learning done well.

  5. Jacqueline says:

    the Way that this article uses the literature is problematic , the potential for confounding variables to skew the results renders much of the comparison invalid. I am surprised that you haven’t drawn on any recent literature in the field of online learning which adopts a more granular approach to the myriad facets of online learning and teaching . It also considers the skills and attributes on online teachers , a facet that this piece seems to entirely negate. It also overlooks the fact that the biggest university in the UK has an impressive track record in the field of online learning .
    The over focus the lecture is particularly problematic : as are the accompanying comparisons. For some time now , we have understood that this form of learning , unless used in tandem with active/ constructivist forms of activity , fails on many levels . There appears , in your article to be an a priori assumption that the lecture is king ?

  6. Cath’s and Jacqueline’s comments say it all.

  7. Rory McGreal says:

    The definition of online learning is mistaken: “In this review of the literature, we define online learning as ‘a learner’s interaction with content and/or people via the Internet for the purpose of learning’.”
    THAT is NOT a definition of learning. Interaction is one way of achieving learning. It is not the learning. The learning is made up of the knowledge, skills, competencies etc. that is acheived by the student due to interaction and other means.

  8. Rachel Ambler says:

    Our blog was an attempt to summarise the recent quantitative research that has been undertaken. We agree that we did not discuss every aspect of online learning. In a blog of 2000 words, this is not possible. We deliberately chose peer-reviewed papers that attempt to account for confounding variables – either avoiding this problem by randomisation or controlling for it with statistical techniques.

    We share the frustration that the result is a literature that is worryingly lecture specific but this is not because the authors favour the lecture format. Empirical work of this kind is constrained by the available data and current teaching practice. In the UK, lectures are almost always taught in tandem with small group classes. This is not the case in the US (3 out of the 4 studies are US based). With UK universities announcing online-only lectures for the upcoming academic year, it will be interesting to see what innovations emerge.

  9. Just to be clear: UK Universities did not announce “online-only lectures for the upcoming academic year”. Some UK universities announced that some or all of their teaching (not necessarily ‘lectures’) would be conducted online during at least part of next academic year. In that context, I agree that it’ll be interesting to see what other innovations emerge.

  10. Rachel Ambler says:

    We agree that students with diverse learning styles, and their specific needs, are often too small a part of the discussion and that it is important that online learning is accessible.

  11. “Learning styles”? Not really – one of the fallacies that have been debunked.

    Here are a few references – there are many more:

    How to respond to learning style believers:

    The learning styles debate:

    What’s your preferred learning style?:

    Tesia Marshik:

    Learning styles: time to move on (Frank Coffield at the IoE has published extensively on the subject):

  12. Rachel Ambler says:

    I was referring to Annie Grant’s comment, above, so echoed her phrasing. Students with Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mental health difficulties and some physical health difficulties do have specific needs.

  13. Certainly not so-called “learning styles” then.

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