Setting the Record Straight (about Academic Achievement in Online Courses)

Setting the Record Straight (about Academic Achievement in Online Courses)

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

If you’ve been in online education for any length of time, you probably have had, as I have, some head-scratching conversations over the years. A question I’m often asked — and one of my favorites — is, “How do those online courses work, anyway?” After sharing brief descriptions of what a learning management system is, the difference between synchronous and asynchronous delivery, online discussion forums, and Web collaboration tools, I’m sometimes left feeling as though I’ve just tried to explain the Pythagorean Theorem to my three-year-old nephew.

Then, usually after a long and awkward silence, the person I’m conversing with will follow up with, “Well, those online courses certainly can’t be as good as regular face-to-face courses, can they?”

I suspect that question is intended to be rhetorical in nature. Nevertheless, I seize the opportunity and the conversation continues!

I’ve had versions of this conversation with faculty, students, staff, administrators, friends, neighbors and my own children. In all honesty, I welcome and enjoy having these discussions and usually see them as a way to promote online education and inform others — those who don’t live in “our world” — about the legitimacy of online courses and degree programs.

Correspondence courses–where students were sent textbooks and other course materials through the mail and returned assignments, papers, and exams the same way–were first offered in the early 1900s. Correspondence courses were followed by a variety of distance delivery methods including radio, television, videos, video conferencing, and more recently, online education.

No significant difference
Almost as soon as distance-education courses were introduced, people wanted to know if they were as effective as face-to-face courses, which were (and are) thought by many to be the gold standard for instruction. One of the first large-scale attempts to summarize the studies comparing the efficacy of distance courses and face-to-face courses was a book by Thomas Russell titled The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education (2001, IDECC, fifth edition).

Russell references 355 research studies, sometimes referred to as media comparison studies, that examine outcomes in courses with alternative delivery modes. He concluded that the vast majority of studies showed no difference in student outcomes based on how a course is delivered. Thus the “No Significant Difference Phenomenon,” sometimes referred to as NSDP, was born.

Today, there is also a “No Significant Difference” companion website — www.nosignificantdifference.org — administrated by WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. The website continues to list and summarize studies on this topic that have been conducted since Russell’s book was published.

In June 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released the document “Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” This meta-analysis was conducted on studies published between 1996 and 2008, and the authors concluded that “… learning outcomes for students in purely online conditions and those for students in purely face-to-face conditions were statistically equivalent.” Interestingly, the authors did report improved learning outcomes for courses that combine online and face-to-face (blended) instruction.

Another large meta-analysis, titled “The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature” by Barbara Means and colleagues, was published in March 2013 in the journal Teachers College Record. After initially identifying over 1,000 studies, the authors applied strict inclusion criteria (e.g., studies that used a control group, studies that analyzed learning outcomes) and based their meta-analysis on 176 high-quality published studies. The authors concluded that “… purely online learning has been equivalent to face-to-face instruction in effectiveness.”

Having read countless articles comparing academic outcomes from online and face-to-face courses, and having conducted studies in my own classrooms, I firmly believe that online courses are as effective as face-to-face courses. However, a more important question we, as online administrators, maybe should be asking is, “What should we be doing with this information?”

Spreading the word (or trying to)
Early in my tenure as the director of online education at my institution, I used to carry some of these research articles around with me and would share them with instructors or administrators who felt strongly that online courses were inferior to face-to-face courses. I learned this approach from my best friend in graduate school, who was a chiropractor. It turned out not to be a super-effective strategy. (I don’t think it worked very well for him either.)

Another strategy I tried years ago that turned out to be equally ineffective was to send an email to every instructor on campus, whether they taught online or not, with new research results and or literature reviews that concluded online education was as effective as, and sometimes even more effective than, face-to-face teaching. I would usually get a few obligatory “Thanks for sharing this resource” replies, but I would also get a large number of responses questioning the results or pointing out the limitations of the study (something the authors of the studies usually did themselves). I stopped doing that as well.

Better approaches
I keep some of these studies and meta-analyses on hand to share with faculty I feel might have genuine interest in them. Often this occurs during one-on-one consultations with a faculty member who expresses interest and sometimes brings up the topic of the efficacy of online learning. I also, at times, use workshops I facilitate through our Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning to share comparative research that has been conducted.

A strategy you might consider for sharing this type of information is to create a “resources” link on your main online education website. This area could include insights about best practices in online teaching, how to effectively use technology in online courses, myths and misconceptions about online teaching, and the efficacy of online courses. These types of dissemination strategies are a bit more passive in nature, but I’ve found that faculty and administrators are sometimes more open to resources when shared in a way they don’t consider pushy or in-your-face.

There is a large body of literature available confirming the efficacy of online teaching. If you haven’t been doing so, I’d encourage you to start disseminating and sharing that information with instructors and administrators on your campus.