Distance Learning: The Learning Case

*This post is the second in a multi-part series on the effectiveness of online learning.

A significant body of research indicates online learning is more effective than in-person learning at achieving identified performance outcomes. While this conclusion may surprise readers accustomed to the in-person training environment, thousands of studies conducted over the past two decades suggest students who participate in online learning perform modestly better than those who receive in-person instruction. In this short post, we’ll summarize major research findings on the topic and opine on the information’s relevance to the law enforcement training world. Although training and education have different objectives, with training focused on ensuring students can complete some hands-on skill and education focused on ensuring students retain and understand some concept, the online delivery method is often appropriate in both contexts. This has positive implications for law enforcement and security training professionals, and indicates online courses are suitable for many law enforcement and security topics.

The Research

1. In a 2010 meta-analysis of more than one thousand online learning studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, researchers examined twelve years of research literature comparing online and in-person learning. Systematic examinations of the literature resulted in several key findings in support of online education. Most notably, the research indicated students who took all or part of their course online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. In addition to this conclusion, researchers also highlighted these key findings:

  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.

  • Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.

  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.

  • When groups of students are learning together online, support mechanisms such as guiding questions generally influence the way students interact, but not the amount they learn.

2. In another meta-analysis, Schachar & Neumann (2003) reviewed data from eighty-six studies involving over 15,000 students and reached similar conclusions. The authors compared the differences between the academic performances of students in distance education courses relative to those enrolled in traditional settings, and determined that students enrolled in online courses outperformed traditional students in two thirds of cases. Based on this result, the authors opined that distance learning is an effective form of instruction and questioned the value of face-to-face instruction for some students.

3. In a controlled experiment, Neuhauser (2002) compared two sections of the same course, one online and one in-person. The sections used the same instructor, same content, and same assessments, and the comparison found the online section received slightly higher final grades. Additionally, 96% of the online students gave feedback indicating they found the course as or more effective to their learning than their typical face-to-face course.

4. The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, a yearly report based on feedback from 380,000 randomly selected first ­year and senior students at 722 US colleges and universities, reported this key finding:

“Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-­based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.”

5. Australian researchers Freeman and Capper found no differences in learning outcomes between business students participating in role simulations either face-to-face or asynchronously over distance.

6. Blackley and Curran-Smith found distance students in a nursing program performed as well in the field as their in-person counterparts, while Nesler and Lettus identified nurses who graduated from an online program rated higher on on clinical competence than nurses who studied in an in-person program.

The Impact on Law Enforcement & Security Training

While this is simply a tiny sample of the large amount of data related to the efficacy of online learning, it suggests that online delivery methods are as good or better than traditional in-person classes. Furthermore, the huge body of research on this topic suggests that online courses are good for information retention AND skill performance; with online students receiving higher grades, rating courses as more effective, performing as well in role-playing exercises, and outperforming in person peers at specific job tasks, it’s evident online courses are appropriate in both training and education contexts. For law enforcement and security professionals who exist in a profession where application is an essential component of effective training, this research means that it is possible to design online interactions that enable students to practice skills, become competent at those skills, and even master those skills. If a course is well-designed with specific and measurable learning objectives and it includes opportunities for students to practice behaviors and analyze their results, students will be able to learn and replicate skills.

The evidence above is clear: online students obtain information and learn practical skills at a rate equal to or greater than their in-person counterparts. For law enforcement and security instructors, online courses can deliver application-based skills to officers efficiently and effectively; while law enforcement training is almost exclusively conducted in in-person forums, this data suggests trainers should be taking advantage of online delivery mechanisms that enable them to deliver information, encourage application, and inspire learning much better than traditional educational methods.

Blackley, J.A., & Curran-Smith, J. (1998). Teaching community health nursing by distance methods: development, process, and evaluation. Journal of Continuing Education for Nurses, 29 (4), 148-153.

Nesler, M.S., & Lettus, M. K. (1995). A follow-up study of external degree graduates from Florida. Paper presented at the 103rd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York, August.