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Research Review: Which Blended-Learning Software Actually Works?

Which blended-learning software programs improve student achievement?

It's a perennial question for educators and school district officials, who are under constant pressure to improve learning and boost scores, but must navigate an often-overwhelming marketplace of vendors making all manner of claims about their products.

To help, the Regional Education Laboratory Central (a contractor for the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the research agency for the federal education department) released late last month a summary of 17 of the highest-quality research studies of online and blended-learning software programs. The focus was on programs that a) require a teacher to be involved, either via face-to-face or online interactions, and b) can be used to customize content, difficulty, pacing and other factors in order to adjust to individual students' needs.

First, the REL researchers looked at the quality of the studies, as determined by whether they met the evidence standards established by the What Works Clearinghouse.

Then, the lab looked at whether the various programs were found to have statistically significant impacts on student achievement.

All told, the paper outlines what the research says about 14 online and blended learning programs. Here are some of the highlights.


Mostly positive:

  • Cognitive Tutor Algebra I: Studies from 2002, 2007 and 2014 all met the What Works Clearinghouse standards without reservation. All found significant positive effects on key student achievement measures: end-course-assessments and grades in the 2002 study; course grades in the 2007 study; and high-school math proficiency in the 2014 study. The 2014 study found no significant effects on students' confidence and attitudes about math, or on middle-school students' math achievement. The 2007 study found no significant effects on end-of-course exam scores. Cognitive Tutor Algebra I was also included in group studies in 2007 and 2009 (see below) and found to have no significant effects on student achievement.
  • READ 180:  A 2011 study found that use of this software program had significant positive effects on students' reading comprehension and vocabulary, but no significant effects on students' reading fluency and spelling. The study met WWC standards without reservation. READ 180 was also included in the 2007 and 2009 group studies described below. It was found to have no significant effects on student achievement.
  • LeapTrack: A 2007 study looked at multiple blended-learning software interventions, and a 2009 study followed-up with an examination of the same programs. Both met WWC standards without reservation. Of all the programs included in the 2007 group study, LeapTrack that was determined to have a positive effect on student Stanford Achievement Test scores. The 2009 follow-up study found no effect for any of the programs, including LeapTrack.  
  • Time to Know: A 2012 study found this program had a significant positive effect on 5th grade students' reading scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. That part of the study was determined to meet WWC standards, with some reservations. The study also found that Time to Know had positive effects on students' math scores, attendance, discipline, and motivation to learn, but the REL researchers determined those parts of the original study did not meet WWC design standards.

No evidence of impact:

  • Destination Reading, PLATO Focus, Waterford Early Reading: In both the 2007 and 2009 group studies, these three programs were not found to have any significant effect on student achievement.

The negative:

  • Cognitive Tutor Geometry: A 2010 study found significant negative effects of this blended-learning software program on students' end-of-course assessment grades, and no effects on students' math confidence and attitudes. The study met WWC standards without reservation.

A number of other studies found evidence of positive impacts for other programs, but were determined by the REL researchers not to meet WWC design standards.

The REL researchers also looked at two correlational studies examining the impact of student-teacher interaction on student achievement in full-time online schools.

One of those studies, published in 2013, found a significant positive correlation between the frequency and quality of contact between teachers and students on students' grades and course completion rates. The study said the keys to effective teacher-student contact were academic feedback, information on courses, and interpersonal support.

The other study, however, was less clear. Published in 2012, it found a significant positive relationship between the number of comments a teacher provided to Algebra I students and those students' scores on an end-of-course assessment. The opposite was true for Algebra 2.

"Educators may use the findings to consider individual online or blended learning programs for which there is evidence of influencing student achievement," the REL researchers concluded. "The findings might also inform educators' decision-making about online and blended learning programs."


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