Testing the equivalence of online and on campus learning

Though online and on campus learning are a bit like apples and oranges, Gilly Salmon offers pointers to meaningful comparison.

Our thousand-year-old model of higher education has been strongly culturally transmitted. It is based on creating environments and facilities that ensure efficiency and effectiveness for university teaching and a “place to be” for the students, in social and academic communities.

Many researchers claim most of the highly familiar, well-embedded campus education models have not been fully evaluated. Maybe not publicly – though I think all university lecturers consider how they are teaching and give attention to students’ feedback and results.

It takes quite a bit of serious disruption to change these firmly held sets of traditional beliefs and expectations. As we move from “emergency remote learning” to “quality online learning”, many questions are asked. One is whether campus-based learning has parity with online learning. For example, if universities are offering something equivalent, excellent in its own way, then their reputations remain intact. But students unfamiliar with different ways of experiencing higher education may claim that what they are experiencing is not comparable.

Making comparisons

There is a whole spectrum of many modes of learning, teaching and assessment. Each have different characteristics. Essentially, campus-based versus online higher education is apples and pears, indeed, a whole basket of fruit. And, like fruits, the quality depends on the complex adaptive environment in which they grow, the ways in which they are delivered to the buyer, and the tastes and preferences of those who consume them.

On consumption, much of the recent evidence comes from large-scale entirely online learning which has, to date, attracted a specific type of student (typically older and/or returning to study). These students bring different life experiences, expectations and needs , compared to those residing on campus. Can we then reasonably compare? An overall principle might be to look for broadly the same input into educational and assessment experiences, and hold out for similar outcomes, regardless of mode.

There are some precedents. In 2019, there were 330, 000 students studying with UK universities without coming to campus at all. The Open University maintained its position as the university with the most enrolments in the UK. Others were from well-known place-based universities – usually based on their research or reputational strengths. Examples include UCL, Edinburgh, Kings, Leeds, Nottingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Derby, and Heriot-Watt.

In Australia, Swinburne University of Technology, a campus-based university in Melbourne, has 12,000 undergraduate students successfully studying online with high levels of quality and completion. The biggest challenges are engendering transformation within the institution to provide quality online provision and/or finding the right partner.

No significant difference

When technology enhanced learning was first introduced, from the 1990s, there were many attempts to compare modes of learning. It is notable that the early days were before stringent ethics approval and reliable technology platforms.

Let me point to the No Significant Difference database, established from 2004 and actively updated to 2010. It provides summaries of 355 research reports, each focusing on quite different aspects of education. The meta-analysis demonstrates that most of the studies found no significant difference and some positive effects for online formats compared to traditional face-to-face.

And another meta study with 1000+ empirical studies, in 2009, reported, “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Around this time recognition began that e-learning was no longer a subset of learning at a distance but had evolved in learning in technology rich environments occurring in a wide variety of ways outside the campus . As we moved into the twenty-first century it was called “online”; the first trace of the decrease in dominance of place-based higher education and calls for online strategies. By 2015, another meta-study concluded, “there is robust evidence to suggest online learning is at least as effective as the traditional format.”

Studies have confirmed this effect crosses disciplines, even those considered “more challenging”, such as STEM subjects and high human-touch subjects such as counselling. You might like to consider some quality indicators based on these studies.

Achieving equivalence in the post-Covid era

From the late nineties to the present day, my research on the role of online teaching and the importance of learning design has been based on grounded research with large numbers of online students and tutors. The models and frameworks continue to be tested and built upon on a large scale. They are being rediscovered by the pivot generation. They focus on shifting the design to scaffolding the learning for students, to active rather than passive approaches to learning online, and delivery by well-prepared online tutors. Learning analytics are adding to the mix and our ability to rapidly adjust. Technological environments and opportunities continue to improve.

Experience has continued to build up, including from dedicated online learning departments in many universities, by using the confidence from early statistical studies, and the high contextualisation possible by deploying principles, models and frameworks There are excellent publications from the many journals and conferences as well as rapid growth opportunities offered from commercial Online Programme Managers offering viable partnerships. In my view, this is the way that questions of “does it work?” can and should be answered, by reference to new models and action research.

What we can be sure about is all learners can equally benefit from online or on campus if the learning is designed and they are well supported. Students need effective models that are well-researched leading to high rates of completion and achievement, regardless of their mode of learning. To be most successful, academic staff need a small team around them to assist.

The best way to tackle such developments is to start with the desired outcomes clearly established, and then work back to modes of learning through a storyboarding process. Robust evidence should then be gathered and set within both the individual institutions’ goals and values and the wider educational agenda such as striving for excellence and equity, student choice

To be clear; the core mission, purpose and values of UK universities do not need to change – our reputations and leading the world can remain intact. But we do need to recognise the parity and the opportunities afforded by online right now. We can create “just as good” (if not better for some) through digital campuses.

This article is published in association with OES

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