Many trainers look at online learning as a tradeoff: not as good as in-person instruction, but so much more cheaply delivered that it’s worth the hit.
To test that assumption, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a meta-analysis of thousands of empirical studies from 1996 to 2008, many from medical training and higher education.
The DOE compared pure online learning, face-to-face instruction, and “blended learning” (some combination of the two). The results:
- Adult online learners actually did better than trainees who received face-to-face (classroom) instruction. Most studies found “small” to “medium” effects favoring online learning.
- Online learning seemed to engage trainees more. Some studies showed trainees spent more time “on task” in online conditions than in face-to-face learning. Researchers’ interpretation: The advantages for online learning may not have to do with how the online training message is delivered, but that students simply spent more time with the lessons.
- There was no significant difference between pure online and blended learning. However, using online tools freed up more time for face-to-face instruction.
- However, some studies found no significant statistical differences between blended learning and face-to-face instruction, judging by trainees’ test scores.
Here are some implications of this research:
1. You don’t have to trade off training results for cost savings when you use online tools. The common wisdom – that online tools are cheaper than classroom-style training but not as good – isn’t borne out by the research. E-learning can be at least as effective as traditional training methods, and possibly more so.
2. A quick rule of thumb to assess online tools’ effectiveness is “time spent on task.” If trainees are spending more time with e-learning tools – assuming they’re truly engaged and not just marking time – you’re using the right tool.
One way to find out: Don’t just review the reports of log-in time, but look at learners’ behavior during and after the learning. Are they asking each other for answers? Do they discuss the training afterward? Do post-assessments show that they get the concepts, not just the basic information?
How not to do it: One manager told his crew how to treat a mandatory online sexual harassment training program: “Just get it done. We just need to prove you took it for our records.” No follow up or discussion, so the manager didn’t know if the trainees were engaged, how much time they spent online, or their reaction to the training.
Better: After workers take the training, engage them in discussions. Get learners to focus by letting them know there will be a follow-up session. When learners know they’ll have to show mastery of the material, they’ll be more likely to pay attention.
Source: U.S. Dept. of Education. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies.
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