Recent studies suggest that online post-secondary courses may have a negative effect, especially for some learners within some subjects, when compared to on-campus courses. However, decision-makers should not interpret the findings to indicate that online delivery is generally less effective, only that the predominant models for online delivery currently used by the institutions in the study are less effective than currently used on-campus delivery models.
These studies may only confirm, for example, that video lectures 'broadcasted' online can be less effective than in-person lectures in which the lecturer can see the audience and gauge engagement/understanding. The studies generally analyze data sets about students enrolled in online classes without differentiating online delivery models. The online delivery model, especially for MOOC-style courses, is too often a less interactive substitute for a lecture series with homework and non-formative assessments. There is one advantage of a streaming video lecture over the physical lecture hall experience, the learner can pause and review the material again. However, the streaming video by itself does not have a feedback mechanism to gauge the learner’s understanding and adjust instruction accordingly. Effective online learning processes, like effective tutors, track individual learner competency and continuously optimize the learning experience.
The recent studies tend to compare the “place” in which learning takes place, i.e. online vs. in-class, rather than the models of teaching and learning used in the online and physical environments. The findings raise legitimate concerns about the currently used online models and the implementation of those models at a time when societal and financial pressures are pushing universities more toward online delivery. So rather than categorically discount online delivery, we should now ask “why” the models are less effective, and “what” are the characteristics of online models that are more effective.
Decision-makers and practitioners need new research that focuses on the learning model rather than the delivery mode. Online technology allows for interactive models of online learning that continuously monitor understanding and skills, provide timely feedback, continuously adjust the learning experience within the zone of proximal development, facilitate relationships for learning, and address motivational aspects of learning. I suspect that the less effective online models are the ones that overlook the individualized feedback, relationships, and motivational aspects of learning. I also suspect that, in many cases, the online models that address these aspects and leverage technology to overcome time/space/pace constraints will prove to be more effective than traditional fixed place/time course delivery models.