The study was conducted by SRI International and delivered a conclusion that startled many: "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."
Online learning is springing up in multiple ways and places, from continuing education courses and interactive foreign language classes to entire university curricula like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 1900-course MIT OpenCourseWare initiative.
The SRI researchers initially identified more than 1,000 empirical studies on online learning and then whittled that number down to 51 independent studies that offered a way to measure online and classroom learning methods.
The MIT program, which is free, gives no course credit or diplomas, prompting MIT officials to conclude that the courses attract students who are chiefly interested in learning. It has also helped create a worldwide network of similar programs.
The most visited MIT courses tend to be in science and technology, as befits a university with "Technology" in its name. The most visited courses ranges includes Physics I, Computer Science and Engineering, Introduction to C++, and Electricity and Magnetism.
The SRI study found that, on average, online students would rank in the 59th percentile of all college students, while average classroom students would be in the 50th percentile.
"The study's major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing -- it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction," Barbara Means, the lead author of the study, told The New York Times.
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