Schools and universities around the world have moved or in some cases are considering moving to offering online classes due do COVID-19. Instead of being able to meet classmates, directly ask questions after a class or chat over a coffee, most of us are at home for classes. For many, this could be in a room that is not large enough to swing a cat and with walls we have grown weary of looking at. After a long day of classes and feeling new forms of exhaustion, those caused by trying to pick up facial expressions and fine meanings that now require greater concentration than in-class instruction, you may be asking yourself if online learning offers the same level of knowledge transfer as in-class instruction. Many news outlets are always posing the question in a slightly different form as fall semesters near their start dates, by inquiring if students will receive the same value, should classes be online (again). From the perspective of knowledge transfer, there is no significant difference.
There are many studies that support online learning being as effective as traditional frontal instruction that have been completed over the years. However, there are also a few issues with many of these studies such as limited class time (see Figilio, Rush & Yin 2010, 4) or the strong majority (2 out of 1000 analyzed) did not have the same instructor for online and traditional instruction (see US Department of Education 2009). The even bigger issue with many studies is that the students were given the option of choosing which class to take – online or traditional, with many online classes being only recordings of the traditionally taught class. These situations are an issue for comparative scientific research, but also student-instructor and student-student interaction.
And now on to you: you were not really provided with much of a choice in mid semester 2020 when classes moved to an online format. To complete classes, you had to be online. So, should you worry about the knowledge transfer, especially considering the many lopsided studies above? No.
When knowledge transfer was evaluated in an online study (Weilage, 2012) that overcame the issues facing other researchers (length of class times, length of study period, differing instructors, self-selection) and with internet connections that were a fraction of current speeds, no significant difference was found. The online group even performed better on the first transfer test. And a later recall test also showed no significant difference with the online group achieving an overall minimally higher score.
Is it normal to have a feeling that your personal learning success assessment is lower? Yes. One question in the study (Weilage, 2012, 209) showed that 45% of the traditionally instructed participants in comparison to only 24% of the online participants rated their learning success as above average. The student fear was that when confronted with a new learning environment that was technologically based, performance on graded assessments would drop. If the past semester was also your first online learning experience, you may have also encountered the same feeling, even though research shows no significant difference in learning outcomes.
The study I completed (2012) also demonstrated that, in addition to elevated knowledge transfer rates, online learning can lead to improved learner skills in different areas than traditional classes, based upon students’ own assessment and related to the form the online learning takes. This means, for example, while we may be fatigued from concentrating on multiple videos to help us with the context and richness of the learning experience, this is a skill that could help us in non-video environments. If your online classes require more writing, then we should embrace the opportunity to improve this aspect.
The Common Issues
As with all things, there is another side to the coin. One issue that was often cited (Weilage, 2012) as an issue for the online learners was the tempo at which classes were conducted. In online learning environments this could take the form of an instructor proceeding at a faster tempo due to lacking feedback from students (eg: body language signals – hence why it is important to always keep your video on!), hesitation in asking a question (due to either other questions being submitted, feeling of topic having advanced to far to ask). And then there are also the personal challenges like being at home causing concentration issues (dishes, laundry, internet, other people in the living arrangement).
In The End
There are many advantages to online learning and knowledge transfer levels are very positive. Yet for many of us, not staring at a computer screen for a long day of classes will be motivating in itself. And, being able to be in a dedicated learning environment and, for example, not at the kitchen table with the dishwasher beeping in the middle of class, will also be wonderful. In the end though, we are all now better prepared future learning forms.
Figlio, David, Rush, M., Yin, L. (2010). Is it live or is it internet? Experimental estimates of the effects of online instruction on student learning. Working Paper 16089. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w16089.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy (2010). Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Washington, D.C. 2010.
Weilage, Christopher (2012). Effektivität des medial vermittelten Wissenstransfers im Sprachtraining. https://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/15065/1/Weilage_Christopher.pdf