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Is online learning effective?

As more higher-education courses find their way to digital-only platforms, it's essential to look at the efficacy of online learning and if these courses are successful in educating students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has mostly uprooted normal life as we know it, inflicting economic hardship, social isolation, and unrelenting anxiety about health across the globe. In an attempt to mitigate the spread of infection, the majority of public facilities have been temporarily closed, including our academic institutions.

This has led to rapid and critical reliance on digital platforms for delivering online education to students as a means of avoiding significant and prolonged disruptions to their learning.

The essential shift from the lecture hall to an online platform has accelerated the transformation of medical and health education. A variety of certificate courses and even advanced post-graduate degrees can now be pursued from the comfort of home and at the convenience of one’s schedule. But has this change been of benefit or detriment to the learning outcomes of students? And are these online education programs worth the credits and credentials earned from them?

Online vs Offline Learning

These questions are not new. In fact, the efficacy of online learning (or automated, digital-based learning) has been a topic of research since the advent of computers. Even as early as 1994, there have been questions raised about the flawed approach and methodology into the effects of “computer-assisted learning” (Sinclair et al., 2015).

Comparison between e-learning and traditional teaching methods are illogical and methodologically flawed because comparison groups are heterogeneous, lack uniformity and have multiple confounders that cannot be adjusted for. [1]

In an open-access article, the authors Pei, L., et al. (2019) published a systematic review and meta-analysis that compared the quality of online learning versus “offline” learning for undergraduate medical students. The researchers analyzed data from 16 studies, focusing primarily on undergraduates’ knowledge and skills outcomes, concluding:

Although not all of the included research studies reported that using online learning methods in medical education was more effective than offline learning, none of the included studies concluded that online learning was less effective than offline methods... [2]

These findings are important because there are obvious advantages to online learning beyond achieving learning outcomes, including less cost and easier access, especially for working students. If research can conclude that the desired learning outcomes of online and offline courses are - in the very least - equal, there should be a greater presence of online learning in traditional medical and health education.

Effects on Student Engagement

The teacher’s comfort and confidence in the efficacy of online education cannot be overlooked. The class learning outcomes sets the target goals for the course, but oftentimes the student-teacher and peer-peer interactions enrich the curriculum beyond standardized learning objectives. The classroom provides a safe and dynamic forum for exploring one’s own understanding of a subject. In class, the students are able to practice wielding their knowledge and respond to rebuttals in healthy, energizing, and well-controlled debate. Do students receive the same level of engagement and experience through the online setting?

Several studies have looked at the level of student engagement and learning outcomes as part of assessing online learning programs. Chen, P. et al. (2010) published an article in the journal Computers & Education, which used a National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to explore “the impact of Web-based learning technology on student engagement and self-reported learning outcomes in face-to-face and online learning environments”.

Not only do students who utilize the Web and Internet technologies in their learning tend to score higher in the traditional student engagement measures...they also are more likely to make use of deep approaches of learning like higher order thinking, reflective learning, and integrative learning in their study and they reported higher gains in general education, practical competence, and personal and social development. [3]

The conclusions drawn by Professor Chen and his team echo the same findings reported in previous studies; online learning is effective for achieving meaningful learning outcomes and may provide additional benefits to students, especially when combined with traditional offline learning environments.

The great news is that online-based education seems to be an acceptable way of delivering knowledge to students that is on par with the traditional learning environment. Student engagement in web-based learning is fostered through innovative technology and interactive course design, which may promote growth in areas outside of learning outcomes, such as “practical competence, and personal and social development” (Chen, P. et al. 2010). It’s safe to assume that online learning will continue to grow and expand into all sectors of education. Even in the absence of a pandemic, I believe this evolving pathway of education is for the betterment of the academic community.



  1. Sinclair, P., et al. (2015). The effectiveness of internet-based e-learning on clinician behavior and patient outcomes: a systematic review protocol. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, 13(1), 52–64.

  2. Pei, L., & Wu, H. (2019). Does online learning work better than offline learning in undergraduate medical education? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Education Online, 24(1), 1666538. doi:10.1080/10872981.2019.1666538

  3. Chen, P. et al (2010). Engaging online learners: The impact of Web-based learning technology on college student engagement. Computers & Education, 54(4), 1222–1232. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.11.008


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