Research Says: Online or Face to Face Is Better?

You know what they say about getting into an argument with an instructional designer over learning design? Oh… they don’t? Well, they should. Anyway… if they did say anything about it, they would say not to do it because instructional designers pretty much shoot holes in everything.

People argue all the time over whether online learning is better or worse than face-to-face. But you ask an instructional designer which is better? Well, neither, both, and… it kinda depends.

Confusing? Yeah, well blame the research. Research is important. Research tells us a lot. Research raises a lot of good questions. But it seems like we as the educational community are misusing and over simplifying the results of the research.

A lot of research is based on numbers. And those numbers might tell us that, say, there is a statistically significant difference between the number of learners that passed the test in the face-to-face version of a course and the number of those that passed in the online version. Or substitute “test” with whatever metric you are using to determine which is better. And so face-to-face is declared the winner and online is the loser that has to slink off and die because it *lost*!

The problem is – online learning obviously worked great for those students that passed – even if there were statistically significantly fewer of them (did I just butcher the English there?). Research is not a contest to show which option is the one right one. We are not in a giant game of Highlander: Education. There can be more than one right way. It can be online and blended and face-to-face. We are not waiting to see which one beheads all the others to become the clear champion of the universe.

So when the Department of Education came out and declared blended learning the best, that did not mean that online and face-to-face were horrible or ineffective. They just found a higher number for blended. That’s all. That doesn’t invalidate the other two. They are  a national entity that has to look at what works for millions of students.

One way that we know that online learning is working is by learner testimonials. There are thousands and thousands of learners all over the nets saying how online learning worked for them. And guess what – some of them actually failed their courses! Wait – am I telling you that scores don’t matter? Well, of course they matter if you want to earn a piece of paper. But many learners don’t look at a passed test or course as a sign of “working.” Earning an “F” in a course could mean they don’t take tests well, or they had a death in the family during the semester, or they went off on a tangent and forgot to take the final because they were too busy learning informally.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, where students get annoyed at classes and give them bad satisfaction ratings because they were required to do actual work and they thought they should get an A just for paying for the class.

So ultimately, if a student says an online course worked for them because it challenged them to think and learn, that is good evidence that it worked. Test scores and completion rates and satisfaction surveys might also tell us something, but typically those are ranking systems and not a “winner takes all” cage matches.

But another huge problem – one that instructional designers would point out to you – is that even the best research studies cannot really tell you if online or face-to-face is better. They can compare how the learners in one type of online learning design for a specific time period performed against another group of learners in one type of face-to-face learning design for that same period. There are so many different ways to design for learning online, and there are so many different ways to design for face-to-face, and so many ways that different instructors can affect their classes, and so many ways the learner population can affect the mood of the class, and so on. Research gives us a snap shot of what is going on in specific set of classes at a specific time – but the goal should be to ponder what this means for our personal situation and adapt and experiment ourselves. Not “this works! This doesn’t” and move on.

So the instructional designer will tell you that, yes we know a whole lot about what “works” in the macro sense of education, but in a lot of ways we also know very little of what “works” also. We can tell you want generally works in online or face-to-face and what doesn’t… but it ends up being a long vague list that you still have to take a stab at to see what does and doesn’t work for you specifically.

And the kicker is – despite all the research and facts I knew when I started as an instructional designer… I didn’t really get all of this until I started teaching online. Once you start teaching yourself, and trying to actually do what the research says… you begin to realize that it’s not so black and white. There are no champions of the universe, no best practices, no learning styles, no easy categories for everything to fit in. Oh, sure – you “know” that before you start teaching, but it’s kind of like you “know” parenting is tough until you have a kid and see how tough (and wonderful) it can be for yourself. First-hand knowledge changes your perspective radically. And simplistic answers from research goes out the window. The research itself (or at least the good research) doesn’t really ever give easy answers – people just misread it and think it does. Once you start teaching yourself, you begin to realize that you will use research to inform your practice instead of dictate it.

Some day soon I hope we move beyond this pointless rhetoric about online or face-to-face or blended learning being better or a good way to learn or whatever. All education is distributed over a distance anyways. Learners have declared that all work for them. Its better to start looking at what worked or didn’t work for the learners and go from there. That might call for some – gasp – qualitative research!

“So okay, Matt, stop with the whole ‘there is no spoon BS’ and tell me straight – does online learning work or not” you might say. Online learning works – for certain students. What all of the research is really telling us is that what doesn’t work is forcing all students into one-size fits all learning designs. Therefore, that leads me back to why I like working with the dual layer MOOC group – how can we offer students options to determine for themselves what works best? How can we create multiple paths that are truly multiple paths and not just “five different version of the same silo”? How can we create learning designs that emphasize diversity, experience, and autonomy in learning? Especially when so many students are used to instructivist learning?

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