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Online or Blended: Which is Better?

If you Google “online or blended?” you’ll find a number of opinions, the surprising majority of which offer a concrete answer: blended. But is that true? Is one delivery method really superior to another?

A recent study looked at this question more closely, organizing two groups of learners who were taking a course at an American university. One of the groups completed an online-only version—13 self-paced modules, videos, online discussions, and readings—while the other group participated a blended version—a weekly in-person session, supplemented by online modules and discussions.

In an effort to establish which method was more effective, the authors of the study assessed student learning via testing of the subject matter, as well as student perceived learning via questionnaires about the learning experience.

And the results were surprising, to say the least. Both groups had equally excellent learning outcomes, meaning that learners mastered the subject matter well, regardless of course delivery. However, there were significant differences in the learner experience. The online-only group found the difficulty of the course to be much greater, the workload much higher, and the support level much lower than did the blended delivery group.

There were some areas of agreement between the two groups: both felt that clear and concise content was the most important factor in their learning, and everyone agreed that individual and group projects were the most useful aspect of the course.

What this means for eLearning

While it’s tempting to deduce from this research that blended formats are inherently more satisfying for students than online-only courses (and there are plenty of articles online arguing this point), it’s a more complicated issue than that. For one thing, online courses allow for completely remote learning, meaning that learners can participate from anywhere in the world (a huge benefit for many organizations made up of global teams). For another, as this study pointed out, it’s not really the delivery method that determines learner satisfaction—it’s also the quality of the course design.

How to create the best learner experience in an online-only environment

There are some salient points to glean from this study, including:

If your learners don’t feel supported, they may have a poorer experience in the course, even if they are able to master the content. Online discussions that are moderated by an instructor or leader, open lines of communication between instructor and learners, group projects, and multiple opportunities for feedback are all ways that interactivity and support can be built into any course—even one that is online only.

Learners in both the online-only and blended group reported that clear, concise content most helped their learning. Those who had a bad experience reported sentiments like: “I really didn’t completely understand these,” “I need more examples to comprehend these concepts,” and “Lesson was too complex for me to understand.” A clearly organized online course is more effective than a confusing blended or in-person course any day.

Learners are often surprised to find that online courses typically feel like a heavier workload than classroom or blended versions—a fact that stands in contradiction to the myth of the “easy” online experience. Part of this may be because learners have a more difficult time focusing when they are not held accountable by the time and space constraints of a classroom and physical instructor—it’s much harder to sit through a video lecture on your laptop at home, where distractions often interrupt concentration, than to listen to a live lecture in a hall. What is clear is that learners perceive online work to be harder. So in order to engage them more fully and to improve the learner experience, online-course designers may need to include elements of engagement that stand in for in-person interactivity. Think storytelling, gamification, interactive video, and forum discussions—the possibilities are endless (and often fun).

Source: Lim, D.H., Morris, M.L., Kupritz, V.W. (2007). Online vs. blended learning: Differences in instructional outcomes and learner satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks; 11(2), 27-42.

For more infomation on online learning, check out these blog posts:

Can eLearning Influence Behavior Change?

Rubrics: The Scaffolding of Quality eLearning

6 Ways to Create Authentic eLearning