The debate of online-vs-traditional learning is extremely relevant today. At a time when online learning is growing in maturity, this path superficially seems to offer a valid and flexible educational option for today’s learners. However, the question remains, which is more likely to result in learner attainment?
Critics of online learning propagate the notion that students receive an inferior educational experience in a distance-learning environment. Exploring the results across several comparative studies, I am concerned with what actually delivers better outcomes?
There is a wealth of data available on the subject. The data comes in the form of case studies, scholarly articles, annual reports, commissioned censuses and quantitative data directly from universities and higher education. For the purpose of this analysis, I plan to examine the latest evidence available from studies conducted in this area of education. I will reference content and findings that have that are deemed to be credible. The data must have been peer reviewed and come from a credible source that has not been directly funded a particular initiative.
Learners achieve better results through online learning:
eLearning has been revolutionizing education around the world. Not only does it have the potential to widen participation, but it always provides the facility to scale educational pathways in a cost effective way, and at a rapidly accelerated pace. In relation to learner attainment, what evidence exists to demonstrate the effectiveness of eLearning in comparison to face-to-face tuition?
In 2009, the US education department published a research study that measured student learning outcomes through both models of delivery. The study spanned from 1996 – 2008 and still remains the most comprehensive research of its type. The research identified more than a 1,000 empirical studies of online learning.
“Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size.” (Means, et al 2009)
As a result of this research, meta-analysis concluded that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction on the same course.” (Means, et al 2009). The rigor and sheer scale of this study support the notion that not only eLearning has the ability to be a credible option for learning, but it may also be a superior option for learners to choose.
eLearning is cheaper for students and institutions.
The cost of education inevitably comes into the equation of provision. From a student’s perspective, there has been a significant rise in tuition fees within recent years and all of the forecasts indicate that this will continue to increase.
The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills published a statement outlining plans to increase fees in order to provide better teaching. (Department for business, Skills and Innovation. May 2016). Fees within the UK are planned to increase by 2.8% (in line with inflation) meaning that students could soon expect tuition fees rising above £10,000. In contrast, the Fordham Institute has published a report outlining the saving that can be made through eLearning, to students and to institutions.
The comparisons looked at the cost of faculty, infrastructure, travel, accommodation and salary in a traditional education environment and compared them to the cost of design, implementation and maintenance costs related to eLearning.
Findings: The direct costs comparison of eLearning against the traditional model concluded that eLearning is roughly 32% cheaper to deliver. In turn the cost of access for the students can be significantly lower. (Butler, T el al 2011) Each year, Reddin conduct a comprehensive survey of UK universities and the tuition charged. In 2016/17 the cheapest postgraduate degree available in the UK was at Edinburgh Napier University, costing £3,400. In comparison, postgraduate degrees can complete online for significantly less, from as little as £1,500. There is a valid question of the quality and the prestige linked to the eLearning postgraduate degree, but from a financial standpoint the advantage is clear. Although a cost analysis is extremely difficult to calculate empirically because of the number of variables, the economy of scale supports the principle that significant economic efficiencies can be made for institutions and in turn savings can be passed on to students.
Blended learning achieves better outcomes compared to traditional learning:
Blended learning is the concept of classroom learning, with an online element embedded. It is often cited that blended or hybrid learning achieves the best outcomes when compared to traditional learning, but what evidence is there to support this claim?
In 2012, a comprehensive study was undertaken in the United States to determine how effective blended learning was in direct comparison to the traditional classroom environment.
The report looked in detail at 605 college students taking the same course, across six different universities in America.
The universities involved in the study:
- University of Albany
- Institute of Technology—Utica
- University of Maryland
- Baltimore County University
- Towson University
- Baruch College
The study measured the effect on learning outcomes by randomly assigning students across the six universities to take an identical course either by;
- A hybrid format (online, supported by one hour of face-to-face instruction per week).
- A traditional format (3-4 hours of face-to-face instruction each week).
The findings: The report concluded that students undertaking the blended learning course produce equivalent, or slightly better, results as opposed to students participating in traditional face-to-face education.
Researchers concluded that the students participating in the hybrid format did perform slightly better than traditional classroom students. The results were based on final exam scores and overall pass rates. This study gives credence to the theory that blended learning achieves better outcomes then the traditional classroom environment. Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials by William G. Bowen, Kelly A. Lack, Matthew Chingos, Thomas I. Nygren. 2012.
eLearning offers many advantages in direct comparison to traditional learning. The cost and quality can vary, however the pattern for successful learner attainment is clear. eLearning has matured past the stage of a novelty and is now a compelling option for learners for who want to save money, learn flexibly and study courses of specific interest regardless of their geographic location.