What’s the Difference?: A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education

Author: Jamie P. Merisotis and Ronald A. Phipps, Ed.D.

What’s the Difference?:

What’s the difference between distance learning and traditional classroom-based instruction? This question has become increasingly prominent as technology has made distance learning much more common. This report reviews a broad array of research and articles published in the last decade to determine the overall quality of the analysis, gaps in the research, and implications of the research for the future. The report finds that the overall quality of the research is questionable and thereby renders many of the findings inconclusive. Numerous gaps in the research require more investigation and information. These gaps include the fact that the research: emphasizes student outcomes for individual courses rather than for a total academic program; does not adequately explain why the dropout rates of distance learners are higher; does not address the quality of digital “libraries”; and does not take into account differences among students in how they learn. Implications of the research findings on college access and the “human factor” in learning also are included.

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April 1999



Publication Type

Policy Report


Access and Success, Accountability

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