Online vs Face-to-Face Education


Does the research conducted thus far allow for a fair debate?

“Are we there yet?” Donkey asked this again and again in one of the Shrek movies – they were journeying to a far-away kingdom!

It is tempting to ask the same question of online learning!

A recent survey (the link to the summary of results is below) would indicate that we have a very long and bumpy way to go. The attitudes of academics and administrators, in a range of US faculties, were gathered with regards to education platforms; online vs face-to-face.

Most respondents, it seems, would prefer that the journey be aborted altogether; ensuring that education remain campus-bound. Carl Straumsheim comments on the findings: “They continue to fear that the record-high number of students taking those classes are receiving an inferior experience to what can be delivered in the classroom.”

This is a perfectly honourable concern, but is it based on solid scientific research?

The results could very well have cast a gloom over those of us who are passionate online practitioners and learners. The survey, however, and the sample group, were both found wanting.

Firstly, the study failed to distinguish the range of online learning methodologies. Broadly speaking; synchronous (live and simultaneous) was not differentiated from asynchronous (occurring outside of real time, with no simultaneous interactions).

Without this clarification it is feasible that any reflection on online learning may have been reduced to its lowest common denominator – a book on a screen – a limitation which would inevitably leave the findings flawed.

Secondly, if accurate findings were the aim, the selected sample group should have sounded alarm bells. Academics are inherently wary of online education, for two main reasons.

The first is because still very few lecturers have been directly involved in it. As Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program stated,  “My general reaction is that the data show that the more exposure a faculty member has had to online or blended learning, the more positive his/her  view. But, clearly, not all faculty have seen the potential of online learning to match and even exceed the effectiveness of face-to-face learning, because they have not had the opportunity to become familiar with best practices and research-driven course design and delivery.”

The second reason is one of survival. Change is daunting in itself, but beyond this, individuals whose careers are set in the traditional and hallowed halls of academia will feel threatened. With the internet rather than the campus becoming the epicentre of education these attitudes are not surprising. The same attitudes would account for the negative data in the study.

Beyond all teaching methodologies, however, and in conclusion, it is worth remembering that excellence in education is all about the educator. If we honestly desire students to learn actively and effectively then the teacher is paramount. (Although the earnest intentions of the learner should not be underestimated either.)

An astute comment following the survey, (from someone with an unusual sobriquet, Uncle Noodle), reminds us of this fact: “As long as the educator believes that she is primarily responsible for the student's success, we will continue to chase solutions where they cannot be found. Only the student can be responsible for the student's success.” He adds, “Only incremental improvements can be made under this model (online). We do great harm by acting otherwise, but even greater harm by telling students they aren't capable of nanny-less success.”