Friday, August 21, 2009

Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom

A recent 93-page report on online education, conducted by SRI International for the Department of Education concluded that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The report actually reviewed quantitative studies conducted from 1996-2008 that compared online and f2f versions of the same courses. On average, those in the f2f courses scored in the 50 percentile while those in the online versions scored in the 59th. It is a modest but significant difference. The report validates online learning as a viable alternative, which could significantly impact in transforming the educational experience.

What I found interesting in the comments that followed was that several people commented that instead of showing causation, the study actually shows correlation. The population of people taking course online tend to be a self-selected group. They are often older, more motivated individuals. They tend have greater access to technology in order to participate in online learning. What no one brought up was retention rates for f2f vs online. How many students started out in an online class but dropped? Those that continued and finished the class would definitely be the more motivated, independent learners.

Another trend in the conversation related to how we learn--whether independently or in community. Several comments reflected the idea that community could not be adequately created online. Although I agree that it is more difficult because of the distance and lack of body language cues, I disagree that online learners have to forgo community. I think the growth of social networks such as Facebook and Nings or even Yahoo and Google Groups shows that the Internet can actually bring people together.

In order to create an online learning community, however, takes forethought and facilitation. It should be a primary goal of the course. All too often students report that they feel isolated from their peers and colleagues, that they crave the human interaction. That's what discussion boards, chat sessions, video conferencing, group projects are for. As the article points out, "Until fairly recently, online education amounted to little more than electronic versions of the old-line correspondence courses. That has really changed with arrival of Web-based video, instant messaging and collaboration tools." If we are to truly transform education, then we need to look at how technology affords us (and our students) to do things we were not previously able to do/see/hear.

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