Monday, September 28, 2009

Distance Learning Beats The Classroom

Distance education has been a legitimate educational offering for over 150 years. For almost that long researchers have been conducting studies to determine whether distance education-in its many forms-is as good as "live" classroom learning. The results of these studies have often revealed that distance education offerings can be just as effective in terms of the desired learning outcomes. Over the years, researchers have coined the phrase, "no significant difference," to characterize the results of these studies. Thomas L. Russel has even written a book about it and compiled a list of these studies on his website,

Of course, for those of us who have completed Distance Ed courses, or (like me) studied the field, the results of these studies are not surprising. In May of this year, the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis that concluded NOT that online learning is just as good as classroom-based education but in many cases, actually better.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you can just slap anything up on the web and expect better results than the classroom. However, U. S. Department of Education review of studies describes several revelations that might help course developers improve their online offerings. Donald Clark on his blog Plan B extracts a few highlights of the report that should help you gain some insight for developing your next online offering.

Online better than face-to-face

“The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving traditional face-to-face instruction.”

Jury out on blended

“Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.

Online and on-task

“Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning.”

Online is all good

“Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly.”

Blended no better than online

Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes.”

Let learners learn

“Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.”

Online good for everyone

“The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.”

Get them doing things

“Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.”

Groups not way forward

“Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners.”

An interesting little observation, tucked away in the conclusions is, “one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face”. In other words it’s better at getting learners to continue learning after the event. What more can you ask for?

Of course, I recommend that you read (at least scan) the 93 page report and draw your own conclusions about developing online courses.