- “Virtual Universities,” Internet, Video/Audio Techniques Scrutinized
- Colleges, Policy Leaders Have “A Lot to Learn” About Use of Technology in Education
- Questions About Validity of Research, Gaps in Understanding Raised
Washington, D.C., April 7, 1999—A new national report raises questions about the effectiveness of the increasingly-popular use of “distance learning” in higher education and whether it is on par with traditional classroom-based instruction. The report reviews a broad array of research and articles about technology-based distance education and finds that there are significant gaps in the research and important flaws in the methodology of many studies.
These findings refute the evidence often cited by policy leaders and distance education advocates that suggests there is no significant difference in the educational effectiveness of distance versus classroom-based instruction. Most of the studies conclude that distance learning compares favorably with classroom-based instruction in terms of student grades, test scores, and overall satisfaction.
But the report, which reviews hundreds of these various writings published over the last decade, finds that the overall quality of the research is questionable and thereby renders many of the findings inconclusive. The report cautions that policymakers and education leaders have “ a lot to learn” about how distance education can enhance college learning. It urges officials to consider the evidence carefully when making decisions about investment in the rapidly evolving field of distance education.
The report, "What’s the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education," was produced by The Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, DC-based education research group, and sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
The term “distance learning” is an evolving one, according to the report, but generally means educational activities where the learners are at a distance from the teacher, and can include a variety of media—from video and audio conferencing to Internet and e-mail-based technology. Many traditional colleges and universities, and a growing group of “virtual universities” are using distance learning as a significant component of their educational programs.
Several concerns about the quality of the access provided by distance education and the “human factor” in learning are cited in the report. Questions range from the skills required to use the technology in certain types of distance learning, to the cost of purchasing computers and software, to the best ways to participate in “asynchronous” learning (when student and teacher do not have direct interaction at the same time or place).
Numerous gaps in the research require more investigation and information, according to the report. These 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.
“While distance learning has great potential to impact higher education on many levels, there is much that we don’t know about its effectiveness,” stated Jamie Merisotis, President of The Institute for Higher Education Policy. “We need to have better information about what works—and what doesn’t—in order to make the best possible educational decisions for students.” Concerns about the research techniques used include: much of the research does not control for “extraneous variables” and therefore cannot show cause and effect; most of the studies do not use randomly selected subjects; and the validity and reliability of the tests and attitude scales used to measure student outcomes are unknown.
The report is the latest in a series about distance learning produced by The Institute for Higher Education Policy. Previous reports include “Assuring Quality in Distance Learning: A Preliminary Review,” a 1998 report prepared in collaboration with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and “Student Aid for Distance Learners: Charting a New Course,” which contains the proceedings of a national conference held in Denver, Colorado in May, 1998.