This is the second post in a series of articles that tackle common objections to and arguments against using massive open online courses (MOOCs) for training. Read the previous article: Public Libraries Are Failures.

I’ve heard all of the benefits of online learning. Learners can access the course materials anytime, from anywhere. They can schedule their courses around their life, rather than their life around their courses. Companies can offer the same amount of training in less time and with considerably less expense.

I know all of that. But when it comes down to it, people just don’t learn as well online. They don’t put in the time or they get distracted by their email. They can’t easily ask questions. And besides, there is just something magical about an instructor standing in front of a class that simply can’t be replicated in or replaced by the online experience. Right?

The myth that people don’t learn as well online–that there is indeed something magical about face-to-face instruction–is as pervasive as the myth that teaching to individual learning styles affects learning outcomes (it doesn’t). The idea that people don’t learn as well online is usually the first argument made against massive open online courses and in defense of instructor-led training (ILT). But it isn’t true.

Let’s explore the research behind this idea.

How does online learning compare to face-to-face learning?

First, let’s briefly return to the idea of completion rates, which were the focus of the previous post in this series. In all (or close to all) of the studies that have been done comparing online and F2F learning, the completion rate is higher for F2F. However, while the fact that more people drop out of online courses may mean many things, it doesn’t mean that overall people don’t learn as well online. The data we need to examine is the comparison between online and in-person learners who could reasonably be expected to learn the same amount (i.e., those who actually complete their courses).

Teasing apart the research on online versus F2F courses isn’t easy, because the courses are rarely directly comparable and because of the many different types of students who take the courses. Here, I’ll focus on the results that are most relevant to training formats.

Studies showing online learning doesn’t work

There are, indeed, plenty of studies showing that students in online courses don’t learn as well as students in F2F courses. For example, this study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found “modest evidence” that in-person instruction is superior to online, and this study out of Columbia University found that online students were more likely to fail than traditional students.

However, while results like these may be important in academic environments, they are less relevant for corporate training. The reason is that many of the studies that show online learning to be inferior focus on remedial courses or students who are already at a disadvantage. In the NBER study, the biggest differences between online and F2F learning were found among students who were relatively low-achieving to start with. Even the highly publicized failure of the partnership between San Jose State University and MOOC provider Udacity focused on introductory and remedial courses for students who had graduated from high school, but didn’t have the skills to succeed in college.

This caveat is important to keep in mind as it helps explain the different results we see when larger datasets and more high-achieving students are considered.

Studies showing online learning does work

Probably the most widely cited study in favor of online learning was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education on data from K-12 classes. They performed a meta-analysis of studies, most of which took place between 2004 and 2008, and concluded that on average, online students perform better than face-to-face learners. Other studies have also found either an advantage of online learning or no difference between learning formats. For example, this study analyzed learning outcomes in students taking continuing education courses and found that they were “essentially the same” for both the fully online and the in-person formats.

What conclusion can we draw?

Although the results from remedial courses may be disheartening for colleges and universities, the evidence largely supports the idea that online learning is at least equivalent to F2F learning for the demographics most relevant to corporate training. For high-achieving, motivated learners, the format doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on learning outcomes at all. Other factors, such as the effectiveness of the instructor, likely have a much greater influence.

In addition, we must consider that the most relevant studies haven’t yet been done. For example, on this blog, I’ve highlighted many new technologies, like LectureScape, which have the power to lift digital learning to a whole new level. No research has yet been examined how these new technologies impact learning. In addition, while mobile learning is starting to come into its own, there haven’t yet been any large-scale studies showing learning outcomes of mobile courses.

In terms of comparing learning in MOOCs to learning in person, these studies will likely have to be done by companies, which have more control over their learners and what happens in their courses than the colleges and universities that are currently offering free courses for all.

The take-home message here for corporate trainers is that people can, and do, learn just as well online as they do in person. I would even argue that they learn better, for many reasons I’ve discussed before, such as they can re-watch videos and access the information at the moment they need it. These are the kinds of things that will eventually differentiate new forms of online learning, like MOOCs, from anything that has come before.

Copyright  Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.

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