Pérez-Prado, A., & Thirunarayanan, M. (2002). A Qualitative Comparison of Online and Classroom-Based Sections of a Course: Exploring Student Perspectives. Educational Media International , 39 (2), 195-202.
The purpose of this study, according to Pérez-Prado & Thirunarayanan (2002), was to explore students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences by comparing an online course with a classroom-based course on teaching ESL strategies to teachers.
While reading through this study, I had a recurring thought; depending on how the online and classroom courses are designed, it’s possible to influence the results to ensure the outcome confirms the researcher’s bias.
Without even looking at the study, you could probably figure out how the design of each of these courses would influence the perception of each method. What if my online course had no chat or forum capabilities but my classroom course was entirely based on group-work? What if my classroom course depended solely on monotone lectures from the front of the room but my online class used an interactive game-like UI that situated the learner in the appropriate context? What if I chose clips from really good movies to illustrate points for my online course but had students read their textbooks for the classroom course?
What exactly is being compared? This is the question I found myself asking while reading this study. For example, one of the themes identified by the authors was the “importance of the affective domain in the learning process”. In this category, students in the classroom course had a lesson delivered entirely in Arabic. The purpose was to give them the experience of what it’s like to be unable to communicate or understand what is being said. Students in this class commented on how they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, lost, and confused. For the online version of this lesson students had to read about the experiences of ESL students, and imagine themselves in this situation. The researchers found that the online students were “not as affected by the experience”. No kidding! This is not a comparison of online to classroom. To create a closer comparison, the online lesson could have been delivered in Arabic asking students to type commands or click buttons.
While I understand that qualitative studies don’t require researchers to be unbiased, one still should add value to the broad base of knowledge. This study just doesn’t take me where I need to go. When I think about the challenge many businesses face today in deciding whether to move to online learning or stay with classroom-based learning, cost has two measures: the financial cost and the social cost. Calculating the financial cost is simple; add up the dollars and cents. Calculating the social cost is much more difficult. To truly understand the value of each method I need to know what will, or will not work in each setting. Only then can I truly determine which is the best tool for my organization and the type of instruction I want to deliver. But in fairness to the authors, how does one determine what is an equivalent in this kind of setting? And if the researchers aren’t technically savvy, how will they be able to build an equivalent online course?