August 1998 // Letters to the Editor
Principles of Research Design:
The Rules Still Apply
by Ed Neal
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ed Neal "Principles of Research Design:
The Rules Still Apply" The Technology Source, August 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Jim Mazou?ɬ©'s response to my article repeats the argument that I have heard many times from those who favor the wholesale adoption of technology, regardless of the lack of research or the fiscal and pedagogical costs. Mazou?ɬ© maintains that "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." I have been in faculty development for 20 years, and in that time have helped hundreds of teachers incorporate active learning and cooperative strategies into their courses without increasing the investment in "time, facility utilization, or overall inconvenience." We now have faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill who teach classes of 200 to 350 students interactively, and I have colleagues in faculty development centers at many other institutions who report the same phenomenon. As a matter of fact, there is an entire literature devoted to the implementation of these strategies [see, for example, Bean (1996), Bonwell & Eison, (1991), Johnson, Johnson, & Smith (1991), Meyers & Jones (1993), Millis & Cottell (1998), Silberman (1996)].

Mazou?ɬ© asserts that "It would have been interesting if Schutte had provided additional opportunities for face-to-face interaction for his classroom students, but the attempt 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." This statement is antithetical to the principles of empirical research. First, how can Mazou?ɬ© say that the attempt would have failed when Schutte never tried it? Second, the reasonableness of Schutte's conclusions are seriously compromised by his failure to provide these opportunities. Schutte simply cannot attribute the results of his study to the use of technology when he used different teaching methods for his "real" and "virtual" classes.

Mazou?ɬ© goes on to say "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?" And, further, "Schutte's results stand as long as the reported differences in performance are attributable to fundamental differences in delivery systems." This argument has been used by others to defend Schutte's experiment, but it is hardly persuasive. First, we don't know why the "virtual class" performed better, because the design of the study was flawed. We cannot attribute their performance to the delivery system (or anything else) with any confidence; we can only speculate about the cause. However, even if we accept Mazou?ɬ©'s assertion that the delivery system was the reason for better performance, we still must ask if the same (or better) results could have been achieved via traditional means—without the expense of technology. Just because something can be done with technology doesn't mean it is advisable or economical to do it that way.

Technologists search for applications of technology in teaching, without considering the pedagogical basis for its use or how much it may warp the educational process. If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Teachers search for ways to improve student learning, weighing traditional and innovative methods and technologies, and selecting the things that help them achieve the desired outcomes. Many of the teachers I work with have found useful applications of technology in their courses, many others have not. Good research would be a tremendous help in making these decisions, but, lamentably, there is very little of it around.

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