This is the second of five posts on choosing appropriate modes of delivery, part of Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first looked at the wide range of options now available to instructors, from face-to-face teaching to blended to fully online. This post looks at what we know both from best practices and research about the pedagogical differences, and suggests that no one mode of delivery is inherently better than another. What we need to know are the conditions or circumstances that are needed for the mode to succeed.
Many surveys have found that a majority of faculty still believe that online learning or distance education is inevitably inferior in quality to classroom teaching. In fact, there is no scientifically-based evidence to support this opinion. At the same time, although the technology keeps changing, we can learn a great deal from earlier developments in distance education. Fully online learning is, after all, just another version of distance education.
The influence of distance education on online learning
A great deal has been written about distance education (see, for instance, Wedemeyer, 1981; Keegan, 1990; Holmberg, 1995; Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Peters, 2002; Bates, 2005; Evans et al., 2008) but in concept, the idea is quite simple: students study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. However, students are usually ‘connected’, usually today through the Internet, with an instructor, adjunct faculty or tutor who provides learner support and student assessment. (For another definition of distance education – especially relevant to economically developing countries – see Commonwealth of Learning.)
Distance education has been around a very long time. It could be argued that in the Christian religion, St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was an early form of distance education (53-57 AD). The first distance education degree was offered by correspondence by the University of London (UK) in 1858. Students were mailed a list of readings, and took the same examination as the regular on-campus students. If students could afford it, they hired a private tutor, but the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens called it the People’s University, because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. The program still continues to this day, but is now called the University of London International Programmes, with more than 50,000 students worldwide. (As an aside, the University of London was primarily established in 1838 to set a common examination system between its different colleges, thus separating teaching and assessment – perhaps the earliest example of ‘disaggregation’ in education.)
In North America, historically many of the initial land-grant universities, such as Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of New Mexico in the USA, and Memorial University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia in Canada, had state- or province-wide responsibilities, As a result these institutions have a long history of offering distance education programs, mainly as continuing education for farmers, teachers, and health professionals scattered across the whole state or province. These programs have now been expanded to cover undergraduate and professional masters students. Australia is another country with an extensive history of both k-12 and post-secondary distance education.
Qualifications received from most of these universities carry the same recognition as degrees taken on campus. For instance, the University of British Columbia, which has been offering distance education programs since 1936, makes no distinction on student transcripts between courses taken at a distance and those taken on campus, as both kinds of students take the same examinations.
Another feature of distance education, pioneered by the British Open University in the 1970s, but later adopted and adapted by North American universities that offered distance programs, is a course design process, based on the ADDIE model, but specially adapted to serve students learning at a distance. This places a heavy emphasis on defined learning outcomes, production of high quality multimedia learning materials, planned student activities and engagement, and strong learner support, even at a distance. As a result, universities that offered distance education programs were well placed for the move into online learning in the 1990s. These universities have found that in general, students taking the online programs do almost as well as the on-campus students (course completion rates are usually within 5-10 per cent of the on-campus students – see Ontario, 2011), which is a little surprising as the distance students often have full-time jobs and families.
It is important to acknowledge the long and distinguished pedigree of distance education from internationally recognised, high quality institutions, because commercial diploma mills, especially in the USA, have given distance education an unjustified reputation of being of lower quality. As with all teaching, distance education can be done well or badly. However, where distance education has been professionally designed and delivered by high quality public institutions, it has proved to be very successful, meeting the needs of many working adults, students in remote areas who would otherwise be unable to access education on a full-time basis, or on-campus students wanting to fit in an extra course or with part-time jobs whose schedule clashes with their lecture schedule. However, universities, colleges and even schools have been able to do this only by meeting high quality design standards.
At the same time, there has also been a small but very influential number of campus-based teachers and instructors who quite independently of distance education have been developing best practices in online or computer-supported learning. These include Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff who were experimenting with online or blended learning as early as the late 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Marlene Scardamalia and Paul Bereiter at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, and Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University, who all focused particularly on online collaborative learning and knowledge construction within a campus or school environment.
There is also plenty of evidence that teachers and instructors in many schools, colleges and universities new to online learning have not adopted these best practices, instead merely transferring lecture-based classroom practice to blended and online learning, often with poor or even disastrous results.
What the research tells us
There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education. With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies, that is, studies that have combined the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, i.e. studies that used the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the teaching methods, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:
In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.
Means et al. attributed the slightly better performance of blended learning to students spending more time on task. This highlights a common finding, that where differences have been found, they are often attributed to factors other than the mode of delivery. Tamim et al. (2011) identified ‘well-conducted’ comparative studies covering 40 years of research. Tamim et al. found there is a slight tendency for students who study with technology to do better than students who study without technology. However, the measured difference was quite weak, and the authors state:
it is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention.’
Research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. Indeed, it is the variables we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:
What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?
In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:
What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively?
Fortunately, there is a great deal of research and best practice that provides guidance on that question, at least with respect to blended and online learning (see, for instance, Anderson, 2008; Picciano et al., 2013; Halverson et al., 2013; Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014.) Ironically, we shall see that what we lack is good research on the unique potential of face-to-face teaching in a digital age when so much can also be done just as well online.
Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching
Although there has been a great deal of mainly inconclusive research comparing online learning with face-to-face teaching in terms of student learning, there is very little evidence or even theory to guide decisions about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face in a blended learning context, and or about the circumstances when fully online learning is in fact a better option than classroom teaching. Generally the assumption appears to have been that face-to-face teaching is the default option by virtue of its superiority, and online learning is used only when circumstances prevent the use of face-to-face teaching, such as when students cannot get to the campus, or when classes are so large that interaction with students is at a minimum.
However, online learning has now become so prevalent and effective in so many contexts that it is time to ask:
what are the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching that make it pedagogically different from online learning?
It is possible of course that there is nothing pedagogically unique about face-to-face teaching, but given the rhetoric around ‘the magic of the campus’ (Sharma, 2013) and the hugely expensive fees associated with elite campus-based teaching, or indeed the high cost of publicly funded campus-based education, it is about time that we had some evidence-based theory about what makes face-to-face teaching so special.
As someone who has devoted a great deal of his working life in distance education and online learning, I am probably not the best person to make this particular argument, and indeed the following is based mainly on the known limitations of online learning rather than the strengths of face-to-face teaching. I therefore throw open the challenge to all those who are passionate about the benefits of face-to-face teaching to help me out with the following sections.
For once, I am going to ask you to hold your comments (unless you are particularly incensed about something in the post) until you see the following posts.
The next post in the series is the first of three in which I propose a method of deciding between modes of delivery, based on student needs, pedagogical differences and the resources available. In the next post I will argue that student characteristics are the most important criterion for deciding on mode of delivery.
Anderson, A. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press
Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge
Evans, T., Haughey, M. and Murphy, D. (2008) International Handbook of Distance Education Bingley UK: Emerald Publishing
Halverson, L. R., Graham, C. R., Spring, K. J., & Drysdale, J. S. (2012). ‘An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning’ Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3
Keegan, D. (ed.) (1990) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education London/New York: Routledge
Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education
Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (1996) Distance Education: A Systems View Belmont CA: Wadsworth
Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities
Peters, O. (2002) Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges Oldenberg FGR: Biblothecks und Informationssystemder Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenberg
Picciano, A., Dziuban, C. and & Graham, C. (eds.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2. New York: Routledge, 2013
Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage
Sharma, S. (2013) The Magic of the Campus Boston MA: LINC 2013 conference (recorded presentation)
Tamim, R. et al. (2011) ‘What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 81, No. 1
Wedemeyer, C. (1981) Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-traditional Learning in the Lifespan Madison: University of Wisconsin Press
Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508