In 2008, the highly-regarded NSSE study conducted by Indiana University added a focus on online learning. Comparing first year and senior students in online and on ground classes, they found statistically significant differences between the two. They found that online learners reported more discussion, interaction, reflective thinking, and other indicators of successful collaboration. The complete report is linked the header (results on online learners are on pages 15 and 16).
The summary press release notes the results:
Other key findings from the 2008 survey are: Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.... When courses provided extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources, and they grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. These students also reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development. McCormick says the findings for online learners are intriguing. “Critics of distance education assume that face to face classes have inherent advantages as learning environments. But these results indicate that those who teach classes online may be making special efforts to engage their students. It may also be the case that online classes appeal to students who are more academically motivated and self-directed.”