Title image for Will Thalheimer's research

Elearning vs classroom

It’s an old chestnut. Elearning vs the classroom. What’s more effective for learning – a tutor in front of a flipchart or various computer-mediated ways. Some recent research has come with up answers – not stunningly new but confirming best practice and best advice that’s decades old.

Way back in the late 1980s, before you were born

When I was new to this game I had the privilege of being a student on two courses by Dr Ruth Clark. She was (and still is) one of the leading lights in what was then called Computer Based Training (CBT) in the US. One of the courses began with the question ‘What’s more effective for learning – CBT or classroom?’

She talked us through some research that showed the modality – classroom or computer – isn’t the factor that makes the difference to learning effectiveness: it’s the learning methods that are applied. She used this as the basis of her case for using instructional design methods based on cognitive science to present information and practice in ways appropriate to the content and aims.

Back to today

It all seems obvious in retrospect but if you

  • overload people with information
  • don’t base it on what they’ll have to do with it,
  • or what they’re expected to remember and what they aren’t

they’ll forget most of it. This will happen regardless of whether you bore them with a 30-screen page turner on the laptop or bore them in person with a 40 minute lecture. If you give people realistic tasks that resemble what they have to do at work, and give them clear feedback based on their decisions, they’ll learn whether it’s on-screen or in person.

Clive ShepherdClive Shepherd has repeatedly made the point that learning methods – exposition, exploration, guided practice, and discovery – are timeless. Choose the appropriate method and it will be effective. Technology may or may not then step in to make it more efficient. But technology isn’t what makes it effective.


Where there’s a Will … (sorry, I had to!)

I was reminded of Dr Clark’s introductory session when I read the research summarised by Dr Will Thalheimer in Does Elearning Work? What the Scientific Research says.

Title image for Will Thalheimer's researchIn an easily digestible 30-page summary he looks at lots of research (in the form of statistical meta-analyses) looking at modern elearning vs classroom, and other studies relevant to the question. His starting point is that we think elearning must be effective because everyone in education and business uses it – so it must work, right? Balancing that is the common groan from workers told they have to do some elearning, the feeling that it’s boring and over-hyped and it’ll never replace a good instructor.

There are four sections:

  1. Meta-analyses of classroom vs elearning studies
  2. Single studies that focus on the range of activities included under the umbrella of elearning
  3. Studies of deep and non-trivial elearning applications
  4. Studies of topics relevant to to modern elearning, such as simulations and games.

Will’s conclusions – or rather what he says are the conclusions of research:

  • If you control a piece of research for learning methods, the results of elearning and classroom are pretty much the same
  • If you don’t, results tend to be better for elearning
  • This is because generally more attention is paid to selecting appropriate methods in elearning design
  • Blended learning – combining online and face to face – outperforms face to face, largely because the elearning component uses more appropriate methods.

The methods that are most effective are:

  • Realistic decision making
  • Authentic tasks
  • Feedback
  • Spreading repetition over time


It ain’t all good

Vintage photo of man looking worriedBefore we get too triumphalist, however, he notes that the advantages of elearning shown in these studies tends to be small to moderate.

Why? Because much elearning doesn’t use these methods. It’s stuck in the assumption that its job is just to impart information – what Clive Shepherd calls ‘exposition’ – with the same information-transfer mentality as the lecturer who reads a chapter of a book or the instructor who talks through a deck of bullet-pointed slides.

Thalheimer points out that retrieval practice – exercises that make you retrieve information from memory – outperforms elearning that doesn’t use it.

He concludes with a plea to designers to focus on method first.

Don’t assume elearning is best. Don’t assume classroom instruction is best.

Also, don’t assume learning methods traditionally utilized in one modality can’t be utilized in another.

We see in the research review how even such classroom staples as role plays and
discussions can be successfully utilized online. We should also be aware that interactive
learning methods typically used in elearning can also be parlayed successfully in classroom

The research is there – use it!

Maybe you’re trying to persuade a manager or a client to use better learning methods. Or just trying to talk them away from dumping the course notes into elearning.  This research should give a little more power to your arm.


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