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Comparison of Distance Learning Degrees and Traditional Degrees: No Significant Difference

written by: Jacqueline Chinappi•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 7/11/2010

Research studies have shown that online students learn just as effectively as traditional students. Here we will look at what studies have been done comparing the two modes of learning.

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    The No Significant Difference Phenomenon (NSD)

    Distance learning has been known by many names including correspondence learning, interactive televised education, and more recently Internet or online education. Distance learning has been studied for over eighty years, and the majority of the studies have found no significant difference between distance learning and traditional education in a physical classroom setting.

    The No Significant Difference Phenomenon (NSD) is an assemblage of research studies done starting in the 1990s regarding distance learning. Results from studies show that online learning is just as effective as traditional face-to-face learning and, at times, may be more beneficial. Research has shown an increase in learning with distance education as well as an increase in attention from the students. There is also more communication and interaction between teacher and student in an online environment, which is imperative in any course.

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    Many people think that distance education is a new trend, and, yet, students have been learning through correspondence education for over fifty years. Ray E. Crump (1928) conducted a study to show that there was little difference between correspondence education and traditional education. This was not only one of the earliest studies done involving distance learning but also one of the first experimental studies performed in the United States (Lichtman, 2010).

    Almost fifty years later, Saloman and Clarke (1977) studied media and technology in education. Studies showed that there was no considerable dissimilarity in performance between face-to-face testing and testing using television (Saloman & Clarke, 1977). This study backs up the idea that distance learning is just as effective as traditional learning in a face-to-face setting. Bruning, Landis, Hoffman, and Grosskopf (1993) completed a study with the end result proving that test grades were higher with the use of technology. Not only has distance learning been shown to be as successful as traditional learning, but it has also been shown in this study to be more successful than traditional education.

    Success and effectiveness with distance learning does not stop with achievement tests. It has also been proven that online courses can help with a decrease in computer anxiety and an increase in content knowledge (Maki, Maki, Patterson, & Whittak, 2000). Students are having better educational experiences which lead to better outcomes. Gender differences play a role in the performance on tests and online classes. Females are shown to benefit more than male students in a distance learning setting (Kashy, Albertelli, Kashy, & Thoenne, 2001). This can be due to the boost in self-confidence one gets while sitting behind a computer screen.

    It was also shown that there was an increase in communication between classmates while in the distance learning setting (Kashy, Albertelli, Kashy, & Thoenne, 2001). This communication between classmates can play a very important role in an individual’s education as it can add to the enhancement of the course, allow for the student to work with peers, and add to educational success (Rubin, 1990). Rubin (1990) studied communication among college students and there was evidence that communication capability fluctuates in college and can help or hurt an individual’s education experience and outcome.

    In a more recent study evidence had shown that the completion rates for online courses were much higher than offline independent study courses (Giguere, 2009). With technology eternally growing, online learning gives new hope for those individuals who thought they could never achieve an education or expand on their education. The flexibility and mode of learning allows for a single mother of two or a middle aged man in the middle of a career change to attain an education using their learning style.

    Online faculty members have stated that the end result of student’s performance is either as good as or even better than when learning in a traditional class. Dobrin (1999) found that 85% of faculty surveyed stated that online learning was just as good as or at times even better than face-to-face learning. Hoffman (1999) found similar results to that of Dobrin (1999).

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    With all of this data backing up distance education, why do so many people put it down? This may be because of the fear of the unknown. Distance education has to do with technology which is forever changing and advancing. At least with the brick and mortar schools students and faculty could stay in their comfort zone. Distance education makes that reach where many students have to learn new ways of thinking as well as new ways of communication. Lifelong learning seems to be a myth though if so many people can not accept the changing ways of education.

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