Throughout my time as a Training Development Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), as well as during my studies in the domain of education, I have been asked many times which is better, more effective, and/or more satisfying: distance learning (DL) or traditional classroom-based learning? What does the research say?
The answer is “It depends!” I have experienced excellent examples of DL, as well as poor examples, and I have experienced excellent examples of classroom learning, as well as poor examples. Chances are that you have too! Variables such as the quality of the course design, the effectiveness of the technology and the learning environment, as well as the incorporation of (or lack thereof) quality interactions with instructors and peers all affect the quality of the course, whether it be delivered via DL, face-to-face in the classroom, or in some blended format. So, let’s have a look at what the research has to say.
There have been many studies over the years comparing DL with traditional classroom-based courses, both for effectiveness and learner satisfaction. A well-known historical theoretical debate took place during the 1980s and 1990s between Richard Clark and Robert Kozma concerning training delivery systems. On one hand, Clark (1983, 1994) stated that the medium was a neutral carrier of the course content and method, and that the important aspect that could affect the outcome of learning, positively or negatively, was the instructional method. Kozma (1994), on the other hand, argued that as DL technologies evolved, Clark’s (1983) earlier assertion was just not enough as, “a medium’s capabilities enable methods” (Kozma, 1994, p. 20). Newer interactive technologies, for example, that enable such things as collaborative learning, can, indeed, influence learner outcomes.
Generally speaking, though, research has found that there is no significant difference in learner outcomes or satisfaction between DL and classroom-based instruction. Indeed, an entire website is dedicated to supporting this conclusion (nosignificantdifference.org). Numerous meta-analyses over nearly two decades have led to this conclusion. Russell (1999) reported, using a meta-analysis of 355 studies, that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes (i.e., effectiveness) based on the mode of education delivery (traditional classroom versus DL) alone. Several meta-analyses have also looked at learner satisfaction comparing distance education and the traditional classroom. For example, Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, and Mabry (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of 22 studies with a total sample of 3822 learners (after removing three outlier studies). These 22 studies compared learner satisfaction for distance education to the traditional classroom in higher education. The meta-analysis concluded that learners found distance education as satisfying as traditional classroom study.
Within my own doctoral research (2020), I delved into CAF members’ DL satisfaction with a sample of 368 CAF members who had graduated from CAF Professional Military Education programs between the dates of January, 2015 and March, 2018. While I didn’t compare DL to classroom learning, it is interesting to note that 78% of survey participants reported that they were somewhat or very satisfied with their DL experiences and 16% reported that they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with their DL experiences.
Although this sounds rather positive for CAF DL, it is also very interesting to consider that when asked, with all thing being equal (e.g. time required), which mode of delivery members prefer, classroom or DL, 71.7% said that they would choose classroom learning and 28.3% said that they would choose DL. There are multiple reasons why this could be and some could be CAF-specific, such as high operational tempo, technology issues, etc. I did find, however, that course quality and design variables, such as instructional methods, course materials, technology effectiveness, and interactions with peers and instructors were all predictive of DL satisfaction. Additionally, as some members reported having difficulty juggling their work and home life with their DL, support from the Chain of Command (often in terms of hours provided to devote to DL) was also a significant predictor of DL satisfaction.
As DL tools continue to evolve, we now have new ways to interact with learners at a distance. While we continue to improve upon our DL offerings, one thing is shown over and over in the research. There is no significant difference in the effectiveness of learning, depending solely on whether the learning is in the classroom or via DL. The differences are most often found in the quality of the design, development, and delivery of training & education. Effective technology, fulsome and valued interactions by a skilled facilitator (either synchronously in a virtual classroom or asynchronously in a discussion forum), and high quality design should equate to effective learning with satisfied learners regardless of delivery method.
I propose that we put this decades-old debate to sleep and focus our energy on making all of our training & educational offerings the best learning experiences possible, regardless if the delivery is through distance learning, within a traditional classroom, or some mixture of both.
Allen, M., Bourhis, J., Burrell, N., & Mabry, E. (2002). Comparing learner satisfaction with distance education to traditional classrooms in higher education: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Distance Education, 16(2), 83-97.
Clark, R.E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.
Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, (2), 21-29.
Jones, K.A. (2021). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.
Kozma, R. B. (1994). Will media influence learning? Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 7–19.
Russell, T. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon: as reported in 355 research reports, summaries and papers: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.