August 1998 // Letters to the Editor
Does Using Technology in Instruction Enhance Learning?
A Response to Ed Neal
by Jim Mazoue
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Jim Mazoue "Does Using Technology in Instruction Enhance Learning?
A Response to Ed Neal" The Technology Source, August 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In his commentary on Jerald Schutte’s 1996 comparative study of computer-mediated and classroom-based learning, Ed Neal criticizes the validity of Schutte’s results and sounds a cautionary note concerning the acceptability of similar research showing an apparent correlation between technologically enhanced instruction and higher student achievement. Although Neal correctly calls attention to the need for rigorous research methods in testing the effectiveness of technologically assisted learning, his criticism of Schutte’s study is unfounded.

Schutte’s results, showing roughly 20% higher test scores among his group of virtual learners, cannot be trusted, Neal claims, because the underlying research design is badly flawed and is based on, among other things, an underlying confusion between teaching methods with delivery systems. Because Schutte used different teaching methods in his virtual and traditional classroom groups, Neal argues, no conclusions can be reasonably drawn about any inherent pedagogical advantages claimed for virtual learning:

Actually, students in the virtual class experienced a completely different method of teaching from those in the traditional class. Not only did they have more opportunities to be involved with each other and with the teacher, but (very significantly) they were intensively engaged with the course material over the entire week. It seems clear that Schutte would have had to provide similar small-group activities, discussion opportunities, and other assignments for the traditional class if he wanted to test the comparative effectiveness of virtual instruction with traditional instruction (Neal, 1998).

Neal states that what is probably driving the favorable results reported by Schutte are the increased learning opportunities provided for the virtual class. Schutte appears to concede that the successful performance of students in his virtual class may be attributable, not to any inherent pedagogical advantages due to technology itself, but to what the use of such technology provides in the way of enhanced learning opportunities and increased student motivation:

Therefore, from these data, I suspect as much of the performance differences can be attributed to student collaboration as to the technology, itself. In fact, the highest performing students (in both classes) reported the most peer interaction. Therefore, it is important that faculty contemplating the use of the virtual format pay attention to the issue of real time collaboration, whether carried from within the traditional classroom or in the context of virtual space. This is the key variable that should be controlled in further research on the subject of virtual teaching (Schutte, 1996).

Neal suggests that, had the classroom group been afforded comparable collaborative learning opportunities, they very well may not only have outperformed their virtual counterparts, but would have done so at much greater savings. Any marginal gains in switching to the virtual alternative, he argues, will likely be offset by unacceptably high investment costs and recurrent expenditures. The fiscally responsible course of action would be to resist jumping into uncharted waters of institutional investment before carefully assessing the comparative cost of building and maintaining computer-based instructional systems. Given the unproved pedagogical claims and unknown costs associated with converting to online instruction, Neal advises the retention of traditional classroom-based approaches to learning.

But Neal’s argument is itself flawed by an untenable assumption. The persuasiveness of his argument in favor of preferring classroom-based instruction rests on the assumption that the number and frequency of instructional interactions that can occur within a virtual learning environment can be provided through synchronous forms of instruction. This assumption, however, is implausible. Let's be clear about what providing comparable collaborative opportunities for students in a traditional classroom-based setting would entail.

Comparable gains in student achievement via synchronous approaches to learning may be possible, but only at a corresponding cost in terms of time, facility utilization, and overall inconvenience. Given the realities of changing student demographics and the educational needs of working students, the difficulties associated with instituting similar instructional activities via the traditional synchronous methods Neal suggests would be, well, virtually impossible, if not logistically impractical. It may have been possible for Schutte to provide "small-group activities, discussion opportunities, and other assignments for the traditional class," but at what cost in terms of restructuring other aspects of students’ lives? To achieve comparable collaborative opportunities in a traditional classroom setting, the total number of hours during which students and/or faculty meet face-to-face would have to be increased, let's say conservatively, two or three-fold. For the increasing number of students juggling course work with their jobs and other extracurricular responsibilities, the requirement that they spend even more time on campus attending class may be pedagogically laudable, but a burdensome impracticality nonetheless. Moreover, any move to expand the number of scheduled classes on campus would also pose an administrative nightmare, given the existing scarcity of classrooms on most campuses. It would have been interesting if Schutte had provided additional opportunities during class for face-to-face interaction among his classroom students, but the sheer logistics of doubling or tripling the number of classroom meetings would most likely have argued against its practicality and, besides, such a move is unnecessary for establishing the reasonableness of his conclusions about the effectiveness of virtual learning.

Schutte’s study provides some justification for the claim that the inherent structural flexibility of online information access and collaboration explains why students have expanded opportunities for involvement with course materials, and hence, why they have better educational experiences. He does not just simply infer that learning occurs if we find Chickering & Gamson's (1987) indicators of good practice present in technology-based instruction. Rather, his study apparently demonstrates how the implementation of online interactive learning strategies that affords students more time on task can produce a better learning outcome.

If students in a virtual learning environment, therefore, are more successful due to increased time on task, and this advantage is attributable to the asynchronous learning techniques used by Schutte, how can this be anything other than a demonstration of the effectiveness of online learning? That the students in Schutte’s virtual class had more time on task than students meeting in a traditional classroom setting, doesn’t imply that his results don’t show what he claims they show: that his virtually engaged students learned more than their classroom-based counterparts. Schutte’s results stand as long as the reported differences in performance are attributable to fundamental differences in delivery systems. The question, then, is: Which delivery system is more effective? What Schutte’s data indicate is that different information delivery systems make a difference in terms of what students learn.

Finally, that Schutte’s study does not address the cost of implementing IT-based instructional delivery systems does not invalidate his results. Schutte’s study is concerned with the comparative effectiveness of virtual and classroom-based learning. Although the cost of these approaches is an important consideration in deciding which to implement, it is not an issue that is relevant to assessing his results concerning their pedagogical merits. Higher costs may or may not be associated with technologically based learning environments. If further research shows that they are, this would only imply that it might not be practical to implement what would be pedagogically better.

References

Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z. (March 1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin.

Neal, E. (June 1998). Does using technology in instruction enhance learning? or, The artless state of comparative research. [Online]. The Technology Source. Retrieved June 11, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=86.

Schutte, J. G. (1996). Virtual teaching in higher education: The new intellectual superhighway or just another traffic jam? [Online]. Retrieved June 11, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.csun.edu/sociology/virexp.htm.

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