Study: Distance Learning Students Make Performance Gains

Published December 22, 2010

Post-secondary students who take online “distance learning” classes outperform their peers who work face-to-face with teachers in a physical classroom, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

The study by Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann could aid efforts to extend learning opportunities to students in rural communities and others—for example, whose parents want them to be able to work at their own schedule and pace—via remote technology instead of building and equipping expensive new schools for small or remote populations.

“For many years distance learning was treated as the stepchild of higher education,” said Neumann, now president and CEO of United States University in National City, California. “Now we have verifiable proof and results that distance learners outperform their traditional counterparts.”

The duo’s “meta-study” examined studies comparing the academic achievement of postsecondary students over two decades, between 1990 and 2009.

“We found that in 70 percent of the cases, distance learning students outperformed their traditional counterparts,” Neumann said, “and in the past seven years, when distance learning was mainly using the online modality, the online learning students outperformed their counterparts in 84 percent of the cases.”

Fewer Distractions
Shachar and Neumann’s conclusions come as no surprise to Michael Ritter, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point who teaches geography and meteorology courses online. He featured Shachar and Neumann’s study on his blog “The Digital Professor.”

“Distance education is simply education that occurs when the instructor and student are physically separated from one another.” Ritter said. “Hence there may be no pedagogically significant difference.”

However, Ritter added, virtual classrooms come without many of the distractions of a bricks-and-mortar school building, even with a teacher right there to focus on a student.

“I’m less distracted when teaching in a synchronous online environment than in a classroom of 80 students,” Ritter said. “I, and other students, don’t have the distraction of those who are not paying attention to the class activity and possibly disrupting the learning process.”

“I’m finding it’s easier to provide one-on-one help in an online environment,” Ritter said. “Though I have to set boundaries on my time, students are able to get help much quicker in an online environment than having to physically show up at my office.”

Parental Guidance Suggested
Neumann says distance teaching doesn’t just allow for more focus—it demands it.

“I found from my own experience that online learning requires much more discipline, in terms of focused leadership, design, and planning,” he said. The result is that distance learning tends to feature “a major emphasis on learning outcomes, accountability, timely feedback, and continuous student engagement in the learning process itself.”

The study didn’t look at the performance of distance learners in elementary and secondary schools, and Neumann declined to speculate whether the postsecondary results have implications for younger grades. “I am not in a position to offer any prediction,” he said.

Ritter, however, says he thinks the results could be similar in K-12.

“For the most part I do, so long as there is on-site guidance by a parent,” he said. “The most difficult aspect of distance education is keeping students on task.”

Cost Savings

In their study, Schachar and Neumann suggest policymakers should consider distance learning as an option in dealing with tight education budgets and growing market demand.

“The improvements of technology, the widespread Internet access, the increased legitimacy of online learning within established universities and employers, and the increased participation of adult learners in higher education with clear preferences toward learning anytime and anywhere will further drive future improvements in the quality of distance learning programs,” they wrote.

That money, though, will come with oversight and regulations. It will also attract the attention of educators and others who stand to be affected by changes in their job requirements.

Paul E. Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, says it would “be a shame” for policymakers “to use this difficult economic environment to suppress the growth of online learning.”

Over-Regulation a Risk

Although Peterson says he doesn’t oppose regulation, he worries overregulation would undermine the cost savings and other benefits of distance learning programs.

“There’s going to have to be some regulation,” Peterson said. “The question is whether it will be attentive to genuine pedagogical objectives or whether it’s going to get captured by unions, and they’re going to say, ‘OK, you’ve got to have X number of people teaching the course, or involved in the instruction part so we can save jobs.’ That would be the bad thing that could happen.”

Peterson warns that opponents of online learning may go too far, too fast. “They can’t win when people begin to see the cost savings and the possibilities of distance learning,” he said.

‘Policymakers Must Take Notice’
Ritter says he’s hopeful for change.

“Though changing at some public institutions, I’ve found reticence on the part of some administrators, and everything from ambivalence to outright hostility by faculty to the idea of teaching online,” he said. “It is clear from recent data that there is a demand for online learning. If the same outcomes can be achieved with a delivery system that students want, policymakers must take notice.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.

Internet Info:
Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann: “Twenty Years of Research on the Academic Performance Differences Between Traditional and Distance Learning: Summative Meta-Analysis and Trend Examination” (Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, June 2010):