image: Flickr user Greenflames09
A randomized, controlled trial just published in the open access journal PLOS ONE compared two methods of e-learning to one face to face classroom group, and online learning came out well from the comparison. The students were all Danish nurses specializing in anaesthesiology; the course was an elementary unit on lung volume. The first e-learning group had information presented textbook style, without even pictures. The second group had a far more engaging-sounding interactive case-based e-learning program, while the third group was also presented with case studies in a live classroom with time for Q&A.
All three groups had comparable improvement on pre- and post-tests in questions that looked for simple recall of concepts and terms. But on more complex free response questions that called for problem solving and application of information, the students who learned through case studies, whether live or online, scored higher than those who simply read a book. There was no meaningful difference between the eCases and the face to face classroom case studies.
Looking critically, the experimental design may have been subtly biased toward the eCase study group. The group that did the case studies online viewed the exact same slide presentation as the face-to-face group and were able to follow multiple paths through each case. They were also able to view each case multiple times–they ended up spending the most time with the material of any of the groups.
On the other hand, in order to create the most consistent possible conditions for comparison, the classroom teachers were limited to a strict, timed script and followed just one path through each case. They were available for questions afterwards, but the strict teacher-led didactic structure removed some of the possibilities for serendipity and free-wheeling discussion that are possible in the best face to face learning situations, as described memorably by this recent Times opinion piece. Presumably a large amount of the value in medical education specifically is in hearing practitioners speak about their own clinical experience, not just review case studies from a book.
Finally, the n or sample size of this study is far too small–63 students–to draw broad conclusions about the strengths of elearning vs. classroom learning. What I do like about this paper is first, the randomized, controlled design, which as I’ve discussed before is too rare in the world of e-learning research; second, the intelligent take on differentiating types and levels of e-learning.
The authors reference a taxonomy of e-learning created by an e-learning industry blog back in 2010.
The company, UpsideLearning, created the taxonomy as a way of describing the resources needed to create various types of custom e-learning resources, but it’s useful in thinking about pedagogy and course design as well. They designate three types of learning methods, Presentations, Scenarios, and Game/Simulations, and, separately, three levels of elaboration in multimedia features: 1) text, basic images, audio, simple interactivities. 2) all of the above plus video, animations and 3) complex animation/3D graphics, and complex multilevel and multivariable interaction (more like games) .
All of this is separate from learning objectives, which may include simple recall, analysis and/or problem solving.
I hope to see more research studies on e-learning that draw these kinds of distinctions.