Comparisons of Online Versus Traditional Education Miss The Point
Eighteen years ago I began teaching online and was immediately flooded with warnings from education colleagues and associates: They will take all that is in your head and make it a computer program, students cannot engage online, it’s a flash in the pan fad, it’s a lower-quality product, it will last and eliminate faculty, it will only last because of easy access. On and on the warnings poured in.
Learned readers, of course, will note online education has been around for over 30 years and distance education longer.
Although the discussion has arisen anew once again, the tone of the conversation is worryingly similar to the years of dialogue that have come before. It seems we educators cannot get beyond our biases, even burying them deep beneath a wall of “research.” However, research methodologies focused on comparative modality studies keep reporting similar outcomes and often ask the wrong research question, or develop questions and hypotheses without fully understanding modern learning processes and technology.
One reason educators search for alternative education modalities is to provide access venues to overcome student challenges. For many students, online is the only modality by which they are able to attend college or continue with a college education. But it’s by no means a panacea.
Traditional education comparative research often, though subtly, communicates the researcher’s own modality bias. Traditional education supporters, those that believe a traditional approach, such as lecture, and similar classroom-based processes are the only effective means of educating individuals, suggest caution in accepting advances in online education enrollment, including the technology of online education. There have been several research studies attempting to evaluate or compare traditional and online education delivery methods, all coming to the same conclusion: Traditional education is better. The results are usually valid, but we need to ask ourselves if we’re looking at the right studies and asking the right questions. Are we simply trying to find validation for years of tradition?
Think about it like this: Online was never meant to replace traditional education. This changes the way we consider arguments for alternative/new modalities and the selection criteria a student might use, rather than identifying a better modality (the ostensible point of the research). Instead, the research question could become, “What are the benefits of each modality?” We should research effective learning design decoupled from the modality discussion. For example, much of the research that I’ve come across comparing online and traditional modalities rarely considers instructional design as causal. Granted, research is needed on the causation link between student success and design, but that paucity of research nonetheless has an impact on the study results. Effective education modality research should be more than a modality comparison, or a student success or satisfaction query.
There are quality online programs, for example, that provide education to veterans even when deployed. Should a veteran be forced to wait for that opportunity to attend a traditional classroom? In this case, the question is not about the better modality, but instead the modality that accomplishes the greater good and best possible delivery method. Continuing, should a single parent with a disadvantaged economical position without transportation means also want for affordable, functional educational opportunities?
Quality often comes up at this juncture. If we provide better access to education do we sacrifice quality? Well, if access to the instructor is part of that quality conversation, we can see high quality in online education as tools like email and LMS (among others) increase access to the instructor. This bias error is similar to those made in most “traditional versus online education” comparative research, and it misses the mark.
The qualitative nature this discussion reveals suggests simple comparisons using artifacts and criterion such as satisfaction, success or comparison constructs provide inadequate reasoning for suggesting any superior modality. The question of why the modality was selected, the nature of economic or environmental conditions of the student at the time of selection should be the driving force behind this kind of research. If online is the unique modality that permits a student to attend college, then in this case, online is the better modality, regardless of the quality of the education itself.
Suggesting online education will become less significant over time is a little like suggesting the Internet will suddenly cease to be a central part of global communication. Further research on how to improve the online experience should focus on technological advances in adaptive learning, MOOCs, and other learning technologies. All modalities serve a specific student population and purpose. The question should not be which is better, but which is more functional for each individual student.
This is the first of a three-part series discussing comparisons between online and traditional education modalities. To read the next installment in the series, please click here.