A long time ago, I asked Bill Cope what the evidence says about the superiority of online learning over blended and face-to-face. My experience had already consistently been that you could achieve so much more with the confines and constraints of physical space removed.
Of course, it is complicated. But Bill pointed me to the two meta-analyses published in 2010 that provided fair and definitive evidence to answer two questions. Yet, in the field of global health, the underlying assumption of funders and technical partners remains that there is no better way to learn than by flying bodies and materials at high cost. This is scientifically and morally wrong, does not scale, and has created a per diem economy of perverse incentives. It is wrong even if it is easy to understand why international trainers and trainees both express a preference for the least effective, low volume, high cost approach to learning.
Question 1. Does supplementing face-to-face instruction with online instruction enhance learning?
No. Positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. (It is more likely that positive effects are due to people doing more work in blended learning, once online and then again in a physical space.)
This is the conclusion of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: a meta-analysis and review of online learning studies” in September 2010. You can find the full document here.
Question 2. Is the final academic performance of students in distance learning programs better than that of those enrolled in traditional FTF programs, in the last twenty-year period?
Yes. Distance learning results in increasingly better learning outcomes since 1991 – when learning technologies to support distance learning were far more rudimentary than they are now.
This is the meta-analysis done by Mickey Shachar and Yoram Nuemann reviewing twenty years of research on the academic performance differences between traditional and distance learning: summative meta-analysis and trend examination in the Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 6, No. 2, June 2010.
Image: Online learning networks. Personal collection generated by Mindjourney.