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In the last few weeks, two new studies, one by WCET and another by Caroline Hoxby, reported that online instruction is not only more expensive than face-to-face teaching, but also that it's a poor investment compared with in-person education.

These and other studies are not only seriously flawed, but the fact is that digital and face-to-face learning are not fundamentally at odds. Despite what many believe, online and on-campus classes have been joined at the hip for years. Consider that at most schools, every course—whether online or on campus—must now post  syllabuses on every class website. Both virtual and residential students now log onto the same school-wide Learning Management System (LMS).

At many colleges, homework assignments, readings, watching videos and taking tests are commonly done online. "Flipped" classrooms depend on digital instruction for at least half of each semester and, increasingly, mass open online courses (MOOCs) have surfaced as part of many college curricula.  Not as common, but surely soon to infiltrate many classes, is the injection of social media, often serving as pedagogical illustrations, online and on campus.

In some classes, faculty teach face to face on campus while simultaneously streaming their lectures to other students, either located in a classroom at a remote site or accessing  video versions of the course on laptops or smartphones worldwide.  Some discover that virtual teaching can act like a training camp, where instructors acquire innovative pedagogical methods they exploit in residential classes. As digital education enters the academic mainstream, some instructors offer courses in conventional classrooms to on-campus students and deliver the same class in virtual space to distance learners at the same university during the same semester.

Today, both digital and residential students can manipulate the same software remotely as do scientists, engineers and scholars. Accessing large-scale systems at a distance is now possible in many industries, with virtual and face-to-face students performing experiments or running operations remotely with equal confidence as those at the site.

A few years ago at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering where I work, a state accrediting team was uneasy about approving an online electrical engineering master’s because they worried about student access to a virtual lab, a requirement that seemed pretty risky to them. Eventually, the degree was approved when reviewers recognized that students could perform experiments digitally, just as they might play a video game, by touching a screen and tapping on a keyboard. Ironically, students in the residential section of the program had been running the same virtual lab in their on-campus class for years.

At many schools—NYU Tandon, for one—students are free to mix and match, taking some of their classes on campus and others online.  The same is true for Stanford, Michigan and many others. Andy DiPaolo, executive director emeritus of Stanford University’s Center for Professional Development, told me, “We never made a distinction between online and on campus. Your degree doesn’t say you earned it online. Students have the option of going online or on campus or taking a blended degree. It’s a Stanford degree.”

It’s highly unlikely that a residential freshman, entering one of the nation’s colleges and universities this fall, will earn her degree without being plugged-in virtually. She might take at least one—if not several— fully online classes, perhaps participate in a flipped classroom (or two), enroll in a MOOC, and possibly access a remote lab. During her time in college, she will surely engage daily in dozens of other routine digital practices, supported by the school’s LMS and other academic software.  As I noted in an earlier essay in Inside Higher Ed, “The division between online and on campus is rapidly disappearing, and, at some institutions, technology has penetrated the classroom so deeply that the distinction will soon be obsolete.”

When history books are written about the current war between online and face to face, readers will wonder what all the fuss was about and why there was so much mischief. Looking back on the fierce battles between movies and television in the 1950s, when Hollywood worried that TV would put it out of business, it’s uncanny how today, the two have blended so closely that they have swallowed each other whole. Most of us can’t possibly imagine giving up one for the other.  Chances are, someday, the online versus on-campus dichotomy will be equally incomprehensible.

If you search Google Scholar for "comparing online with on-campus instruction," you'll be astonished to discover that there are more than 42,000 entries. When digital education was introduced more than two decades ago, after thousands of studies, slicing and dicing research in dozens of ways, results consistently showed that there was no significant difference between the two modes. A classic meta-analysis of high-quality studies, performed by the U.S. Department of Education several years ago, concluded that by and large, digital and face to face resulted in nearly a draw, with online given a slight edge. Not by much, blended topped both.

So why do scholars insist on performing divisive studies that heighten an "us" versus "them" antagonism?  The results of their inquiries tend to foment a false conflict, pitting mature face-to-face teaching against callow virtual instruction in academic warfare. But unlike schoolyard dust-ups, the consequences are not trivial, with trustees, state legislators and senior academic officers, among others, exploiting capricious comparative research outcomes to bolster entrenched ideological positions. Budgets, policy, oversight and investments hinge on public perceptions. A poorly executed piece of research that triggers bold headlines, concluding that online students don’t do as well as their on-campus peers, can end up killing innocent—even highly successful—programs.

Peter Shea, associate provost for Online Learning at the University of Albany, points out that there is still tough work ahead, despite the fact that on average there is no significant difference between the two modes. Shea said, “Just as many studies find online learning to be as good as they find it to be worse than face-to-face education.”  The real question is to tease out what features of virtual instruction will show consistently better outcomes.

So let’s call for a moratorium on comparative studies that egg-on conflict between conventional and virtual instruction and open the way for research on the educational consequences of collaboration between virtual and face-to-face learning. That will turn our attention to more productive and insightful work on what is really happening in colleges and universities. 

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