Talent Management Column

Does Online Instruction Work?

Studies that look at the effectiveness of online training, compared to classroom-based learning, offer some conflicting results. Online training seems to be more effective for older, motivated students, while the classroom works best for younger low-achievers. There are some lessons HR leaders can take away from the findings.

Thursday, July 15, 2010
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There probably aren't many people in the corporate world who haven't at some point heard their leadership team say the organization was going to shift its training to an online format.

And why not? It's such a beautiful idea: We can invest in superior material and delivery, put it up on the Web and spread the costs across lots and lots of users. People can use it when they need it. They don't have to wait for a training session to be held, they don't have to travel to a central location and, if they're really busy, they can do it on their own time.

Costs go down, while training effectiveness goes up through better content and timely delivery.

Web-based delivery has been around for more than a decade, but before that, we had lots of alternatives to the live classroom for education and training. Does the phrase "Sunrise Semester" ring a bell? For the under-40 crowd, these were college courses delivered on TV, typically at a time when there was no real audience for anything else, like really early in the morning.

This idea -- film strips, audio cassettes, VHS tapes, CDs -- has been around for awhile. The Web just made it easier to deliver.

Given all this, it may surprise you to discover that we really don't have a good idea as to whether alternatives such as online learning work better than classroom instruction. We know it's cheaper, but do people learn more from it? You'd think they would, given how fancy the instruction can be: animation and graphics, examples and the ability to practice, working at one's own pace, etc.

The U.S. Department of Education commissioned a study, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, to review the evidence about online learning.

They found there were remarkably few serious studies that compared online to classroom instruction. But, when looking across them, they concluded that students who took all or part of their classes online did better than those who took the same courses in traditional, face-to-face settings.

Online instruction and classroom instruction differ in lots of ways -- even for the same courses. The most important difference is that online learners have access to the material, so they can go over it again and spend more time on it than can those who sit in a classroom, where they must understand the material the first and only time through.

And indeed, the review finds this difference to be important: Online learners who spent more time on their learning tasks did better. The other factor that affected learning outcomes was that "blended" learning, using techniques in addition to online, improved outcomes even more.

A final interesting outcome was that the superior results from online learning appeared for older learners, not those in K-12 classes. In the online context, quizzes didn't help but other interventions to check one's understanding did improve learning outcomes.

Score one for online learning.

But now comes a new study that is much more rigorous than the previous studies.

Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning, by David N. Figlio, Mark Rush, and Lu Yin, points out that the studies summarized in the Department of Education report weren't very serious: If there are problems in the study design, then aggregating them simply compounds the errors.

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In this new study, university students were assigned randomly to either traditional face-to-face delivery of a class or to an online version. Everything else was identical for the students in the two groups.

This time, there was no difference overall in student performance across the two groups. Low-achieving students did better, however, with traditional delivery.

Score one for the classroom.

What should we take away from this? There may be several lessons. The first is that the mechanism of delivery per se may not be the most important issue. It may well be that online learning makes it easier to spend more time on learning tasks. Other mechanisms that could also improve time on task would probably also get better learning results.

The second lesson may be the most important. Recall that in the Department of Education study, kids do not do better with online learning, and in the university study, low-achieving students actually did better in traditional classrooms.

One of the things that we know classroom instruction is good at is forcing students to pay attention, at least compared to the alternative of firing up a video at their leisure -- which may never happen. The social context of a classroom gets students to pay attention. Better and more mature (i.e., older) students, in contrast, are able to focus on their own.

Another lesson is that the best outcomes may come from a combination of both approaches, perhaps directing more online instruction to those who are more able or more motivated to learn on their own.

The fact that online learning is so much easier to do and so much cheaper than face-to-face delivery means that the only thing holding it back would be if the learning outcomes between this approach and the classroom were hugely different.

They're not. So especially in the workplace and for training that is more voluntary, online learning is on a roll.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School.

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