Can we truthfully answer this long-standing conundrum?
My personal stance, as a long-standing educator who grew up in an age when the only option was the classroom, has always been that classroom training is the preferred and most effective learning modality whereas eLearning offers major benefits in terms of scalability and cost.
However, this view is not based on any hard, empirical evidence and is more based on my personal preferences and reflection on my own experiences. I decided it was high time to challenge this view by finding some robust research findings addressing this long-standing question. My interest was to understand the relative efficacy of eLearning (defined as asynchronous learning) against classroom training, rather than comparing the virtual classroom (synchronous learning) to the physical classroom.
My internet research quickly surfaced an expert in this area, Dr Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research, Inc. He has carried out an extensive review of the academic literature in this field as well as conducting his own research, and his analysis and conclusions offer a good depth of insight to answer the question accurately and fully. You can read his full research paper here.
The superficial outcome and answer to the question as to which learning modality is more effective is somewhat surprising, and can be stated as below:
classroom training < eLearning < blended learning solutions
where < means less than
However, Dr Thalheimer delves deeper into the research methodologies and characteristics in order to give us more valuable insights, as follows.
The real truth of the matter is that the relative effectiveness of learning is not correlated to modality, but it is directly correlated to the methods or pedagogy of learning used. Let me expand further on this very important distinction.
What Dr Thanlheimer recognised is that there is no single pedagogy or design approach either for eLearning or classroom education but in fact, there are many, many different pedagogies applied to both modalities. Now, if the research design ensures the same pedagogy is used for both modalities used in the comparison then it turns out that both modalities are near equally effective.
Let me just expand on what I mean by pedagogy and design approach. Pedagogy is defined as ‘the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept’. It is all about how a course is designed to get across the teaching points in a clear, understandable, and memorable way to the learners. This includes the use of visual aids, learner exercises, discussion groups, opportunities to practice, knowledge checks etc. that is, all the elements of an educational process that make it different to simply listening to a presenter, reading a book, or watching a video.
What the researchers identified is that if the same or near-equivalent teaching methods are used in both modalities then the outcomes in terms of learning effectiveness are much near to equity. For example, if a video-based scenario or an animated graphic has been developed and used in the eLearning course, then the tutor in the classroom course should show the students the same media asset.
One of the reasons that, in less controlled studies, eLearning delivers better outcomes to classroom training is that the more thought-through design process that is applied to eLearning content ensures that the pedagogical approach is more rigorous and effective and this compensates or even over-compensates for the lack of synchronicity in this modality.
The most important takeaway from this research is to bother less about learning modality and more about the learning pedagogy, irrespective of whether it is classroom, virtual classroom or eLearning based.
From an eLearning design perspective this will mean paying attention to all of the following, as appropriate to the subject matter:
- Use video and animation to bring complex concepts and information to life.
- Providing opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning and think about how it applies to their workplace.
- Considering retrieval recall versus recognition options when creating learner assessments and knowledge checks. Recall is where a learner has less prompting in terms of the information required whereas recognition is where a learner is promoted to recognise the correct response from a list of options.
- Avoid the temptation to overburden the learner with too much information – it is better to present 10 knowledge points for a learner to be able to remember 8, than to offer 20 and find that learners only remember 5.
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