Expert Commentary

How does distance education compare with classroom instruction?

2004 American Education Research Association study in the Review of Education Research comparing the results of 232 studies of distance education.

While distance education has a long history, the development of computers and the Internet has provoked a boom in online classes, as students have sought to learn more as well as cut costs, and institutions have worked to extend their reach.

A 2004 survey published in the Review of Education Research, “How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature,” looked at more than 230 studies and found significant variation in the results achieved.

Overall, the quality of the research was found to be limited, and the results too varied to allow any overall conclusions to be drawn: “It is simply incorrect to say that [distance education] is better than, worse than or even equal to classroom instruction.”

Moreover, the analysis raised far more questions than it answered. Some of these include:

  • Given their different natures, is replicating traditional classes really the best approach for computer-based methods?
  • How do the outcomes for synchronous distance education (students and teachers, though physically separated, working together in real time) compare to those for asynchronous instruction (students and instructors working independently in both time and space)?
  • Do the lower costs of distance education justify overlooking the uncertainty in outcomes?
  • Has the traditionally high dropout rate for distance-education students declined as methods have improved?

The authors conclude the analysis by recommending that a framework for the design and analysis of distance-education courses be developed. They also suggest that more studies be conducted on distance-education students’ motivations and how they affect efforts made, as well as on understanding the difference in levels of learning (simple knowledge versus higher-order thinking).

Tags: metastudy, technology, MOOC

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