Liberated from Distance Learning Myths

Written by: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
Published On: October 13, 2012

Every field develops its own conventional wisdom, beliefs that are so much a part of the consciousness that they are rarely questioned. Distance education is no different.

That is, unless you are Barry Dahl.

Dahl, owner of Excellence in e-Education, has made a name exploring and exploding some of the myths that populate the online education field. His thoughts may make you question the beliefs you always took for granted.

Myth #1: Completion rates for online developmental courses lag behind the on ground versions.The Teaching Professor Conference

Many take it as an article of faith that, in order to ensure student success in developmental courses, these courses must be offered in a traditional classroom format. Not only is the institution dealing with students who need help with foundational skills, they are also dealing with a population likely to quit an online course when the going gets rough.

This belief is echoed by many experts in the field. As one example, Dahl quotes National Center for Developmental Education (NCDE) director Hunter Boylan. In an address, Boylan was asked to share best practices in online delivery of developmental classes, and stated, "there aren't any." Boylan went on to contend that completion rates for online developmental courses are "abysmal - way below the rates for on ground courses."

This may be Boylan's experience, but Dahl says evidence exists both pro and con. "You can find things on both sides, like red meat will make you live forever [or it will kill you,]" he says. He cites experience with online developmental education at his previous institution, Lake Superior College, which offers online developmental courses in math, reading, and writing, typically taught by the same faculty who teach the traditional versions of these courses.

When looking at a population of over 500 students who took developmental courses online and over 2,200 who took the classes face to face, the course withdrawal rates were identical at 15.7 percent regardless of delivery method. Even more significant was the uniformity of result. Slightly more on ground students passed with a C or better, but slightly more online students passed when passing was defined as D or better. More As were given in online courses, but more Fs were given in on ground courses. The overall GPA for online courses was 2.37, while traditional courses produced an average of 2.31. Significantly, failure due to non-attendance was higher in on ground courses. At least for LSC, students were not failing to complete online developmental courses at a higher rate than traditional classes.

Myth #2: Quality Matters should be the focus of online quality efforts.

"I am a fan of Quality Matters, but I get painted as a foe," says Dahl. He adds that "Quality Matters is not the end all and be all of quality in distance education."

Dahl's quarrel is that many believe Quality Matters to be a sufficient measure of the quality of an online course, a belief supported by its position as the gold standard of online course quality. However, Dahl believes it has limitations. "Quality Matters is a very good tool for looking at course design, but that is all that it is," he says.

For example, Dahl considers three possible scenarios. In the first, the course design meets standards, and the teaching level is high, but learning level is low. That course is not successful, regardless of the high rankings on assessments.

On the other hand, consider a course that fails a course design assessment like QM, but the teaching level is high, as is the learning level. In this case, Dahl would be unconcerned about the course's failure to tick all of the QM boxes, "Who cares?" he says. "They might be doing something different."

Finally, he considers the case of a course that performs beautifully on a rubric like QM, but the teaching level is low, as is the learning level. It could be "the most beautifully designed course in the history of the world," he says, and still be a failure. Course design evaluation is "the least important of the three," Dahl says.

Myth #3: We must understand digital natives and non-traditional students and treat them according to research.The Copyright Case We’ve Been Waiting for: Key Lessons & Policy Changes

Digital natives. Net generation. Texters. Generation Y. Millennials. These and more are all names for the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, and most educators have picked up a book, article, or online piece purporting to help older professionals understand this mysterious new generation.

Except, says Dahl, one size does not fit all when dealing with this or any other generation. "'Digital natives' is a cottage industry to sell books," says Dahl, who cites even the popular Strauss and Howe schema as an example of a generational theory based on limited data.

To further complicate the matter, higher education professionals are also advised to look at research about nontraditional students and cater to this population’s unique needs, especially a discomfort with technology.

However, Dahl points out that the nontraditional population is usually assumed to be age 25 and over, while an increasing number of Millennials are between 25 and 30. So which is it? Digital natives or fearful of technology? Adult students or one of the kids?

In fact, the very act of lumping every student over 25 into one category is absurd, according to Dahl. He explains that the variance within the nontraditional population is greater than the variance compared to the traditional student population, making this category an artificial division at best. All nontraditional students are not created equal; neither are all millennials. Rather, Dahl advises colleges and universities to do research on their own students to better understand the needs of their own population.

Myth #4: It is important to build a sense of community for online learners.

To increase retention, bolster student success, and give online students the real college experience, it is imperative that we build a sense of community for these students, many contend. This belief has been the source of much angst for many distance educators. This is nonsense, according to Dahl.

"Most who come to us for online learning don't need another community," he says. These students are already a part of many communities, including a neighborhood, a church, a family, an in-law's family, and all of the communities that come with having kids. "There is a sense that we have to provide them with a college experience, but that's not what a student is looking for," he says. "They're already up to their eyeballs in established communities," he added in a presentation on the topic. Dahl emphasizes that creating community in small groups may be useful. "It doesn’t mean you shouldn't build a community online [for a course]" he says. These small communities organized around a purpose are useful. However, "if you have an ice cream social online, that's the nuttiest thing in the world."

Myth #5: Students are not satisfied with online learning.Distance Education Report Newsletter

Many online programs stress over student satisfaction with online learning, but again, the truth is program specific. To demonstrate this point, Dahl looks at data from LSC, comparing results from Noel-Levitz surveys for online and on campus students. In this case, the PSOL was administered to online students and the SSI to on campus students.

Across a variety of questions, including those measuring timeliness of faculty feedback, clarity of program requirements, and quality of instruction, online students consistently ranked LSC higher than did on campus students. This is in spite of the fact that in most cases students were reacting to the same services, with no difference in service provided to the online students compared to the on campus students. In at least this case, online students were an extremely satisfied component of a very satisfied student body. These findings demonstrate that student satisfaction with online learning can vary by institution.

So what is a distance education administrator to do about the pervasive quality of these myths? Dahl advises others to "become an investigative reporter on your own campus." Many of these myths are born of highly localized data that appears to make so much intuitive sense that the conclusions have been generalized. Instead, colleges and universities should take the time to test these theories with their own student populations. Some myths may be true on your campus, others may be dispelled by some research, but the institution will have the information needed to better serve their student population.

But regardless of the research findings, an online ice cream social will always be just plain nutty.


This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 15.20 (2011): 1, 2, 7. The Distance Education Report newsletter is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.