Exploring the Evidence on Virtual and Blended Learning

Chelsea Farley (2020)

The Research Alliance has developed an overview of research and practical guidance on strategies to implement remote teaching and learning, as well as strategies that combine virtual learning with in-class instruction. This evolving document includes links to a variety of resources and reports on specific strategies and programs. It is important to recognize that this summary is not a complete review of the research literature on the full range of remote and blended learning strategies. It is intended as a work in progress to help inform planning and the assessment of what has worked, what has not worked, for whom, and under what conditions. This document may also inform decisions about how best to organize blended instruction in the event that NYC schools need to phase in the reopening of physical classrooms in 2020-2021. 

Key Takeaways from the Research Alliance’s Review

  • There is limited research about online learning, and it is mostly focused on post-secondary and adult education.
  • The few studies that do exist in K-12 education find that students participating in online learning generally perform similarly to or worse than peers who have access to traditional face-to-face instruction (with programs that are 100% online faring worse than blended learning approaches). It is important to note that this research compares online learning with regular classroom instruction—rather than comparing it to no instruction at all.
  • Studies of blended learning, personalized learning, and specific technology-based tools and programs provide hints about successful approaches, but also underscore substantial “fuzziness” around the definition of these terms; major challenges to high-quality implementation; and a lack of rigorous impact research.
  • One of the resources we found most useful is this Rapid Evidence Assessment from the Education Endowment Foundation (April 2020). The authors provide a summary of policy and practice implications from more than 60 studies of remote and blended learning, computer-supported collaborative learning, computer-assisted instruction, and educational games. These include:
    • Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered (e.g., “clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback”);
    • Ensuring access to technology is key, particularly for disadvantaged students and families;
    • Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes (e.g., “peer marking and feedback, sharing models of good work,” and opportunities for collaboration and live discussions of content);
    • Supporting students to work independently can improve learning outcomes (e.g., “prompting pupils to reflect on their work or to consider the strategies they will use if they get stuck”, providing checklists or daily plans); and
    • Different approaches to remote learning suit different tasks and types of content.

Our overview highlights these and other lessons from dozens of relevant studies. It also underscores the need for more rigorous evidence about the implementation and impact of different approaches to remote and blended learning.

Key Questions for Future Work

There are a number of pressing questions that the Research Alliance is eager to examine in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education and other partners, including:

  • Are there particular trainings or other types of support for teachers that have facilitated a smoother transition to remote learning?
  • What practices, structures, or strategies are schools and teachers using to overcome challenges associated with remote learning?
  • Which students and schools have lost the most ground relative to their recent academic trajectories?
  • What conditions and practices are associated with greater learning gains (or less learning loss) during remote instruction?
  • To what extent have non-core academics been included in remote learning? Was greater "coverage" of subjects associated with any differences in student engagement or achievement?
  • Was the use of particular online learning tools associated with better outcomes for different kinds of students?

View our full overview here.