Does Online Education Fare Batter than Face-to-Face Learning?

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In the July 19, 2020 issue of InsideHigherEd (see http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/07/16/online) the debate between whether online or face-to-face education contributes equally to learning or not continues. The study that gives online educators the upper hand is now claimed to be flawed. For those who wish to compare online education and on-the-ground education, an attempt to understand the differences in the mechanisms of teaching is warranted.

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I was told during my PhD studies that "all research is flawed", and I still believe that. If you examine any study long enough, I'm sure some sort of flaw will emerge. In this case, I would find it flattering that people are spending that much time picking apart the report; that at least indicates people find the topic matter very meaningful.

I feel like the type of student in these studies is periodically controlled for (adult or returning students vs. a 'typical' undergraduate student) but I rarely see a key issue examined: motivation. My hypothesis is that students in online courses are, generally, more motivated vs. traditional courses. For adults, courses cost money, and online courses provide the biggest freedoms. I assume they are highly motivated.

At PSU, we also see a lot of 'traditional' students taking online courses. In many instances, this is because the resident section is full. At that point, the student has a choice: take a different course (if permitted) or try and find the online version of the course. If they choose the online version, I suspect they have a high motivation to enroll, and do well, in that course.

I have a lot of personal experience with online education and enjoy reading these studies. We're finally starting to see a critical mass of research in this area that will only help us understand things better moving forward.

I have to agree with you, Bart, about motivation. Students that I observed who were taking the online course that I taught several years ago were also working quite a bit and many juggled new family responsibilities (birth of first child) on top of working toward a promotion and working on an advanced degree. Multitasking and being proactive enabled them to accomplish quite a bit. Traditional students, comparatively, often take a more relaxed view of life as they place greater emphasis on leisure activities. I think that research comparing online to traditional courses would be very wise to thoughtfully consider the audience those courses attract and the motivations of those audiences toward the course content as well as the delivery mechanism of the course.

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