Of Course There are Significant Differences

Online learning is a disruptive innovation in education.  It has created new education markets by increasing access, opportunity, and choice to people around the globe.  It has challenged people to consider new possibilities for effective and engaging learning environments.  As a researcher and distance learning leader, I am among the first to speak about the promise and benefits of online learning.  I am quick to point out the myriad of “no significant difference studies” when it comes to student outcomes in online versus face-to-face learning. I will note that online learning opens the doors of higher education to people in a variety of circumstances.  The single mom working two jobs who aspires to a new calling in life can make that a reality with online programs, getting her work done after the kids are in bed.  The salesperson with an 80% travel schedule can work toward an MBA without having to miss class.  Working adults are able to develop new knowledge and skills to advance in their company through online and blended courses, ones that allow for study in the evenings and weekends.  There are hundreds of such scenarios that illustrate the promise and value of online learning.  There are hundreds of similar scenarios that point out the benefits of other forms of learning as well, the traditional resident-based liberal arts college, study at a research University, or participation in one of the alternative Universities.

It is too simplistic to say that there are no significant differences.  There are many significant and substantive differences and it is obvious.  The way that students communicate and work in online programs is qualitatively different.  The way that students interact with the instructor and one another is different.  The way that students experience the school culture is different.   It is different to look people in the eye in an intimate seminar class, debating a particular topic.  That is an altogether different experience from having an online debate on the same subject in a threaded discussion or even a live synchronous online session.  All of these things and more are different, and they matter.  This is not to say that one is always better than the other, but I am saying that qualitative differences are of significance.  These are worth reflection and consideration as schools decide if, when and how to implement online learning… because there are many ways to do so, and each way has affordances and limitations.

These are also worth reflection for the person who is seeking the education.  Beyond course, grades and a degree; what else is important for a given learner?  Is networking important?  How about a deep and lasting mentoring relationship with an expert in your field?  How important is it for you to develop new friendships and relationships that revolve around common passions and interests?  How important is cost and getting out of college with few or no loans?  How important is it for you to have a flexible education that allows you to fulfill other responsibilities in your life while pursuing your formal education?  Do you want to develop your ability to tele-commute and communicate in writing using a variety of emerging technologies?  Or, do you see a need to hone your ability to think and speak on the spot, in a room full of diverse people?  These are worthwhile considerations.

Education is about more than courses, grades, and course or program-specific outcomes.  It is about more than measuring student learning, student engagement and student retention.  It is about more than strategic planning, mission statements and core values.  All of these are valuable and important, but education is always about more than these.  The one non-negotiable in education is learning.  That is the essential attribute.  The rest goes into the category of “important” or “merely present.” It is now time for schools and students alike to have open and lengthy conversations about what is important to them and why.