In Distance Learning, the Cup Is Half ... Something

By Ullman, Craig | Distance Learning, March 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

In Distance Learning, the Cup Is Half ... Something


Ullman, Craig, Distance Learning


The good people of NCREL, the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, have come up with a "meta-analysis" on the effects of distance learning in K-12, and I'm not sure whether their study is incredibly validating-or a total disaster.

A meta-analysis is a study of a bunch of studies. Essentially, NCREL examined every respectable study on the effects of distance learning-any kind of distance learning-over the past 5 years and boiled them down to 14 that met all their criteria. Those 14 studies yielded "116 independent effect sizes drawn from a combined sample of 7561 students" (you can ready the meta-analysis at http:// www.ncrel.org/tech/distance/ k12distance.pdf). Their performances were compared to a control group of nondistance learning students.

Most of the students in the studies were in secondary school; the classes were either synchronous or asynchronous, or some combination; the classes were held 5 days a week, or not. In short, the study reviewed a wide variety of distance learning practices, with very different affordances.

The study does go through a series of caveats before stating their conclusion. It's only one meta-analysis, after all. One must remember Piaget and of course Vygotsky. Some subject matter, like complex math, does not quite work in a distance learning format. And we need more information.

But the study does have a conclusion, however tentative: "The analysis resulted in an overall weighted effect size not significantly different from zero ... distance education is as effective as classroom instruction."

My problem is, considering my deep antipathy to traditional classroom practice, I'm not sure whether the conclusion is good news or bad news. Another way of putting the results of the study is that nothing matters. Whatever educational choice you make, whatever technology (if any), and presumably pedagogy as well-it doesn't matter. The students will do about the same no matter what; those who come to school motivated to learn and expecting to succeed by and large will, and those who don't, by in large won't. …

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