Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online versus campus - comparing apples and pears

Photo by Melanie Dijkstra on Unsplash

My last post reflected on why we should stop trying to prove that online teaching is more or less effective than campus teaching. A more detailed discussion on this theme is provided in an excellent review of recent comparative studies by Tony BatesResearch showing that virtual learning is less effective than classroom teaching – right? He lists 14 recent studies comparing student performance in online and in-person courses, some of which were carried out during the pandemic period. Most show that students' test results were lower in online courses and especially so for students from less academically prepared students. However the differences were not substantial, often 5-10% lower in online courses and most importantly there is little attention paid to the sort of online teaching that was offered. 

Most studies describe online courses that mirror the campus version with a predominance of recorded lectures and asynchronous discussion forum interaction. However, there are so many more variables to consider in both delivery modes: expectations management, scaffolding, community building, group work, social interaction, teacher presence, course structure, clear objectives, feedback methods, assessment, use of media, accessibility etc. Poor course design and lack of timely feedback and support can damage both online and in-person learning. It's not about a face-off between one delivery mode and another to see which is best.

These papers looked at many different variables, such as type of student, differences between subject areas, even how far from the campus students lived, but none of them looked at the most important variable: the method of teaching. How were the online courses designed? What teaching method was used in the classroom? Are we comparing online video lectures with the same on-campus lectures or are we comparing asynchronous online courses with synchronous classroom lectures? 

The cited studies are all serious research and will no doubt be cited by many especially when assessing the results of the emergency online teaching during the pandemic. However, Bates advises caution on reading too much into the findings since the studies omit so many important factors in the quality of online education. 

The studies clearly suggest that if you just move traditional classroom teaching online, many students, especially the most disadvantaged, will do less well than if they were in class. The results overall are not disastrous, though. Performance or retention is about 5%-10% poorer in most cases, although somewhat higher for some disadvantaged students.

During the past year the choice has been between online education or no teaching at all and the results should be seen in that light. Given that the online teaching on offer was not always fully designed for online delivery and that both teachers and students were unprepared for the challenges of such a transition, there results were actually rather impressive. We also have to remember that online education opens the door to higher education to millions of people who are unable to move to a campus city. For them there is no choice. We must make sure that the online education we offer is fit for purpose and designed professionally. 

But read Tony Bates' article for more insight.



  1. I don't see a lot of discussion on subjects that are more or less suitable for online teaching. For example, I think that foreign languages lend themselves quite well to the online environment but the same may not true for, say, history or biology.

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  3. Indeed that is another aspect to consider. There are excellent online courses in most subjects including history and biology but it is vital that they include collaborative group work, clear structure, timely feedback etc. Practical lab work and hands-on work experience are of course impossible to replace even if there are increasingly advanced virtual labs and simulations. I think a lot of people still associate online education with self-study courses with recorded lectures and quizzes. There are sadly still plenty of those out there but they are examples of poor course design.