As online courses continue to gain in popularity at colleges and universities throughout the country, knowledge about the effectiveness of this mode of instruction, relative to that of traditional, face-to-face courses, becomes increasingly important. A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education provides a meta-analysis of studies published up to 2008, examining the relative effectiveness of the different delivery formats in helping various populations of students learn different types of course content. This Ithaka S+R literature review complements that effort. It examines several studies that are not included in the DOE report, focusing on research that compares online or hybrid learning to face-to-face instruction in the context of semester-length, undergraduate-level, credit-bearing courses.

The review yields little evidence to support broad claims that online or hybrid learning is significantly more effective or significantly less effective than courses taught in a face-to-face format, while also highlighting the need for further studies on this topic. The value of research of this kind will only grow as even more sophisticated, interactive online systems continue to be developed, and as the current budgetary constraints and enrollment pressures on postsecondary institutions strengthen the case for improving productivity.