Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Online Learning the Same as Face-to-Face Learning?

Image by photosteve101 [CC BY 2.0]
I have been talking quite a lot lately with colleagues about online learning, and the benefits and challenges of teaching courses online. It seems that the question inevitably comes up whether online courses are "the same" as face-to-face courses. I find that such an interesting question! I think for my colleagues who have never taken an online course, it may be hard for them to imagine what the learning is like, because if the course is offered in a format they have not personally experienced in their formal education, they might be suspicious of its value. I wonder if there is a fear of the unknown that causes some to mistrust online learning in general?

The thing is, not all online courses are created equal. (But then again, not all face-to-face courses are created equal either.) I am convinced that there are ways we can structure online courses to make them robust, engaging, productive learning experiences for our students.

I have been facilitating a blended-format workshop (part of our work is online, part of it is face-to-face) for groups of my colleagues who want to learn more about teaching online or blended courses. I've really enjoyed this, and it's definitely a research interest for me: I have taught online, and I want to continue to get better at it. And, as I learn more and gain expertise in this area, I want to share the things I'm learning about pedagogy in the online classroom with others!

So it's in this light that a colleague whom I consider a good friend (though we don't always see eye-to-eye on everything) recently shared an article with me; it's a piece from Clemson University that reports that students in face-to-face courses perceive they have learned more than students in online courses. I find that a pretty fascinating outcome! My friend who shared the piece with me was raising the question of whether this is what I'm doing when working with colleagues to prepare for teaching online.

I was thankful that he opened the door for this conversation. Here was my response:

That’s an interesting piece--thanks for sharing it. I strongly agree that teaching online isn’t exactly the same as teaching face-to-face. Some of the “moves” we might use in a face-to-face course just don’t work all that well in the online environment. Actually, some of the moves I use teaching online don’t work well in a face-to-face environment either. :-)

I find it interesting that the study was on the students’ self-reported perceptions of learning. (The first line of the piece, emphasis mine: "Students taking traditional, in-class science courses reported higher perceived learning gains than students enrolled in online distance education science courses.”) There has been a boatload of research done on mediated learning--and every learning environment is mediated in some way, even face-to-face instruction--over the past 50 years, and almost without fail, the result is “no significant difference” in the amount of content students learn. The research indicates that the amount of learning is the same no matter the media used for instruction; the research base includes a variety of face-to-face instructional methods as well as television, audio, and online methods. (One resource worth checking out is http://www.nosignificantdifference.org which catalogs research into media comparison studies—both those showing no significant difference as well as those demonstrating a significant difference. Also worth reading is Richard E. Clark’s research into media comparison which goes back into the late 70’s/early 80’s, long before the rise of web-based courses we wrestle with today, and continues through the present.)

Now, that’s not to say that the experience of learning through these various media is the same. It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that the students’ self-perceived experience in face-to-face vs. online courses is different. Having taken courses in both of these formats, I can say with certainty that the experiences have been different for me. And I can also say that I have had good face-to-face courses, and bad face-to-face courses; good online courses, and bad online courses. I think that in many ways, this comes back to the approach of the instructor. Great face-to-face instructors capitalize on the benefits of teaching in that environment. Great online instructors do the same, capitalizing on the benefits of that instructional environment. If I tried to use online methods in a face-to-face course, the course would probably bomb. I think the opposite is also true.

So all this to say, you’re right, this is what I’m working on. :-) When I'm working with faculty who may be teaching online or blended courses, we’re looking at questions such as: how can we capitalize on the online instructional environment? What teaching methods translate well from face-to-face to online? Which ones don’t translate as well? How can we best structure an online course for the best learning experience for students? 

So thanks again for sharing this article, and for engaging in the conversation. Have a great day!
Peace to you,


So...is online learning the same as face-to-face learning? I would say no, it isn't the same. But that's not a bad thing, in my mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment