Face-to-Face vs. Online

I’ve been skeptical of online education for quite some time. First, putting courses online is often pursued for economic gain. Unfortunately, the infrastructue costs and low class sizes needed to make online courses effective mean the margin for profit is the same or worse than face-to-face education. This often results in less-than-effective courses being designed so that a lot of students can take them at once. Second, when studies do compare face-t0-face instruction with online instruction, the “experiment” (because it’s never randomly assigned) is done by comparing traditional lecture-based approaches that we already know are ineffective to the online treatment condition. In these studies, the two are typically found to be equivalent and then the technophilic authors spend most of the paper proclaiming the primacy of online condition because the students “liked it”. 

Yet, my interest in technology has me consistently wondering how online education might be done better. Part of me really wants to put online and face-to-face instruction to a real test. To do this, I’m envisioning a study with four conditions, all taught by the same teacher: 1) Face-to-face lecture-based, 2)  Online lecture-based, 3) Face-to-face research-based, and 4) Online research-based. I don’t know that conditions 1 and 2 are necessary, but they’d provide an interesting ability to make comparisons. One difficulty will be randomly assigning students, so we’d probably end up with a quasi-experiemental design. Then, there is the issue of outcomes to be measured. The best teaching, in my view, develops so much more than content knowledge, but content knowledge is an obvious measure. However, measuring content knowledge can be done via recall, explanation, or application. Then, how would interest, problem-solving ability, mindsets, epistemological beliefs, etc. be affected. Decisions, decisions.

I definitely know my thoughts on how this study might turn out. I doubt I’ll ever do the full study, but maybe a smaller version someday. My curiousity might just be enough to make me create an online course to compare to the face-t0-face version.

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