Many students have questioned whether or not there is a significant difference between online learning formats and traditional, on-campus formats. A great deal of research has been conducted to thoroughly evaluate this question. Some of the earliest research showed conflicting results. However, some of the more recent, larger-scale research has shown that the difference between online and on-campus formats is minimal if at all. Some of these recent studies have even shown that online learners may have a slight advantage over traditional students.
The No Significant Difference Phenomenon
Dr. Thomas Russell has conducted some of the most widely respected studies regarding the potential differences between online and traditional learning outcomes. The longitudinal research he conducted spanned back as far as 1928. According to his publication, “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education” (IDECC), his findings revealed that “an overwhelming number of studies showed that when the course materials and teaching methodology were held constant, there were no significant differences (NSD) between student outcomes in a distance delivery course as compared to a face to face course”. This led to his theory, which he called “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon”.
Advantages of a Traditional Learning Environment
Critics of Russell’s research have argued that there are educational measures that cannot be fully assessed in a longitudinal study. The criticism argues that there are inherent benefits to face-to face interactions with faculty members that cannot be seen in research-based studies of learning outcomes. Russell has countered this criticism with the argument that student learning outcomes should stand for themselves. Success about graduation is the most important measure of how effective a program is for students.
Advantages of an Online Learning Environment
The United States Department of Education released the report: “Evaluation of Evidence – Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”. This study looked at over a thousand research studies of online and distance learning formats. The 2009 report stated that: “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” What this means is that when the evidence was compiled, those college learners who completed their education online, had a slight edge over students in an on-campus setting.
The portion of this topic that is under-represented by all of these students is that each student has the ability to choose what is right for them. Whether or not a student has an edge in the classroom or online is almost irrelevant. The fact that research study after research study has shown a very tight race between the two learning formats means that each student can choose the format that works best for their academic and career goals. If students have the peace of mind that either format will lead to a highly respected degree from a fully accredited school, they can find a degree program that will help them achieve their goals.