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A Traditional Classroom May Not Be Necessary

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In this Reader’s Platform, your author makes the case for the effectiveness of distance learning.

It is of interest to note that research on the effectiveness of distance learning, as compared to traditional classroom teaching, dates back to 1928, when an old form of distance learning was in practice: correspondence courses. One of the first documented, formalized studies on correspondence courses was conducted by R.E. Crump, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. The study was conducted via Crump’s doctoral dissertation. His conclusion, quoted by researcher T.L. Russell in his book, No Significant Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education, was simple: There are “no differences in [the] test scores of college classroom and correspondence study students enrolled in the same subjects.”

According to Russell, the number of distance-learning effectiveness studies has continued to grow since 1928. In Russell’s book, he identified 355 studies that showed no difference in distance-learning students compared with students in face-to-face classroom settings. Equally important is the fact that when there were differences identified between student performances in a traditional classroom setting as compared with distance-learning courses, student achievement was generally higher for students in the distance-learning courses. 

The no-significance studies cited by Russell cover all modes of distance learning. A sampling of the modes includes correspondence, teleconferencing, compressed video, teletraining, television, programmed instruction and Internet-based training. The type of sites covered include traditional classrooms, leading-edge distance-learning systems available at the time of the respective published study, as well as courses transmitted to an individual computer or other learning medium in the home or workplace.

Colleges, universities and corporate trainers are now able to take advantage of the effectiveness of distance learning through desktop computers, tablets and smartphones.

During the past year, I had an opportunity to evaluate distance-learning operations at a community college. One of the evaluation elements was to conduct research on the effectiveness of the college’s distance-learning programs. There were 1,502 collegiate students enrolled at the college for one full academic year. One element of the study was to conduct an analysis of the cumulative grade point average (GPA) for students taking at least one distance-learning course versus students who did not participate in the distance-learning program. For the GPA variable, the total N was 1,502 with distance-learning students (n = 663) having a mean GPA of 2.79, and non distance-learning students (n = 839) having a mean GPA of 2.63. There was a statistically significant difference between the two groups (t = 4.08, p < .001) suggesting that those with distance-learning courses had higher GPAs.

Colleges, universities and corporate trainers are now able to take advantage of the effectiveness of distance learning through desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. Equally important, corporations and small companies can realize multiple benefits from developing distance-learning courses or converting legacy training programs to a distance-learning platform. The first benefit is financial savings. Providing distance-learning training for employees will save travel and lodging costs for offsite training. The second benefit is that employees will not waste valuable production time traveling to and from a training site. Finally, the third benefit is that employees can review the subject matter, which enhances mastery of the course content.

Also, thanks to today’s advanced distance-learning technologies, synchronous (real-time) or on-demand courses can include fully interactive, video and audio transmission through desktop computers, tablets, etc., in an asynchronous, “anytime and anywhere” mode.

Finally, as technologies improve, it becomes possible for limited types of “hands-on” training to be conducted via distance learning. Predictably, as these technologies evolve, we will see innovative ways that hands-on training in a distance-learning environment will be possible. This, in turn, will improve the quality of training in corporate and small-company settings.

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John H. White has been in the education and training field for more than 35 years and has developed training programs for the vertical-transportation industry for at least 25 years. He served as a consultant for the development of the National Association of Elevator Contractors Certified Elevator Technician (CET®) and Certified Accessibility and Private-Residence Lift Technician (CAT®) programs and as the director of Professional Development for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Through his company, TechWrite, White provides training, education and administrative services in corporate, college and university settings. He holds both a doctorate and master’s degree in Education from Columbia University, an MA in Education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a BA from Alabama College.

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