Achievement in Online vs. Traditional Classes (Distance Learning)


Universities and colleges constantly attempt to address student needs by offering courses in various time frames. Because it is difficult for teachers to enroll and attend classes during the “normal” two- or three-day format for 15 weeks, graduate classes in education are typically offered as a one evening per week class. In summer, when teachers usually are not working, classes may be offered in an alternative format meeting for longer periods of time in each class session but for fewer weeks. There are, however, questions concerning the changes in class scheduling. Although the seat time in an eight-week extended period class is equivalent to a 15-week class, are the learning outcomes equivalent? According to Rayburn and Rayburn (1999), if only responses on multiple choice Accounting exams were considered, there was no effect of class length. If, however, problem solving was also considered, there was a statistically significant effect based on length of the class.

In addition, in recent years, there has been widespread interest in using technology to solve some of education’s critical problems—increasing student learning, providing flexible formats, making classes more accessible for diverse students (e.g., older, work-ing)—to improve the current and projected shortage of teachers and school administrators. Many methods (e.g., online courses, interactive video) have been utilized to provide a more flexible format and to reduce travel time for commuting students. With the use of Web-based technology or online courses, seat time is not known. If a student accesses the particular lesson online for an hour, the instructor does not know if the distant student was really reading the lesson—or simply left the computer on. Consequently, seat time cannot be a criterion for these classes. This suggests a further question, if online methods are used, are learning outcomes equivalent?

The current study was an attempt to answer these questions when dealing with a master’s- level educational research class. Specifically, the purpose of the current study was to determine ifthere were differences in the mid-term and final examination results of the class between a traditional 15-week class, two eight-week intensive summer classes, and an eight-week online summer class.


The amount of time spent in a classroom (commonly called seat time) has been a standard for judging the value of a class for years. Schools have established policies that if a student is absent for a specified number of classes, the student cannot pass the class—regardless of knowledge. Higher education institutions have used the number of minutes of classroom meetings to determine the hours of credit for a class. Yet, many professionals have argued that performance—that is, attaining objectives—should be the focus of evaluation. Carnevale (2001) suggested assessing outcomes rather than mode of instruction or time in study. Seemingly in response to this, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (Performance, not seat time, 2000) has shifted from assessment of seat time to performance-based evaluation. Consequently, the new NCATE standards emphasize results that show the student’s competence rather than seat time (Equity and high standards, 2000). This situation has encouraged the development of Web-based classes.

Distance Education

The basic criterion for distance education is distance between the teacher and the student. Distance education is not new. This technique was begun in the 19th century with correspondence education (Klesius, Homan, & Thompson, 1997). It has, however, changed from the correspondence delivery method, through radio methods, to today’s computer and interactive video techniques.

Although more classes are being offered via distance education (Tucker, 2000), the findings regarding the effectiveness of the courses are mixed. For example, Brown and Liedholm (2002) reported live students perform significantly better than virtual students; Colorito (2001, as cited by Russell, 2001) found that online students out perform on-campus students; and Gagne and Shepherd (2001) found no differences in performance between online and traditional students (see Russell, 2001, for a more comprehensive listing of studies). Other researchers have contended that differences in online and traditional students are not due to mode of instruction or distance, but rather to the differences in the populations (DiBiase, 2000) or that instructional design, not delivery mode, impacts learning (Carnevale, 2001).

Currently, distance education has been used for high school students as an alternative method to earn credentials in the General Education Development (GED) program, to obtain college credits (Green, 1996), or in attempts to revitalize curricular programs (Fucci & Hueston, 1997). Some universities have developed dual-degree partnerships with interested businesses to provide on-site, on-demand graduate programs (Haynes & Pouraghabagher, 1997).And, some universities have developed programs to deliver education to rural areas or cultural groups (Monaghan, 1996).

Prior researchers in distance education have investigated student satisfaction, communication techniques, teaching behavior, and change fostered (Moore & Thompson, 1990). In addition, interaction with the instructor has been central to the success of a distance education program. When a distance education program has active support, some researchers have found no differences in program rating between home and remote sites. Thyer, Polk, and Gaudin (1997), however, reported that live instruction was rated significantly higher at a college campus than distance learning. They add that distance learning has not yet demonstrated comparable outcomes in terms of student learning.


In the summer of 2000, the researcher was assigned two master’s-level research classes to be taught in an eight-week time span. Although the seat time for the class was the same as the 15-week class taught the previous Spring semester, because the class only met eight times, each session was longer than the 15-week session. In addition, the classes were given 10 homework assignments and a research proposal as the final project. Because the quantity of work encompassed in an eight-week span seemed overwhelming, there was some concern about the time students had to reflect on research methodology and, as a result, the quality of learning. Consequently, a midterm examination identical to the one used during the Spring semester, a 50 item multiple choice exam, was given to the summer classes.

In the Fall 2000 semester, the researcher began to construct a Web-based version of the same class to be offered during the Summer 2001 session. When the class began, students were assigned to groups of four. Each group was given a private discussion room. Online PowerPoint presentations were used to emphasize key points. This class was conducted in an 8-week time period. The Web class was also given 10 homework assignments and a research proposal as the final project. However, nine of the homework assignments were group rather than individual assignments. Again, the same midterm was used.

In addition, each of the four classes had an “open book” 100-point final examination. Although the final exam was not identical for the four classes, the content covered was. Students were all asked to distinguish between various forms of studies, to critique written articles, and to construct in outline format hypothetical studies using instructor-selected topics. The same text was used in all classes. Because the midterm examinations were identical and the final examinations were not, scores produced by the midterm and the final were analyzed individually using analysis of variance in SPSS rather than a multivariate procedure.


There were no statistically significant differences (F3 96=1.51, p=.22) in the midterm means between the 8-week Web class (M=79.22), the two 8-week summer classes (M=80.50, 76.0), and the 15-week Spring 2000 class (M=79.74). In fact, the two summer classes exhibited the highest mean as well as the lowest mean, as shown in Table 1. Class differences accounted for less than 5% of the variance as measured by eta square.

There were also no statistically significant (F3 92=1.55, p=.21) differences in the final examination means between the eight-week Web class (M=90.53), the two eight-week summer classes (M=85.54, 86.81), and the 15-week Spring 2000 class (M=84.27). Class differences again accounted for less than 5% of the variance.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics for the midterm and final examinations by class

Class Condition


Standard Deviation

Sample Size









8-week Summer




8-week Summer




8-week online












8-week Summer




8-week Summer




8-week online





The purpose of this study was to determine if there were differences in the midterm and final examination results ofthe class between a traditional 15-week class, two eight-week intensive summer classes, and an eight-week online summer class. No statistically significant differences (p<0.05) were found in either case. There were, however, some other interesting findings.

The finding of no difference with regard to the multiple-choice midterm examination was in partial agreement with the findings of Rayburn and Rayburn (1999). I would contend, however, that because many of the exam questions required application of information to situations producing higher level thinking skills rather than rote memorization, the length of the class (eight-week vs. 15-week) does not influence assimilation of information. Because the shortened class length occurred in the summer when most of the class students were not teaching their own classes, they had more time to consider models proposed or information presented than they have in the traditional 15-week semester.

Another interesting, though statistically insignificant, finding concerned the results for the final examination. The final examination was “open book,” requiring critique of published studies, construction of research methods to answer specific questions, and ability to distinguish between research methods. Participants in the online class produced the highest mean. Could this finding imply that because of the structure of online classes, participants become more attentive to written material?

In conclusion, although the constraints (i.e., varying semesters, graduate classes) required to conduct this study limits the ability to generalize to other situations, the findings suggest there are no differences in outcomes based on class length or format. Further research into the attentiveness aspect of participation in online classes is suggested.

key terms

Correspondence Education: Delivery of class lessons by mail.

Distance Education: Teaching in which there is distance between the instructor and the student.

Eta Square: Statistical measure of the amount of variance accounted for by a treatment.

Interactive Video: Presentation of class via video with student ability to respond to the instructor.

Learning Outcomes: Measure of the performance of a student after receiving treatment.

Online Course: Delivery of class via the World Wide Web.

Performance-Based Evaluation: Measure of a student’s performance after receiving treatment.

Seat Time: Time spent in a traditional classroom.

Traditional Students: Students attending a face-to-face class.

Web-Based Class: Class offered via the World Wide Web.

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