image from here.
As college students, many of us spend at least 15 hours a week sitting in a classroom. Our course loads are dominated by in class lectures and outside readings, following the traditional learning module. The working definition of this learning philosophy is:
“Teacher-centered delivery of instruction to classes of students who are the receivers of information.”
Education Advocate Julie Hudson argues, “Unlike alternatives to the usual public school model, traditional schooling means that state-approved standards in all the curricular areas will be covered.”
However, a study by the SRI International, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, calls into question the effectiveness of traditional learning versus online learning. The study came to a jaw-dropping conclusion: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
I spent 12 years in public schools, and am currently continuing my education in a traditional learning setting here at Penn State, and was shocked by this finding. Would I be smarter and perform better if I spent my time learning on a computer instead of in a classroom?
Let’s dissect this study:
- It collected data from 1996 to 2008.
- The SRI looked at 99 studies where there was quantitative data comparing online and traditional learning performance in courses.
- The study looked at learners of all ages; including grades K-12, college students, and education programs for adults.
- Statistically speaking, the study found “students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile.”
“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author, in an article with the New York Times.
Since this research was observational, there are countless reasons that could explain this conclusion other than online learning is flat out better than traditional learning.
The causality here is that online learning yields better results than traditional learning. However, reverse causality has not been ruled out. What if the students taking online classes are smarter than their traditional counterparts, and thus do better? There is no way to prove this through experimental manipulation because this research was based on data from 99 different observational studies.
However, the fact the study looked at 99 different observational studies and concluded the same findings across the board, means it is highly unlikely these results are due to chance.
All in all, this research is not to be discounted. The 9 percent difference between online and traditional learners in similar courses is a statistically profound finding. A subsequent experiment should look to delve into why this is the case, to determine if it is how the students are learning that is creating this achievement gap.