Cyberlearning no replacement for the human touch, studies show

Online learning is growing in high schools at nearly breakneck speed. In “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models,” Heather Staker of the Innosight Institute observes from 2000 to 2010 online learning grew from approximately 45,000 students taking at least one online course to more than 4 million.

These computerized courses give students opportunities to make up for classes they’ve failed or take courses, such as Advanced Placement classes, schools may not be able to offer. However, it is evident that online learning works best when a teacher is available in a classroom or computer lab to assist students with their work.

A recent article in EdSource cites a study by Fresno (CA) Unified School District that concludes students are more successful in online courses if they work at school with a teacher present to answer questions or provide guidance, rather than work independently from home.

Fresno began its online learning program in 2010. Students wanting to take online courses were free to work from home. Perhaps it’s not surprising that only 23 percent successfully finished their courses. The district then became more selective about which students would be allowed to enroll in online courses and work from home. When only students who had demonstrated a high level of responsibility and good attendance were allowed to take online courses from home, the pass rate increased to 43 percent.

Finally, Fresno school leaders adopted a policy this summer that required more classroom time for students taking online courses. Online students had to go to school for 5 ½ hours each day during summer break for 11 days, working in a computer lab with an teacher. They also could work from home after school. This time, 95 percent received at least a C.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. One released in 2010 that tracked community colleges in Washington State over a five-year period concluded students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from traditional courses taught face-to-face. Another study at a Texas community college found 60 percent of students enrolled in online developmental education courses failed.

However, a report by the U.S. Department of Education concludes not enough research has been conducted to compare the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K–12 students. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning also concludes instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.

Staker’s paper describes blended learning as combining online courses with traditional bricks-and-mortar classes. “Educators and entrepreneurs are increasingly creating blended-learning environments—where rather than doing online learning at a distance, students learn in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time,” she wrote. “A small but growing number of schools are starting to introduce blended learning into their core programming for mainstream students.”

Clearly, online learning is an important component to enhance student learning opportunities, and it is likely we will continue to see a high growth rate in the number of students enrolled in these computer-based courses. However, allowing students to work from home without supervision of a certified teacher may create an impenetrable roadblock to student success.


U.S Department of Education. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning. (September 2010) Accessed at

Staker, Heather. The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models. Innosight. (May 2011) Accessed at

Frey, Sue. “Students need supervision to make online learning work.” EdSource Extra. (September 19, 2011). Accessed at