Sterling Academy Blog

Face-to-Face Learning vs. Online Learning: Which Is Better?

Posted by Sterling Staff on Dec 7, 2014 11:37:00 PM

This posting was written by Sterling Academy faculty member Dr. James Croasmun.

You may have been engaged in some debate as to whether an online education is as good as an education acquired in a classroom.  Fortunately, there have been a significant number of research studies done to give us objective knowledge regarding this debate.

Many studies have been conducted which examine the effectiveness of online learning versus traditional face-to-face (F2F) courses. One such meta-analysis of these studies was conducted by Karen Swan. The conclusion as stated by Swan (2003) was, “…it is clear that when compared using gross measures of learning effectiveness, students learn as much if not more from online courses as they do in traditional higher education courses.”

A sample of her findings include:

  • A blind review process comparing students’ performances enrolled in an online graduate course with that of the same version of the course taught F2F showed no significant differences.
  • A study comparing mid-term scores between online and F2F students at Stevens Institute of Technology found little or no differences in student outcomes.
  • Two studies showed equivalent or increased performance of nurses in the field who graduated from online learning programs.
  • Three studies looked at faculty perceptions of student learning  as a measure of learning effectiveness in online courses. The vast majority of instructors felt that student learning outcomes were comparable or better than those in F2F courses.

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Thomas L. Russell (1999) compared student outcomes in online and F2F by examining 355 studies the result of which show no significant differences in student outcomes. Additional information on his work can be found at

While the delivery mode for learning materials isn’t important as we think (Clark, 1983) in achieving learning outcomes, there are other factors which affect the success of a course. These include:

  • How students interact with course interfaces/menus. Bad or confusing course structures can cause a decrease in learning.
  • Increased clarity in the course design, goals, and expectations lead to better learning.
  • Frequent assessments and timely feedback from instructors supports learning.
  • The quality and quantity of interactions between students and instructors is tied to student learning.

John Hattie (2008) compiled over 800 studies on learning and found that providing formative evaluation, teaching clarity, feedback, teacher-student relationships, spaced vs. mass practice, teaching strategies, mastery learning, and worked examples all significantly affected student achievement.

To summarize, the instructional design of a course, the relationships between instructors and students, and the type and frequency of feedback to the students are paramount to student learning.

Pondering (Original)



Clark, R.E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge

Russell, T.L. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon. Montgomery, AL: IDEC.

Swan, K. (2003). Learning effectiveness: what the research tells us. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds) Elements of Quality Online Education, Practice and Direction. Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education, 13-45.

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Topics: Online Learning

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