Online and blended learning are “often more effective than traditional instruction”, a review of over 1,500 studies has found.
The review – carried out by academics at the University of Dundee and a Glasgow-based psychologist – found that digital learning led to worse outcomes than classroom-based teaching in just 2 per cent of studies, prompting the authors to note: “This is clearly a major finding, indicating that digital technology is almost always superior to traditional instruction”.
However, one of the researchers – Professor Keith Topping – is warning that the approach to blended learning many Scottish councils plan to take in the event of another coronavirus spike “would not work”.
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Professor Topping told Tes Scotland that blended learning was effective when pupils were required to work from home for “pretty small chunks” of time, as opposed to “big slabs of half a week”.
Many Scottish council plans for blended learning at primary-level – which are now back-up plans in the event of further coronavirus spikes – involve pupils being in two days a week on either a Monday and a Tuesday or a Thursday and a Friday, with Wednesday set aside cleaning the school.
Professor Topping said: “Online and blended learning had very positive results; only 2 per cent of papers found that it was worse than traditional [entirely school-based] instruction.
“Working from home in the morning and going to school in the afternoon is the most sensible way of doing it because then the children can absorb the information in the morning and discussion and consolidation can take place in the afternoon.”
He added: “I would not go to a blended learning model of two days on, two days off. It would not work.
“Two days is a long time for kids to be sitting at home, out of school, trying to absorb learning via videos and other online activities. They would not have the retention to have all that still in their heads when they came to school to discuss and consolidate it.
“What you want is a situation where you have blended or online learning in the morning and then school in the afternoon. Or if you want to push it you could have your home learning in the afternoon and consolidate it the next morning in school.”
Professor Topping said he and his colleagues had undertaken the review amid fears that the online and blended learning deployed during the pandemic risked being lost, as schools grappled with the full time return of pupils.
They were also driven by a desire, he said, to support schools to plan for the future, when further spikes in coronavirus cases could impact on attendance.
The review encompassed 1,540 studies that examined online and blended learning; educational games, computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL) and computer-assisted instruction (CAI), which all have the potential to be used outside school.
Overall, 61 per cent of studies found digital technology better than traditional instruction, while 7 per cent found it the same. Only 2 per cent found digital technology worse than traditional instruction. For the remaining studies, the outcome was unclear, or no conclusion was reached.
The researchers found that in terms of school sectors, primary performed best. Next came secondary – with similar outcomes for preschool children. The researchers noted this was “a very interesting outcome for this group, who might not have been expected to be highly responsive to digital technology”.
They found that a wide range of subjects were delivered using digital technology – “not only reading, maths and science/Stem, but also English, writing, English as a foreign language, critical thinking, humanities, art and music, and health”.
Girls, the review found, did better than boys at digital learning. It also said that positive effects were “more marked” for low ability students and that disadvantaged and rural students showed positive results “where access to digital technology is arranged”.
The review said: “For teachers, the message is that digital technology is not just for the average or above-average student in a normal educational situation.”
The review acknowledged, however, that one barrier to blended learning was “the child-minding function of school”.
It said: “While we have found that online and blended learning are effective, and often more effective than traditional instruction, both of them beg the question of degree of parental or other carer supervision at home.”
The researchers also noted that “publication bias” – which can skew results because studies with positive findings are more likely to be published – could be an issue. However, Professor Topping told Tes Scotland the overall picture was “so overwhelmingly positive” that this was less of a concern.