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The FE Blog
News and views from the Microsoft UK Education Team
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September, 2009

  • FE blog

    Online learning is better than face-to-face learning?


    The US Department of Education sponsored the Center for Technology in Learning to look into the effectiveness of online learning – and to specifically compare the effectiveness of using online learning compared to face to face learning. The results, published in May, are on the www.ed.gov website, for all to see.

    What I’ve seen of the reporting seems to take the simple line that “online learning is better than face-to-face learning”. Hmmm, having read more than the first highlighted sentence in the abstract, I think there’s a lot more to it!

    The inescapable conclusion is that with students changing, and their lives changing, methods of supporting online and blended learning are not only more convenient for many different types of students, but also more effective at ensuring that the student achieves the required learning outcomes.

    What the researchers did

    The researchers looked at 1,000 pieces of research, over the last 12 years, of online learning. After throwing out those pieces that didn’t compare online and face-to-face learning, or didn’t measure the impact on student learning, or didn’t take a rigorous approach to the research, they were left with 51 pieces of research – which is a large enough group to make effective comparisons.

    Then they crunched all the conclusions together from all of the reports, to arrive at an overarching conclusion – answering the question “What do we know about the effectiveness of online learning compared to conventional, face-to-face learning?

    The headline conclusions

    The simple conclusion was:


    students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction Endquotes

    Which is the bit that has been reported widely.

    But read on a little further, and the report went on to say:


    The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes…was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-faceEndquotes

    Which is saying that a combination of online and face-to-face learning (ie blended learning) is more effective than online learning alone.

    Although there are some provisos around this finding – eg theories that blended learning often includes additional learning time and additional face-to-face learning not included in standard courses – it is still significant.

    Key Findings

    Further in (starting on page xiv, if you’re following along) are some key findings that are good summary conclusions:

    • Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction
      This conclusion speaks for itself
    • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction
      Which may result from the approach a teacher takes – do they feel more engaged too, when the learning is mixed?
    • Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning
      I’d suspect this is a factor of students being able to each learn at their own pace, and pause or repeat sections of their learning – something that’s all but impossible in face-to-face learning.
    • Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly
      I suspect that if we had the data for all e-learning in UK universities we’d see something similar – that the biggest difference in learning outcomes is achieved by a decision to support blended online learning effectively, however that happens. The two factors that did make a difference were the use of blended learning (as opposed to online only) and the amount of time students spent on task.
    • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types
      Although, because the schools research sample was so small, there are few strong conclusions for school-age learning specifically.
    • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online and face-to-face conditions varied in terms of curriculum materials and aspects of instructional approach in addition to the medium of instruction
      ie don’t just put your existing course materials onto a website – you need to plan to deliver your course differently

    Although this report was produced in the US, for the US education system, the conclusions are relevant to the UK. Whatever your strategy is to support e-learning within your college, could this report provide some compelling support to help you to work with less IT-friendly academics, and to get more support from the leadership team in making the right resource and budget investments for the future?

    You can read the full 93-pages of the report on the US Department of Education website

    It’s also interesting to read the Comments debate on the New York Times website, which started when it reported the findings.

  • FE blog

    Improving student services, and saving money - How Brockenhurst College did it


    I hope that you’ve already heard about the Live@edu service, which provides a free, hosted email service for your students, based on Exchange 2010. It allows you to provide each learner with a free 10GB inbox as well as an additional 25GB of online storage space. Over the last couple of years, 10% of UK colleges have implemented it, along with a large number of universities.

    One of the challenges for colleges is to provide an effective communication method to all of their students without breaking the bank – as an example, Brockenhurst have 3,000 sixth form students, and 9,000 adult learners to provide a service for. The end result is that either the service is limited (eg very small mailboxes) or expensive to run – which means that in many cases students either don’t have, or don’t use, a college email account.

    What Brockenhurst have seen is that student use of their email service has gone from almost none to over 70% of students using it with anytime, anywhere access. And the college and students benefit from the wider collaboration that has resulted from the service.

    Robin Gadd, who’s the college Head of Information and Systems Development, put it bluntly:


    Providing technology that reflects what students use socially increases their perception of the college as a modern educational institution. Endquotes

    You can read the full case study on our worldwide case studies website

    You may also appreciate reading what the University of Aberdeen have done too

  • FE blog

    How fast can Windows 7 go


    Earlier last week PC Pro ran an article stating that Windows 7 is “already used on 1% of PCs”. This was lifted from some Internet metrics measured by NetApplications. It’s easy to do – each time you visit a website, your browser tells the website what version it is, and what operating system it is running on.

    image Given the buzz this summer about Windows 7, I thought I’d have a quick look at the stats for this blog. And the answer surprised me. (Or at least it did once I’d learned from Wikipedia that Windows 7 reports itself as Windows NT 6.1)

    What this table shows is the last 2,000 visitors to the blog – and 1 in 8 are running Windows 7!

    Now I reckon that this is partly because the readers are more technical, and there’s been quite a buzz about Windows 7 – and lots of early deployments in education. Given that there have already been half a dozen schools who’ve told me they’ve already rolled out Windows 7 to all their desktops, and plenty of early adopters in colleges and universities, perhaps Windows 7 is going to overtake even Windows 95 in it’s speed of adoption.

    I was genuinely surprised at what I saw. Are you?

  • FE blog

    Windows 7 meeting for early adopters on 7 October



    Mike Herrity, at Twynham School, is hosting a meeting for schools and colleges who have adopted Windows 7, to allow early adopters to share their experiences, and the lessons that have been learnt over the last 5 weeks since it was released for Volume Licence customers.

    Instead of having to head down to the south coast, I’ve offered to provide a meeting room here in Reading, at the Microsoft Campus, on Wednesday 7th October.

    There’s space for 20 people available, so if you’d like to attend, zip over to Mike’s excellent blog, or just drop Mike an email. He’s managing the attendee list, I’m just providing the room and the free lunch!

    If you have started deploying Windows 7, this is going to be a valuable day, and I am pretty sure it will save you more than a day of your time in learning from other people’s experiences.

    However, if you haven’t started deploying Windows 7 yet, then Mike will be aiming to write up lessons from the day to share with others, so keep an eye on this blog later for when it’s published.

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