3. Comparing Modes of Delivery

3.2. What the Research Tells Us?

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education. With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies. A meta-study combines the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, usually studies that use the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2010; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference between the modes of delivery, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2009), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

Means et al. attributed the slightly better performance of blended learning to students spending more time on task. This highlights a common finding, that where differences have been found, they are often attributed to factors other than the mode of delivery. Tamim et al. (2011) identified ‘well-conducted’ comparative studies covering 40 years of research. Tamim et al. found there is a slight tendency for students who study with technology to do better than students who study without technology. However, the measured difference was quite weak, and the authors state:

It is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention.

Research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. Indeed, it is the variables we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about the mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended, or fully online learning respectively? 

Fortunately, there are much research and best practice that provides guidance on that question, at least with respect to blended and online learning (see, for instance, Anderson, 2008; Picciano et al., 2013; Halverson et al., 2012; Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014). Ironically, what we lack is good research on the unique potential of face-to-face teaching in a digital age when so much can also be done just as well online.