In a recent InformationWeek article, W. David Gardner reports on a recent governmental meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Mr. Gardner’s lead assertion is that:
Online education has been achieving somewhat better results than classroom education, according to a recent report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education.Dire news for all of the classrooms! However, when I took a closer look at the study itself, I found so many caveats and conditions placed on this finding that, like the ornaments covering Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, you can no longer clearly delineate the tree itself. Let’s take a few of these ornaments down from the tree for closer inspection:
- The study was not focused on adult learning. The primary focus for the US Department of Education was to measure the effectiveness of learning modalities for K-12 public school students. As an aside, the researchers were chagrined to find so few applicable studies for this population that they found themselves repeatedly admitting that “…caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings.”
- Business skills were only a small part of the curricula studied. Out of nine curricula listed, “business” was mentioned last. While this may not indicate that it was the subject least studied, it does dilute the findings considerably – especially given the importance of curriculum to learning outcomes. “The most common subject matter was medicine or health care. Other content types were computer science, teacher education, mathematics, languages, science, social science, and business.”
- Time on task skews the results in favor of online learning. The studies assumed a huge advantage for learners who were able to spend large chunks of time with online tools materials. “Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning.” In the business world, the perception that time spent on training – either online or face-to-face - equals lost revenue pushes solutions that include the “benefit” of less employee time off the job.
- The medium is not the message. Time on task, pedagogy, and curriculum are more important conditions than whether the learning was delivered online or in a classroom. “Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium.”
In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches.What do you think? Is blended learning the wave of the future or a passing fad? What impact will social interaction tools like Twitter have on business learning? What will the adult learning landscape look in 2, 5, or 10 years?