Girls outperform boys in online or blended learning, according to study

Research from the University of Dundee found that, overall, blended learning often yields better results than face-to-face instruction

Girls generally outperform boys and ‘low ability’ students when taught via online or blended methods, a new study by the University of Dundee has revealed.

With digital teaching and learning techniques carrying the sector through a period of significant disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, sector professionals are increasingly embracing education technology to deliver an applicable digital education that is relevant to a connected world.

Led by Professor Keith Topping of Dundee’s School of Education and Social Work, the research review examined the online and blended learning measures implemented by the UK schools sector. The review also covered the impact of educational games, Computer Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL) and Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) – all of which have the potential to be used outside of the school environment.

Researchers confirmed that the majority of studies conducted in this area found online or blended learning to be more effective than traditional instruction. Educational games were also very effective and, while these are not yet used to a great extent outside of the classroom, they can easily be made more available in this context.

Online or blended teaching and learning were shown to be more impactful at both primary and secondary level. While science and maths were the most popular subjects to engage with in this way, positive trends were evident across a variety of disciplines – including reading and writing, critical thinking, the arts, and health.

“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” – Professor Keith Topping

Professor Topping said the results emphasise the need for schools to adopt alternative teaching methods post-pandemic, and warned against the danger of reverting back to more traditional forms of education delivery.

“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 explained. “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 of the study, Dr Walter Douglas of the Kelvin Centre in Glasgow, commented: “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 team scoured eight different research databases for studies relating to digital learning in schools. After delving into 1,540 global research projects, they found that CAI performed the best in all five categories, with blended learning and games coming next to equal. Online and CSCL were joint bottom, but fewer papers had tackled these subjects in comparison to others. Overall, 72% of studies confirmed that some form of digital technology performed better than traditional instruction.

Despite this, the digital divide remains a concern across the education sector, with many worrying that the increasing pervasiveness of technology will exacerbate existing attainment gaps along socio-economic lines.

Dundee’s review found that, while the positive effects of online and blended learning were more significant among ‘lower ability’ students, this really was dependent on access to equipment and devices. If disadvantaged students lacked access to technology at home, it may be that they need access to it in school, but not in class.

“Disadvantaged and rural students show positive results where access to digital technology is made readily available,” added Topping. “Low ability children were found in several studies to respond to digital technology more favourably 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 Down’s syndrome. A wide range of students from ethnic minorities also show promising results.”

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