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Exploring the Evidence on Virtual and Blended Learning

Exploring the Evidence on Virtual and Blended Learning

Chelsea Farley (2020)

The Research Alliance has developed an overview of research and practical guidance on strategies to implement remote teaching and learning, as well as strategies that combine virtual and in-class instruction. While not a complete summary of the relevant literature, our overview provides links to a variety of useful articles, resources, and reports. We hope this material can inform school and district leaders’ planning and support their ongoing assessment of what has and has not been effective, for whom, and under what conditions.

Key Takeaways from the Research Alliance’s Review

  • Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still an enormous need for data and evidence to understand how the school closures that took place in NYC and around the country—and how the various approaches to reopening—have affected students’ academic, social/emotional, and health outcomes. New research is needed to inform critical policy and practice decisions. (Below we highlight specific kinds of data that would help answer the most pressing questions.)
  • Past research about online learning is limited and mostly focused on post-secondary and adult education. The studies that do exist in K-12 education find that students participating in online learning generally perform similarly to or worse than peers who have access to traditional face-to-face instruction (with programs that are 100% online faring worse than blended learning approaches). It is important to note that this research typically compares online learning with regular classroom instruction—rather than comparing it to no instruction at all—and that these studies took place under dramatically different conditions than those resulting from COVID-19.
  • Studies of blended learning, personalized learning, and specific technology-based tools and programs provide hints about successful approaches, but also underscore substantial “fuzziness” around the definition of these terms; major challenges to high-quality implementation; and a lack of rigorous impact research.
  • One of the resources we found most helpful is this Rapid Evidence Assessment from the Education Endowment Foundation (April 2020). The authors provide a summary of policy and practice implications from more than 60 studies of remote and blended learning, computer-supported collaborative learning, computer-assisted instruction, and educational games. These include:
    • Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered (e.g., “clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback”);
    • Ensuring access to technology is key, particularly for disadvantaged students and families;
    • Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes (e.g., “peer marking and feedback, sharing models of good work,” and opportunities for collaboration and live discussions of content);
    • Supporting students to work independently can improve learning outcomes (e.g., “prompting pupils to reflect on their work or to consider the strategies they will use if they get stuck”, checklists or daily plans); and
    • Different approaches to remote learning suit different tasks and types of content.


Our overview highlights these and other lessons from dozens of relevant studies. It also underscores the need for more rigorous evidence about the implementation and impact of different approaches to remote and blended learning, particularly in the context of the current pandemic. To begin to fill these knowledge gaps, the Research Alliance strongly encourages schools and districts—including the NYC Department of Education—to collect, analyze, and share data about:

  • COVID-19 testing results,
  • Professional development aimed at helping teachers implement remote and blended learning,
  • Students’ attendance and engagement (online and in person),
  • Students’ social and emotional wellbeing,
  • Students’ and families’ experiences with remote and blended instruction,
  • Teachers’ experiences with remote and blended instruction, and—critically—
  • What students are learning, over time.

All of this should be done with an eye toward pre-existing inequalities—especially differences related to race/ethnicity, poverty, home language, and disability. These data are crucial for understanding how COVID-19 has affected the educational trajectories of different groups of students and for developing strong policy and practice responses. 

Read our full overview here. This document was initially released in May and updated in November of 2020.