What Teachers Can Teach Us

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?


Good Question.

(Is it? I honestly don’t know.)

Eric Fredericksen (2015) is one of the many researchers that struggled to answer this question. Having been a face-to-face teacher for over 25 years, Fredericksen warned we should not romanticize traditional classroom because not all conventional learning experiences meet the learning needs of all students. As usual, Fredericksen noted the benefits of online learning including flexibility that enables learners to reflect, expand upon, and participate in discussions with peers. Whether this is done real-time or not, it could still lead to an increased depth of understanding regarding new learning concepts (Fredericksen, 2015). Frederick also walked the well-threaded path of attempting to refute general perceptions that online learning is not as engaging for learners with research conducted by the University of Rochester (2006). After studying over 1,000 online instructors, 1,500 online plus courses, and more than 25,000 students enrolled in online classes at 53 colleges, the study concluded the same level of satisfaction, learning and engagement can be attained in online group learning environments as those in face-to-face classrooms (Shea, Peltz, Fredericksen, & Pickett, 2006).  After attempting to respond to the question, Fredericksen, as usual, concluded his article, as usual, by advising additional studies and research is warranted. Therefore, after reading Fredericksen’s article, I am still left with an unanswered question…

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?  

Considering the numerous literary reviews I have conducted over the last two years, I am now wondering if we are asking the right question.  Can the broad-range concepts, constructs, and frameworks affiliated with online education, whether synchronous or asynchronous, even be compared as equitable to traditional face-to-face instruction?

To me, to answer the question requires an examination of the subjective opinions and perceptions of the actual influencers and evaluators of this paradigm: classroom teachers.

Jan Van den Akker (1994) made this point precisely when he advised that the implementation of change in the classroom (distance learning, distance education, synchronous and asynchronous online instruction- by any name – represents change) is subject to four distinguishable variables:

  • The inherent challenges and nature of innovation;
  • School politics and personalities;
  • Teacher self-efficacy related to the innovation; and
  • External influences that are beyond the control of the other variables

Van den Akker explains that, while external factors can make or break online learning programs, all instructional materials and presentation, regardless as to whether the delivery mode is synchronous, asynchronous distance, or face-to-face, fall under the control of the teacher. Van den Akker wrote that most educational innovations fail because instructional designers, learning management systems, and software programmers often do not see the teachers as partners during the design, development, and implementation of changes that impact classrooms and students (Van den Akker, 1994). This can be a huge error that cost them dearly later.

Van den Akker also considered the challenges evaluators face while trying to measure innovation effectiveness.  He argues it is hard for evaluators to determine if the various iterations of technology into course curriculum were implemented as designed. How can evaluators measure whether the blended and hybrid methodologies were employed according to the design plan? What questions should evaluators ask to measure whether the ideals and intentions of the instructional design documents were apparent or whether the teacher adhered 100% to its precepts and intentions? How can evaluators confirm the teacher did not find the implementation plan so complex, he or she was unable to integrate the change without impeding student learning or normal classroom practices?  In other words, how can evaluators accurately access the success of technological innovations in the classroom without asking teachers?

In my opinion, Van den Akker drove home his point. Regardless how great something appeared during design and development, it is the teacher’s perception of the need, relevance, quality, and practicality of that innovation that influences its value.  This makes it clear to me that, if the teacher feels the change did not lead to increased learner development, whether their view is right or wrong, the change from face-to-face to synchronous or asynchronous instruction could end up labeled as “no good” (Vygotsky, 1978).

I feel Van den Akker did well in outlining the steps instructional designers should take to ensure they support teachers as they strive to move from one instructional platform to the next. Plans are needed to help the teacher implement and integrate change – including how to incorporate the new online instructional materials and methodologies – into their everyday.  His recommendations included embedding motivations and incentives within the implementation plan that moves the teacher from “self-oriented” powerless target to “task-oriented” champion.  Unless teacher make this this transition in beliefs, attitudes, and self-efficacy, Van den Akker warns teachers, as the ultimate subjective factor, will determine whether face-to-face or online synchronous/asynchronous are better for their students and their learning environments.

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?

I honestly don’t know. But, I plan to find out. I plan to ask the teachers.



Fredericksen, E. (2015, February 4). Is online education good or bad? And is this really the right question? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/is-online-education-good-or-bad-and-is-this-really-the-right-question-35949

Means, Barbara, 1949-. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service.

Shea, P., Peltz, W., Fredericksen, E. E., & Pickett, A. M. (n.d.). Online teaching as a catalyst for Classroom-based Instructional Transformation. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/44490548/faculty01.pdf

Van den Akker, J. (1994). Designing innovation from an implementation perspective. The International Encyclopedia of Education.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. From: Mind and Society (pp. 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


2 thoughts on “What Teachers Can Teach Us

  1. I think you have your central research question starting to form around this one you ask about in your blog post for this week’s reflection: “What questions should evaluators ask to measure whether the ideals and intentions of the instructional design documents were apparent or whether the teacher adhered to it 100% to its precepts and intentions?” That being said you should break out this question towards individual items you can measure as you assess the instructional side of online learning. What can you ask instructors, based on their experiences and perspectives, to learn more about measuring outcomes of teaching in digital environments? Keep in mind they can share about their practices, pedagogy, and how they prepare learners to engage online; however, not always the final outcome. Keep this in mind as you further explore your own research proposal development this week.


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