Press release

Review shows benefits of online and blended learning

Published on 11 September 2020

Girls perform better than boys and “low ability” children make the biggest achievement gains when taught using online and blended learning techniques, according to research led by the University of Dundee.

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Girls perform better than boys and “low ability” children make the biggest achievement gains when taught using online and blended learning techniques, according to research led by the University of Dundee.

Online learning became commonplace during lockdown and will play an increasing role in curricula in future as teachers seek to harness digital technology to deliver an efficient and effective 21st century education for pupils and students.

Professor Keith Topping, from the University’s School of Education and Social Work, led a review of research looking at online and blended learning undertaken from schools. The review also investigated Educational Games, Computer Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL) and Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), all of which have the potential to be used outside school.

They discovered that the majority of studies carried out in this area found blended and online learning better than traditional instruction. Educational games and CAI were also shown to be very effective and, while these are not yet widely used outside school, they could be made available for this purpose.

Blended and online learning were shown to have positive effects on performance when compared to traditional classroom teaching at both primary and secondary schools. Science and Maths were the most popular subjects, but positive results were shown across a wide range of other subject areas, including reading and writing, critical thinking, art and music, and health.

Professor Topping said there is a clear need for schools to pursue alternative methods of teaching such as these post-pandemic rather than merely reverting to traditional forms of teaching.

“This review is particularly relevant at a time when schools have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to implement some of these measures due to pupils being unable to attend in person,” he said. “The past six months have been hugely disruptive for the education of children but it would be a mistake to pivot back to the status quo without pausing to consider what benefits online and blended learning can bring in the long run.”

Co-author Dr Walter Douglas, of The Kelvin Centre in Glasgow, said, “Girls generally do better with online and blended learning, suggesting that the presumed greater competence of boys at information technology is a myth.”

Professor Topping and his colleagues searched eight separate research databases for studies related to digital learning in schools. They analysed 1540 studies from all over the world, and found that CAI performed the best of all five categories, with Blended Learning and Games next equal. Online and CSCL were joint bottom but fewer papers had looked at these categories than the others. Overall, 72% of studies found that some form of digital technology performed better than traditional instruction.

Educational games and computer-supported collaborative learning were also shown to have benefits that merit further investigation.

One of the biggest concerns about learning during lockdown was that it would create a digital divide between those with access to technology and those without, exacerbating an existing attainment gap along socio-economic lines.

The scoping review found that the positive effects of online and blended learning were more marked for students of low ability, but that this depended on equipment support. If disadvantaged students have no access to equipment at home it may be that they need to access it in school, but not in class.

“Disadvantaged and rural students show positive results where access to digital technology is made readily available,” continued Professor Topping. “Low ability children were found in several studies to respond to digital technology more positively than average children.

“There was also a number of positive studies of digital technology for children in the early years or at nursery or playgroup, as well as those with very various special needs, such as Autism or Downs Syndrome. A wide range of students from ethnic minorities also show positive results.”

Professor Topping and his colleagues will continue to work with the findings from these studies in order to develop recommendations for effective online/blended learning practice.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research