Is there are Significant Difference in Student Outcomes Between Online and Face-To-Face Learning?

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Many potential online learners wonder whether or not there is a significant difference between online learning and traditional, on-campus learning. Much research has been conducted on this topic and while some of that research is contradictory, some of the larger, more conclusive studies have shown that the difference between online and traditional learning is minimal if at all. Furthermore, some recent studies have shown that students earning a degree in an online format may have a slight advantage over traditional degree earners.

The No Significant Difference Phenomenon

Dr. Thomas Russell conducted one of the most widely cited studies on this topic. His longitudinal research regarding distance learning spanned back as far as 1928. He looked at learning outcomes of both distance education students and traditional students. According to his book, “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education” (IDECC), his research found that “an overwhelming number of studies showed that when the course materials and teaching methodology were held constant, there were no significant differences (NSD) between student outcomes in a distance delivery course as compared to a face to face course”. Thus, coining the term “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon”.

Advantages of a Traditional Learning Environment

Some critics of this research argue that some measures of learning cannot be fully assessed in these longitudinal studies. These critics argue that the benefits of face-to face interactions with faculty members are seen in long-term learning outcomes. Other benefits of a traditional learning environment are institutional resources such as libraries, athletic opportunities, face-to-face academic advising, student clubs and other facility based advantages.

Advantages of an Online Learning Environment

In June 2009, the United States Department of Education released the report: “Evaluation of Evidence=Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”. This study longitudinally reviewed over one thousand empirical studies of online and distance learning environments. The report states: “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” This means that when a large body of evidence is reviewed, students completing their education online have a slight edge over students in a traditional setting.

While the topic of which learning environment provides the best student outcome is still contested by both sides, an important factor that must be considered is student preference. Each student must weigh the learning style that is right for him or her. While one student may thrive in an online learning environment, another student may need to rigidity of a traditional classroom setting. While some students can be self-motivated enough to stay on top of course work, others may need direct interaction with their instructor to do so. It is impossible to make a broad statement about which is better for all students as the needs of each student vary greatly. What is clear is that those students who choose to obtain their degree online; there is no significant difference in the education, and curriculum or student outcomes they will receive.

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