Your Professor, Your Computer, and You

Studies suggest that blending online and in-class instruction is the most effective way to learn.

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Can students possibly learn more sitting alone, staring at a computer screen for hours on end than they could sitting amongst peers and interacting directly with an expert well versed in the subject at hand? Surprisingly, several studies, including one by the U.S. Department of Education, suggest that students are able to retain more and perform slightly better in an online setting than in a traditional one.

Anthony Adornato, director of communications at Syracuse University's Burton Blatt Institute, who has had experience as a traditional and online student, has been pleasantly surprised by his experiences learning online at the graduate level at the University of Missouri. "I have found the program, which is predominantly online, to be far more rewarding and fulfilling than I ever imagined," he says. "Having said that, I think there is a big difference between getting a master's degree online versus an undergraduate degree online. I don't think there is anything that could replace the 'traditional' college experience." 

[Learn more about online education.] 

But for nontraditional students looking to pursue a degree of any type, having to study online should not be a deterrent, the studies suggest. The Department of Education study, revised in September 2010, analyzed more than 1,000 other studies of online education conducted since 1996. While the analysis found that students in a strictly online setting performed marginally better than in a classroom-only setting, it did not point to specific institutions or suggest that online programs are of a higher quality than traditional ones. 

Ultimately, the quality of the instruction and the program itself, no matter what the means of delivery, will have the greatest effect on a student's performance and overall retention, according to Jay Caulfield, associate dean of Marquette University's College of Professional Studies. Other educators agree: "A well-designed online course offers opportunities in a rich learning environment," says Timothy S. Ely, assistant vice president for online education and instructional design at Pennsylvania's Harcum College. "The effectiveness, much like in a face-to-face classroom, depends, ultimately, on the engagement and commitment of the instructor." 

[Learn how some online programs are curtailing dropouts.] 

The Department of Education's analysis pointed to blended learning—a combination of online and in-class instruction—as the most effective teaching method, which has since been echoed by the findings of Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University, who once doubted the effectiveness of online coursework. Loudon examined the performance of 226 organic chemistry students in fall 2009. Those that engaged in online homework on top of their class lectures and textbook homework had a full-grade higher average than their peers who studied without the aid of the online tool.

Loudon, who authored the textbook but had no hand in the creation of the online material, checked to see if the students who did the extra work online were more driven, or perhaps better students overall, but found no correlation between their organic chemistry grades and those they'd previously received in general chemistry. "Students are highly engaged when they work online because they get instant feedback," he says. "The degree of benefit surprised me—I hate to admit it. The study convinced me of something that I didn't believe would happen." 

[Learn more about online degrees before you enroll.] 

While Loudon was pleased with the results and plans on using the online homework for future classes, he is wary of limiting or eliminating in-class interactions with students, claiming the students would be hurt by the lack of spontaneous question and answer sessions and problem solving. Beyond that, career experts note that while students might be able to learn well online, they'll miss out on developing interpersonal skills that are critical to meshing in any professional setting. "In a work environment, face-to-face interaction and communication is crucial to success, and therefore the more experience interacting in professional situations face to face, the more experienced a person becomes," says Matt Eventoff, a communication strategist with Princeton Public Speaking.