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What's Better: eLearning or Classroom?

Stephen J. Gill  PH.D.,  The Performance Improvement Blog

 

We need to examine the proliferation of Web-based education before it gets out of hand (It may be too late.). Online college courses are being promoted as the panacea for producing more college graduates and strengthening the workforce. The Obama administration has been touting the educational value of online courses since coming into office over three years ago, and many colleges, especially community colleges, have adopted that mantra.

Many companies are also convinced that “elearning” is the answer to their employee training and development needs. They are told elearning will be cheaper, faster, more convenient, and more effective than traditional, classroom training. Also, using elearning programs makes managers feel like they are staying on the cutting edge of technology. Nobody wants to be left behind.

 

Feeding this appetite for online programs is research that seems to support the notion that online is better than face-to-face, classroom instruction. A study by the U.S. Department of Education found a small advantage for online (blended) programs. However, they qualify that finding by writing:

 

Despite what appears to be strong support for blended learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium. In many of the studies showing an advantage for blended learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages.

 

The problem is that whether online programs are better than face-to-face depends on the purpose of the course, learning goals of the program, skills of the instructor, and expectations of learners, among other things. I published an article about this nearly 10 years ago in Educational Technology. At that time, I wrote (in ilalics):

  1. E-learning will not revolutionize training; it is only one instructional method among many, each better at achieving some instructional objectives than others. (I was wrong; e-learning is revolutionizing training. However, the change has been in the accessibility of information, not in the impact of instruction.)
  2. Putting a course on the Web or on a CD-ROM does not ensure performance improvement.(Learning and change depend more on expectations of learners and organizational culture than on the mode of delivery.)
  3. Employees learn in many different ways. (For some, online instruction fits their style of learning, but for others it is not always the best mode.)
  4. E-learning is not a low cost alternative, especially if it is not aligned with the organization's strategic goals. (If the content is not aligned, it will be a waste of time and energy. No matter how cheap it is per learner, it will be too expensive.)
  5. Having a vast selection of courses is meaningless. (It’s wonderful, for personal edification, to have access to thousands of courses from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and other prestigious colleges. But if these courses aren’t related to what learners need to know on the job and can’t be applied immediately, then more is not better.)
  6. Work and learning are the same. (The tendency of managers is to think that by having instruction online, employees can use non-work time for learning. But this separation between work and learning is a false dichotomy. Especially in this day and age, employees have to be continually learning; it must be part of their job.)

In the past 10 years, the technology of online instruction has evolved considerably. Interactivity has advanced. Audio and video have continued to improve. Practical mobile tools for just-in-time applications of elearning are now available (e.g., smart phones and tablets). However, the danger is that organizational leaders and technologists will assume that any learning that is computer enabled is better than direct human contact. For some learning, this could be true. For other learning, it is not. We need to align method of content delivery with intended learning outcomes.