This week, Getting Smart had the opportunity to interview Mickey Shachar who conducted the study Twenty Years of Research On the Academic Performance Differences Between Traditional and Distance Learning: Summative Meta-Analysis and Trend Examination, which looks at the academic success of students enrolled in distance learning vs. traditional learning. Below he talks about the ways that his study among others have shown that distance learning out performs traditional learning in higher education. He makes the case for the ways that new online mediums produce richer and more interactive learning content.

Q: What inspired you to research the differences between traditional and distance learning?

A: First of all, the question about distance learning and online learning came up all the time. People say online learning is anytime, anywhere, any place, so we tried to answer the basic question: Is it any good? This was issue number one.

The second was that I started my doctoral dissertation with an interest in the concept of meta-analysis. When I combined these two things, the topic of the subject and method, it worked very well.

Any article that you read about the differences between traditional learning and distance learning, you’d never know where you were at so to speak. This way you could do it more quantitatively, apply all the studies, and compare the data with control groups and experimental groups to look at outcomes.

Thirdly, numbers talk. Qualitative data always provides room for debate. However, when you deal with numbers properly, then those numbers are on the table and everyone understands the data.

In addition, a report by the U.S. Department of Education last year mentions the evaluation of evidence-based practices and online learning. This prompted me to understand that it wasn’t just on the level of research, but that it was a practical issue for stakeholders in the education field.

Q: You mentioned that the Department of Education sponsored the study just a short time ago. What prompted you to run another study? How did you differentiate your approach?

A: The Department of Education’s study was very interesting. First of all, it was based on a small number of studies and our study looked at many, many more. Yet the second point was that we wanted to go beyond the first question: What is the difference between the two modes of delivery?

We wanted to look at trends across time and to see if there’s any change between these methods across time. This is the second part of the study. Based on that we broke the study in different periods and wanted to look at differences across time. That brought us to a period in 1991 to today, which is a span of about 20 years.

In the article, there are differences between the growths, differenes, trends, etc. across time. The bottom line is that even though you have an overall effect size across all the 125 studies, it gets higher and higher as you come closer to recent time and years. The effect size is growing as we progress with time. That is a very interesting thing.

It was important to identify trends, plateaus or increases over the time. The first growth is from about 63 percent in the first period to 84 percent in the last period from 2003-2009 in the 125 studies, which shows that distance learning outperformed traditional learning.

Q: Do you have a hypothesis for why you think the results are better or improving?

A: I think the results present a question or debate between the two programs or modes of delivery with three possible directions. It has been found that distance learning is not inferior; it’s equal and even out performs traditional learning. We should all stop and try to legalize this platform. It’s been established by my study and many others.

Secondly, we believe that the trends have changed since the first few years. Technically, what people did with early courses was take the same textbooks and put them online. The courses were delivered the exact same way. However, the evolution delivery allows people to prepare courses differently. It’s not just the old textbook that was copied to the Internet. It’s a new design. We perceived that the courses today are not what they were 10-15 years ago. They’re built for this media and therefore they’re improving. Change will continue to grow in the future.

Thirdly, the message is not to look at distance learning vs. traditional learning, but start looking at distance education with a focus on subjects with synchronous or asynchronous delivery.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about any implications for K-12?

A: In general,when you look at the list of studies, we have very limited K-12 examples. This is a field that should be studies much more in depth. Assuming that colleges and universities will have a lot of online learning it should be also a prerequisite in K-12 so that student will have an easy transition when they move on.

Lastly, the growth of technology and electronics around the globe, we’ll see specific programs in K-12. Again, it should not just be copying a textbook website. It should be built correctly for the K-12 level that encompasses all of the various methods of training, teaching and learning.

View the full study Twenty Years of Research On the Academic Performance Differences Between Traditional and Distance Learning: Summative Meta-Analysis and Trend ExaminationThis Q&A was adapted from a phone interview with Mickey Shachar and Tom Vander Ark by Sarah Cargill.

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