Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Which is better for student learning, Distance or Face-to-Face?

So which form of learning is better for student learning? Distance or face to face? The answer may surprise you. In study after study, researchers have found that there is no significant difference between learning in a face-to-face environment and learning in a distance learning environment. In fact, so many research studies have supported this result, that it has been dubbed the “no significant difference phenomenon (Russell, 2001, 2009).” Russell (2009) has even compiled a list of over 350 no significant difference phenomenon studies that show that students learn the about same amount in a distance learning experience as they do in a face-to-face learning experience. This post is an excerpt from my textbook: Educational Technology for Teachers.

So what’s going on here? Why doesn't the amount that students learn differ between a face-to-face class and the same class delivered from a distance? Educational technology experts suggest that it is not the media or delivery method that makes the difference for learning, instead it is the learning method used that makes the difference (Clark, 1994). In the no significant difference phenomenon studies, the learning methods are the same in the face-to-face and distance classes that are compared – despite the different media or delivery method – therefore, the learning is also the same.

Some more information about the no significant difference phenomenon studies is relevant for K-12 teaching and learning. Most of these studies have compared university level learning experiences and not K-12 online learning. Therefore, the no significant difference phenomenon may not apply as directly to K-12 education. Also, when a study is set up to compare a face-to-face class to an online one, great care is taken to make sure the online course is of a high quality and has all of the necessary learning components. However, not all online courses are set up with this high level of care.

So, a course taught from a distance results in equivalent learning outcomes as the same course taught face-to-face. Is this outcome different from what you expected? If so, comment with your own opinions about the differences between face to face and distance learning. 

Russell, T. L. (2001). The no significant difference phenomenon: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education: as reported in 355 research reports, summaries and papers. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.

Russell, T. L. (2009). No significant difference phenomenon. Retrieved August 12, 2009, from http://www.nosignificantdifference.org/

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21–29.

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