Does online learning research have to be new to be useful?

A new report from the National Education Policy Center reviews the Harvard study of Florida Virtual School outcomes that we discussed in an earlier blog post. The press release headline summarizes its conclusion: “Online Education Report Offers Little New or Useful.” I found the headline to be as interesting as the rest of the report, because the headline reflects a flaw in the way that some researchers think about the impact of research on policy and practice.

Academic researchers base their careers on creating and publishing new knowledge. With few exceptions, study findings must be new to be valuable. Research begins with an exhaustive literature review, to ensure that new studies build on and do not replicate existing knowledge, except in the cases where a study is explicitly meant to test existing data or ideas. Indeed, research that attempts to confirm or refute existing studies tends to get much less attention than the original research, even if the new study rebuts previous findings.

Most of the personal and professional accolades that researchers strive for are based on finding new knowledge. Nobody in research-based institutions (e.g. R1 universities) builds a career on publicizing or confirming existing knowledge. Indeed, findings that may be presented in a new way or to a new audience are often dismissed as not being “new,” even if the original knowledge may have been known to only a tiny sliver of academics and few others. Hence the assumption behind the headlines: the findings aren’t new, and therefore they are not useful.

But this view is research-centric and does not reflect the way that much of policy and practice operates. Policymakers and practitioners tend to hear about new studies because of media reports (directly or via colleagues, re-posts, and similar), not because they are perusing academic journals. Media outlets, however, rarely run a story about a study that is several years old, even if the findings still hold true. And in my experience most people have a bias towards information that has been published recently. A study from 2014 is valued more highly than one from 2009, and in a rapidly changing field such as digital learning the period for which studies are considered relevant tends to be short. Therefore a study that explores the outcomes and benefits of online courses is valuable to policymakers and practitioners, whether or not it is entirely new.

The concluding sentence of the report summary states “Given the limitations of research such as this new study, researchers have moved beyond simply investigating whether one medium is better than the other and begun—and need to continue—investigating under what conditions K-12 online and blended learning can be effectively designed, delivered, and supported.” I agree with that statement—but neither the statement nor the NEPC report refute the value of the Harvard study for policy and practice.