Baby vs. Bathwater

Reading this report was definitely interesting. Six years old is pretty ancient in the realm of technology, however, I don’t think that made to much difference here.   The report didn’t go into specific   tools, which is where the primary developments over the past 6 years reside.

I must admit to being very surprised by the finding that their was no difference in the learning outcomes between online and f2f instruction. I was struck by the thought that the instruction is the important thing and the modality is irrelevant.   My personal experience backs that up. One semester I took 2 online classes which ended up representing both the top and the bottom of the field.   Both were topics that I was interested in and intrinsically motivated to get the most out of.   What made one so much better than the other? It came down to the instructor/instruction more than the technologies used.   On the same token, I have also had really good and really bad face to face classes. Again, the instruction/instructor making all the difference.   So I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was.   Good instruction is good regardless of the modality.

Or is it?   I followed up on a hunch and found a 2009 study (Ashby, Sadera, & McNary) comparing the success rates of community college developmental math students in online versus face-to-face course sections.   The differences are staggering, “The completion rates for this sample were significantly different, with 93% of the face-to-face students completing the course compared to 70% of the blended students and 76% of the online students.’

Perhaps too many of the studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis report were conducted with the graduate/medical field students.   Though the authors caution against making to many generalizations to the K-12 arena, the results are probably equally suspect in adult learning situations with different populations of learners.   It’s tempting to throw out the baby with the bath water on this one, but I do think there were some valuable lessons learned.   Maybe not 90 pages worth, but…

Ashby, J., Sadera, W., & McNary, S. (2009). Comparing student success between developmental math courses offered online, blended, and face-to-face. The Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 10(3). Retrieved from


4 thoughts on “Baby vs. Bathwater

  1. I love the brevity of your writing! I too honed in on the fundamental aspects of good teaching, regardless of the method of delivery. Whether synchronous or asynchronous, effective teachers engage their students by utilizing active and interactive learning to build understanding around subject matter. An ineffective teacher won’t be able to convince a student to use the absolute best technology because reciprocal respect doesn’t exist. An effective teacher will often be able to convince a student to use the worst technology because of the mutually respectful relationship already in place.

    I wonder how much of effectiveness of an online course depends on the students perception of their own competence? In the 2009 study you reference, could the stark difference be attributed to the fact that this was a developmental math class? In my mind,”developmental math” would be a refresher course for kids that haven’t taken math in a couple years or were not successful with it in high school. There would likely be a lack of confidence and positive self image toward math if the topic has been challenging in the past. Does this mentality necessitate face to face interaction for maximum benefit? If that’s the case, it would explain why online remedial courses in ASD are failing.

  2. It’s telling, I think, that the study you found immediately showed significantly different findings from the report we read. Not that I’m trying to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn’t be surprised of the Department of Education hadn’t been deliberately stringent with their requirements so as to (hopefully) be more likely to make certain findings. I do think that we have to try to make generalizations about K-12, not because it’s necessarily a good thing, but just because that’s what humans do. I do think the report was enlightening but the *relatively* homogeneous nature of the samples in the report do make taking much away from it difficult.

    “Good instruction is good regardless of the modality.”
    -> I’d like to see what the correlation is, not in student success, but in teacher evaluations, between face-to-face and online instruction. Are the teachers who are good at teaching online classes also good at teaching face-to-face courses? Do certain teachers thrive in one setting but not the other? That could be something to follow up on…

    1. Good points, Nicholas!

      I think the answer to your last question is that it depends. Some teachers really thrive off the theatrical performance aspect of F2F teaching. That’s not there so much online. If you get a buzz off the sage-on-the-sage thing, that’s a hard hunger to feed online. But, I’ve encountered many F2F faculty who love the expanded opportunity of time and place that online offers.

  3. Great work, Kim.

    “Good instruction is good regardless of the modality.” Indeed!

    And great follow up with the piece about remedial math education.

    One of the things you’ll find about online education is that due to its nature, the medium is predisposed to a student cohort which is already “at risk.” Students are often trying to fit courses into an otherwise busy life, which may involve work, kids, or other obligations. Thus success rates can be misleading. Face-to-face courses tend to select for students who have more time available, may have more financial resources, and more freedom in general to spend time engaged in the learning process. This isn’t the total picture of course, but significant enough that there may be some statistical differences inherent to the mediums.

    Also, failure rates in development math courses. Hmm.. In some cases, these are students who have already been selected out of the standard paths due to a variety of challenges.

    What are national average online success rates vs. national face-to-face success (completion) rates. What other factors might be at play?

Leave a Reply