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Elearning vs. Classrooms

September 24, 2002

The following is a summary of "content created" as a result of Week 1 of discussions using a non-traditional approach to learning (participants of "elearning noncourse"). This article is best understood as a collage of thoughts, rather than a cohesive essay.

The "New Debate"
Gaining Respect
Systemic Issues
What is Elearning Good for?
Quality Control


The New Debate
Until recently, the debate between elearning versus classroom learning has centered primarily on learning effectiveness that is perceived to be inherent in each format (see No Significant Difference and Significant Difference ). Essentially, the evidence evaluating format effectiveness has moved to evaluating which traits in a format result in effective learning.

"A quick look at the “No Significant Difference Phenomenon” website might lead the casual observer to the conclusion that an overwhelming amount of data exists to support the notion that technologically mediated instruction and or distance education, in nearly every form imaginable, has proven to be an effective and sometimes preferred method of educating students outside the confines of what is commonly referred to as the “traditional classroom”(Russell, 2001). From 1928 to the present, Russell has cataloged at least 355 studies, technical reports, and dissertations that have reviewed student learning outcomes in the form of satisfaction surveys, grade comparisons, standardized test scores, common embedded questions, frequency of interaction between students and faculty, and a dizzying array of other “measures” ostensibly aimed at determining if any measurable or statistically significant differences exist.

At face value, it seems that comparison or outcomes studies would be one of the most effective methods for determining the effectiveness of various educational technologies. Since the 1994 publication of Richard Clark’s famous statement cautioning educational researchers to, “give up your enthusiasm for the belief that media attributes cause learning”, he has convinced many researchers in the field that most, if not all of “No Significant Difference” studies were in some way flawed. These studies had inadvertently attributed outcomes to differences in media rather than method (Clark, 1994, p. 28). Simply stated, Clark presents the idea that measurable learner outcomes, when replicable using different media, indicate that the selection of the media has little to do with learner outcomes, rather the method that the media share in delivering content is the true catalyst that leads to understanding. Succinctly, “there are no benefits to be gained from employing different media in instruction”(Clark, 1983, p. 450). Based on Clark’s thinking, it would seem that the 355 reports contained in Russell’s “No Significant Difference Phenomenon” website, have focused primarily on differences in the media rather than the methods employed via the medium."
(Excerpt from The "No Significant Difference" Phenomenon: A Literature Review )

One participant of the course referred to a quote from a university president: the debate is no longer about effectiveness of online courses as compared with traditional offerings....that argument is over, for better or for worse. The debate now revolves around effectiveness of different types of technologies, and efficiency in terms of cost and time versus traditional programs. A recent article from Distance-Educator states:

"It is not whether we can meet the same learning outcomes with technology, but how do we use the technologies to enrich the experience, to go beyond what can be done in the face-to-face or other delivery environment."

Clark's conclusion that the the media format itself is not consequential, has not achieved full acceptance in many university and college environments. In these environments, the struggle is still about ways to communicate elearning's viability/validity.

Part of the concern here rests with the type of technology tools that are being integrated into learning. A strong desire seems to exist to duplicate classrooms online (transferring vs. transforming learning). This might explain why programs like Centra and HorizonLive (which duplicate lectures, question and answer) are so popular.

In some ways, this debate extends beyond the campus - elearning as a whole is still considered to be a second-rate method when compared to classrooms. One of the reasons organization are having this discussion is that many instructors insist that elearning is ineffective, so they don't want to adopt it (which makes sense - if you believe it doesn't work well, why try it?). Elearning needs to be seen as effective at several levels - student (in order to take courses), instructor (in order to move resources online), organization (in order to fund online development), and corporations (in order to hire/promote people who learned via elearning...which loops back to students).

One situation involved an instructor spending three months video taping classroom lectures (not a great idea at the best of times) and after expending hundreds of hours of technical staff, decided that online learning wasn't the way to go - not as effective as classrooms...so the project was shelved.

Another participant detailed an associate's degree for daycare providers where video/internet hybrid (with no face-to-face) worked well. This may not work for a MA level course, but for learners with this level (associate degree) of literacy and college experience, a distance education program can't expect them to read a series of articles, internalize the theory, and associate the theory to their classroom practices.

Just like classroom instructors ask themselves what type of pedagogies will reach a certain group of learners, elearning programs need to continue asking the same questions. As e-educators produce equal learning outcomes ("no significant difference") in the group of learners in the target audience, elearning will gain the confidence of the skeptics.

What about Costs?
Views that elearning reduces the expense of delivering learning are false. So far, in most institutions, elearning is a "special project" that requires extra funding - it is not (yet) a cost saver.

When considering costs of a particular educational delivery system, there are three general measures. They are cost-efficiency, cost effectiveness and cost-benefit. Cost-benefit seeks to measure in economic terms the benefits of education to the individual and society, in terms of the rate of return to the individual and to society as a whole.

A system is cost efficient if, relative to another system, its outputs cost less per unit of input (expenditures versus revenues, and not necessarily just $). A system increases its cost efficiency when it maintains output with a less than proportional increase in inputs. In other words, more is taken in than spent.

Cost effectiveness is a measurement or determination as to the extent to which a system produces outputs that are relevant to the needs and demands of its clients.

Efficiency and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. Organizations can be efficient while lacking effectiveness and vice-versa. There is a difference between cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness. Cost-benefit analysis are used when both cost and effects can be measured in monetary terms and cost-effectiveness is applied when costs are expressed in monetary terms and effects are measured in non-monetary terms.

In order to accurately compare two systems either the cost or the effects of both have to be fixed. When the costs are the same, the system with the largest effect is the most efficient. When the effects are the same the system with the smallest cost is the most efficient

Cost-effectiveness essentially means that, given the amount of money and time expended to teach a concept, course, unit, whatever...are the learning outcomes achieved, to what extent, and with how much of an investment. What is harder to determine is the monetary value of the convenience and access issues that are a by-product of the delivery system. What is it worth and how can an organization gauge the net value?

Gaining Respect
As more and more faculty members integrate on-line learning it will gain respect. Many faculty perceive it to be easier to put a class on-line than to teach in the classroom. Of course, any online instructor knows that is not true.

In other cases, many have not seen courses that are of the same quality as what might be provided in the classroom. This is in part due to poor course design and in part due to the lack of experience of many faculty in creating web-based courses. Achieving this, however, will take time.

Systemic Issues
Colleges and universities that have resolved the elearning/classroom debate face another concern: how to integrate elearning into the existing curriculum without cannibalizing existing classroom offerings.

One of the issues that is being raised is whether online students should be taking on campus courses...i e. those that can come to campus should. Limited consideration is sometimes given to issues in the student's life that may be impacting a desire to take an online course (or even the idea that students ought to have the choice). The focus is sometimes about organizational need, not student need. The perception seems to exist that successful online courses negatively impact regular on-campus classroom courses...so the dThese are huge systemic issues that must be addressed.

Many colleges/universities have several departments: regular programs, continuing education, distance education, and contract training (training for corporate or specific industry needs). They have been built to be silos - stand alone, function alone.

Now, elearning is obliterating barriers. Distance education is/will be "stealing" continuing education and day program students.

Problems arising:

  • All program areas (distance, continuing, day, contract) are hiring for their own needs - i.e. each hires a programmer - part time
  • No consistent look, feel, or quality standards
  • Generally, limited resource sharing - day programs are not too eager to share content with distance/continuing ed (alluded to in other emails - cannibalism)
  • Bruised egos - traditional power structures (I have content/knowledge, I rule) are coming under pressure from models that require collaboration.
  • Slow responsiveness to trends in the learner market. The organization is fractured in pursuit of customers...so a unified vision is missing
  • Registration - all programs handle registrations differently - a nightmare.
  • Instructor wages and contact hours - each program pays separately according to unique arrangements...program silos need to be broken down so sharing of resources across the organization is possible
  • Over all - tremendous wasted resources...duplication...slow reaction time...no/little collaboration.

Under this model, how can higher education ever hope to compete against for-profit, private education providers?

Another problem is the desire of educators to squeeze this new technology into the old model for teaching. Things have changed. What worked in 1970 doesn't work today. It's a networked world...don't give me what I want as a learner...and I'll get it from England...or New York...Or wherever.

What is elearning good for?

  • The challenge with e-learning is usually viewed to be classes with labs. In some cases, performing science and engineering experiments needs to be done in a supervised lab setting. Otherwise students would not have access to the supplies needed (although www.froguts.com has demonstrated that some lab experiments can be done on-line).
  • One participant teaches studios. They are required for students to graduate. These classes have an actual client and a physical product that must be produced. Students meet with the client and conduct site analysis. While the class could be partially offered online everyone would have to be located in the same geographic area in order to allow people to attend public meetings, visit the sites, gather data and such. So, while many of these classes could be taught online, it would be very difficult to offer an on-line degree, because it would have to exclude the studio experience, considered to be the capstone courses.
  • Courses like public speaking and in-person type practicing are not easily adapted to online. However, with creative of alternatives (and high speed connection and a $30 web cam) students can develop those competencies.
  • Generally, however, elearning can be used for many (all?) sorts of courses. The teaching method/style are critical to ensure success. Trying to simply duplicate a lecture class (and why are teachers still lecturing, elearning or otherwise?) online doesn't work. Online does provide a great opportunity to have discussion and to include those who because of shyness, diversity, previous experiences, learning styles, etc. have tended to be excluded from classroom discussion.

A primary benefit of online learning is its ability to reach out to women who would otherwise not be able to get their college degree - single moms, working outside the home moms, women in rural areas. In this way elearning is creating positive change in educational institutions. Another benefits of both e-learning and in class discussions that few take advantage of is the chance to let students practice their civil discourse skills and help them develop them - rather than avoid controversy in course discussions we should encourage it and then model and guide students to how to have effective dialogue.

Quality Control

  • There is the illusion of quality control in the traditional classroom. Yes, there are student evaluations, but they're rather simple to load up and deliver for on-line courses as well. As one participant stated: In the 8+ years I was in college, I never remember anyone sitting in the back of the room, grading the professor, well, maybe once. It's not common practice in this millennium either.
  • If anything is going to help on-line learning, it's standards. When (for example) nursing students who have had most of their education via mediated technology pass their boards, we have proof that online education works. Legislators, media, and funders all believe that type of proof.
  • Additionally, some participants are working on "bulletproofing" their online courses (to the extend this is possible) in order to reduce fears that online courses are somehow "easier" than traditional courses. One example is via a peer review process. See http://online.parkland.edu/cvlhome/PeerReview/index.htm
  • Use of "trusted" sources for that evaluation. For example, Microsoft is a trusted source to certify MCSE training. For some people, if Microsoft certifies that your materials are good, that's good enough.

Discussion has shifted in the use of elearning. The foucs is now on how to make elearning effective and useful to an organization. Essentially, the question has changed from "do we use elearning?" to "how do we implement elearning".

This shift, however, raises concerns.

  • Existing institutions need to evaluate the impact of elearning organization-wide.
  • Separate departments need to create processes for communicate and sharing knowledge.
  • Quality control processes need to be developed
  • Elearning requires systemic revisions, budgetary support, and a new view of what it means to transform materials online (versus transfer)

Successful organizations will be those that address these concerns and define an elearning strategy that meets the needs of both learner and instructor. No conflict need exist between classrooms and elearning. Each are essentially tools in the education toolbox. The prospective learner, budget constraints, learning objectives, and resources at hand drive the decision making. Effectiveness of each medium is a resolved issue.


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