February 13, 2018
Online lessons can enhance students’ understanding of science and help underachieving students close the gap with their peers, according to a new study.
Students who took web-based units made significantly more progress than those who relied on textbooks, while the improvement was particularly marked for students with lower prior achievement.
The results suggest that online learning can be an effective classroom tool, especially for students who have struggled to engage with traditional lessons.
Online education’s reputation has been something of a mixed bag over its relatively short life. While it has made learning more accessible to millions, low levels of engagement and high drop-out rates among adult learners means it has struggled to prove its worth.
But the results of a three-year study of more than 2,300 middle school students in two U.S. states suggest it should have a place in our classrooms.
Researchers tested four interactive online science units in a randomized control trial in 13 middle schools in Oregon and Georgia, with students tested before and after the trial.
While some students took the online units, others were taught using traditional methods, including the use of textbooks.
The online modules were based around lessons and activities but also incorporated interactive features, including educational games, virtual experiments and collaborating with classmates, as well as videos.
The content was supported by features including text-to-speech, so the students could hear the text read aloud, pop-up definitions, interactive diagrams and captioned videos.
The study, published this week in the International Journal of Science Education, found that test scores rose for all students, but by significantly more among students who had taken the online modules.
Students who had taken the online units improved their test scores by an average of 16.7%, compared with 5.7% among those who had studied using traditional methods.
The effect was particularly significant among students who had learning difficulties. Although their scores were lower overall, those using the online materials saw them improve by 18%, closing the gap with their peers.
Students with English as a second language using the online units improved their test scores by an average of 15%.
‘These significant findings demonstrate that the online curriculum was effective in improving science knowledge for students who struggle with science,’ said Dr. Fatima Terrazas Arellanes, of the University of Oregon, lead author of the study.
‘Well-designed instructional technology really works to lessen the science literacy gap among diverse groups of learners. Technology offers an engaging and motivating environment for learning, and we are just beginning to understand how we can use it effectively to support students with learning disabilities and English language learners.’
There are some caveats, however. The online materials required more input from the teacher, which could limit their use in the classroom. Their success may also owe as much, if not more, to their design, as to being an online resource.
But while online learning may not be ready to replace textbooks, the study does suggest that it can be an important part of a teacher’s armory, and that it may be particularly effective for students with learning difficulties.
‘Our work adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that instructional technology has a place in the classrooms of today and tomorrow - and especially for science and especially for students with learning disabilities,’ said Dr. Terrazas Arellanes.
‘We have shown that these tools are not only effective, but can be easily integrated.’