MET:The Effectiveness of Educational Technology in Post-Secondary Education

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The effectiveness of educational technology is the topic of heated debate. Over the last decade billions of dollars have been invested in this field. In the United States alone, spending on education technology is expected to top $56 billion annually by 2012 [1]. In Canada in 2006 ninety-four percent of students surveyed reported using a computer every day or often during the week at home, while fourty-seven percent reported that they used the computer every day or often during the week at school[2].

Many private institutions have made the Internet their main educational environment. Today, learners have the option of fully relying on the Internet for their education. The advent of virtual universities has made it possible for adult learners anywhere in the world to obtain valid degrees from courses taken on the Internet.

Adult learners are lured by the possibility of obtaining their degree from the comfort of their home. Whether it is to be able to watch over their children or maintain their full-time employment, the flexibility that is made possible by online courses may play a significant role in a prospective learner’s decision to pursue a degree. Despite the many promises of a quick degree without needing to leave their household or make any time-specific commitments, prospective learners need to exert caution in choosing an institution. Just as information found on the Internet is not necessarily valid, the institutions retrieved through a general search might not be reputable. When organizations choose to use the Internet as an educational tool, their efforts should go beyond uploading reading material onto a website. Educators must follow the format most suitable for learners and the topic at hand. Furthermore, in the case of higher education, learners need to have access to supplementary yet essential resources such as a library, counseling services and technical support. While many institutions have been pioneers in this specific domain, others have foregone these needs and simply offer information under the heading of education.

In general, the quality of education in online settings seems to be threatened and many people will not tolerate it. In today’s world of quick fixes and band-aid solutions, it is not surprising that adults worldwide can and do fall for these scams. And if not all of these offers are straightforward scams, many might be simply disappointing. There are cases of institutions who rely on professors to make their courses available online without ever providing them with the necessary training to do so. This results in poorly designed courses that offer no support to their students. Quality in the delivery of education is not a given, nor should it be compromised for the sake of convenience. Leaders in educational technology have spent years studying the learner and assessing the learner’s needs. Instructional designs are developed and employed to offer quality education. When properly administered, online courses can offer instruction of comparable or better quality than instruction offered via more traditional methods.

The quality of online learning has the potential of being as adequate and efficient as face-to-face education. Many areas regarding the quality of education can cause concern, yet they can also be dealt with and the professionals in the field are well equipped to make sure of that. The best strategy is to train educators and staff and make them understand the implications of offering online courses. Also, what has been labeled ‘blended education’, an educational environment that relies on both face-to-face meetings and online activities, seems to combine the best of both situations. Perhaps conventional universities should be less reluctant to adopt new technologies and grant their students more independence and control over their personal progress. Meanwhile, virtual universities could encourage their students to meet in person when possible and set up programs with students’ local universities permitting their students to benefit from supervised work.

Hands-on Experience

The perceived lack of hands-on experience provided to online learners is cause for concern for many distance education critics and enthusiasts alike. Just as prospective medical doctors leave the classroom to go learn in the appropriate environment, e-learners should part form their computer screen and be assigned supervisors in their local hospitals. In that frame of mind, any aspiring professionals should be given the opportunity to practice their skills in a real environment, in a way that is not always guaranteed in traditional settings. Learners should be given the opportunity to complete internships and address successful professionals in their field. Hands-on experience has never been a given in traditional universities.

Nonetheless, it seems the sophistication of today’s available technology can achieve more than it is commonly given credit for. A study described in the European Journal of Engineering Education was conducted to compare on-campus and distance education students in an engineering technology laboratory.[3] Although online learners at this specific institution usually have the option of visiting their home campus at specific times to learn laboratories skills, they can also make use of distance laboratories. [4] Distance laboratories come in the form of on-line interaction experiments, computer simulations and video-based hands-off experiences.[5] For the purpose of this study, online learners made use solely of the video-based hands-off laboratory.[6] Through comparison of performance on written lab report assignments and final exam results, the findings yielded that the effectiveness of the video-based laboratory was superior to the actual use of laboratories.[7] Result statistics showed that the online learners performed as well or even better than the on-campus group in technical comprehension and lab writing. [8] In this case, the lack of hands-on experience did not negatively affect the performance of distance education students.

Another study described in the Education for Health journal was intended to produce online teaching material in behavioral studies for undergraduate speech and learning therapy students.[9] The effectiveness of this material was assessed by comparing the performances of students who were taught through it and students who were taught through a face-to-face lecture.[10] The findings yielded that the students who completed the lessons online performed very similarly to students who attended the lecture based course.[11]

It seems that the lack of hands-on practice experienced by e-learners does not affect their ability to understand concepts and perform successfully on their assignments. As for their performance in the real world, all students aspiring to work with the public as professionals should have the opportunity to practice their new skills during the course of their studies. Whether enrolled in an online program or attending a university campus, students should be encouraged to gain work experience in their field, assuming they have the intention to practice their profession in the future.


Another point of controversy in the debate about online education’s effectiveness is the growing trend of commercialization of education. The recent trend to offer courses online has indeed been driven by many factors. It is very wise to question the institutions’ enthusiasm to make themselves available virtually. Profitability is a goal sought by many, even in the field of education.

There is a growing trend of traditional colleges turning to commercial recruiting tactics.[12] Among these tactics, the most frequent are the use of call centers and the purchasing of online leads.[13] Non-profit educational institutions are also noted to spend considerably on marketing through the Internet.[14] Institutions are willing to take financial risks to resort to sophisticated marketing strategies in order to gain more visibility and eventually more students.[15] Creating online opportunities only allows institutions to appeal to and cater to many more students, regardless of geographical boundaries. This opportunity can cause eager higher-education institutions to hastily make their courses available online without the proper development.

This stated, the commercialization of education brought about by the Internet’s potential can be dangerous. Poorly designed courses, whether offered in classrooms or online, are not tolerable. However, there are other effects of this occurrence that should not be neglected. The increase in online course offerings might be driven by the potential for profitability, but it also forces institutions to stay competitive. In the virtual realm, prospective students are not bound by any geographical boundaries and thus can choose an institution solely based on its offerings and reputation. It is the student’s responsibility to carefully research the available options and choose accordingly. Ill-informed students might find themselves pursuing a degree in a university that does not deliver what it promises and thus does not meet their expectations. Although unfortunate, these students have the option to discontinue their courses and search for something that suits them better. Although this sounds like unnecessary and otherwise avoidable hassle, it truly isn’t. Students wishing to pursue their degree in a traditional university should research and compare their options before applying and potentially relocating to pursue their studies. Furthermore, on-campus students also take a gamble every time they need to choose a course and a professor. There is no guaranteed path, but both online and on-campus prospective students should research their options and make an informed decision before investing in their future.

There are prominent examples of universities that offer online degrees and have sought for and found profit and fame yet nonetheless offer quality education. Penn State World Campus, which was launched in 1998, now serves almost 5,700 students worldwide.[16] Originating from a traditional university, Penn State World Campus benefitted from an already established reputation. Nonetheless, the institution understood the implications of offering online instruction and created a course to train its faculty in authoring, designing, developing, and delivering distance education courses[17]. Called Faculty Development 101, the course has the added benefit of being offered to faculty in an online setting, thus familiarizing it with the online educational environment[18]. Furthermore, members of the Instructional Design and Development (ID&D) unit of the World Campus work closely with faculty members to produce high-quality distance education courses[19]. Penn State World Campus students are well supported and offered all student services typical of conventional universities such as admissions counseling, academic advising, career services, library resources, financial services and technical support.[20] In fact, the library that is accessible online to Penn State World Campus students worldwide is the thirteenth-largest university library in North America. [21] Many course delivery systems are utilized for the array of available courses and instructors ensure a healthy instructor-student interaction by monitoring student progress, motivating students, intervening if necessary, critiquing written exercises and responding to questions.[22]

Although the commercialization of education is a phenomenon that was already occurring, the possibility of offering distance courses via the Internet has only worsened the situation. Nonetheless, the quality of distance education opportunities is not necessarily worsened. Just as some traditional institutions offer a better education and range of services for its students than others, online offerings are diverse and range from bad to good regardless of the effects of commercialization. In all cases, students must make informed decisions when choosing their university.

Student-student and student-instructor interactions

The importance of interaction in the process of education is not debatable. Interaction needs to be established at many levels, notably between the student and the content, between the student and the teacher and between students.[23] These interactions, each encouraging different forms of participation, work together to create the educational experience.[24] In a distance education context, establishing some of these relations might seem problematic. Online learners are likely miles apart from one another and their instructors and thus cannot engage in a traditional class discussion. However, tools at the disposal of online learners today could potentially lead them to a superior more beneficial form of interaction. For long the concept of distance education has been perceived as providing learners with an education without binding them to a physical location or actual time. Although independence of time is offered in online learning opportunities, learners have the option of abiding by a schedule and benefitting from synchronous communication with their peers and instructors. Synchronous tools can allow over dozens of people to communicate by speech and or writing at one given time.[25] A perfect example is Penn State World Campus’ use of a collaborative software product by the name of Elluminate Live! Academic Edition. The software enables students to hold real-time small group discussions and allows faculty to conduct interactive tutoring sessions and keep virtual office hours. [26] Although using this tool as a supplement to the primary course delivery method, the results have been so successful that the synchronous tool is being used to train new instructors who are located on far campuses.[27]

Furthermore, online learners always have the option of maintaining conversations asynchronously, be it privately or on an open discussion forum. Course delivery systems can include computer conferencing software, course management systems, HTML homegrown communication tools, CD ROM components and delivery systems that are not computer based. Most of these systems promote contact amongst users. In an online setting, students have the time to engage in deep debate and conversation at times other than actual class time. In traditional university contexts, students can find themselves among hundreds of students attending a lecture in an auditorium. If the professor happens to be engaging and interactive, a limited number of students might benefit from an actual interaction with the professor and other students. The great majority of students will be silenced by the lack of time or chaotic nature of a live stimulating conversation. Moreover, instructors or teacher-assistants in charge of an online course can track the level of participation of each student as everything is easily documented. Phoenix University makes great use of this feature as it attempts to encourage student retention and persistence. E-learners at Phoenix University are expected to log on to the system four times a week and if they fail to do so they are contacted by the university and offered assistance if they need it.[28] Although someone might consider this approach somewhat invasive, it is important to note that not resorting to such a method with adult learners that have studied in face-to-face settings for most of their lives might cause a decrease in motivation. Another example of healthy instructor-student interaction is Penn State World Campus’ approach. The institution adopts a five-faceted approach to online instructor-student interactions.[29] Instructors may monitor student progress by having access to documented student activity; instructors may choose to motivate students who seem to be falling behind by calling them or sending them an e-mail to offer their help; instructors may intervene if a student is struggling with a particular lesson; instructors may critique written exercises; instructors may respond to student questions even if they go beyond the course’s stated scope.[30]

As is the case with many areas of concern, it seems the fear that e-learners will not be able to benefit from interactions with their peers and instructors should not be taken out of proportion. It is very possible that virtual institutions are not setting up the necessary systems to ensure that students are benefitting from the interaction they need. Similarly, many face-to-face courses in reputable universities worldwide are held in methods that are not convenient for informal interaction among peers and with the instructor. Whether it is due to the large number of students, the lack of time, the curriculum, the venue or the seating arrangement, face-to-face courses do not guarantee the possibility to discuss during class time. Just as students on a campus may choose to meet up after class for a coffee to discuss their course material, e-learners can make an appointment to chat about that same material.

Disappointing Results

When computers and educational technology were first introduced into the educational system, proponents claimed that educational technology would help to decrease the costs of education while at the same time dramatically improve student learning and achievement [31]. Critics of educational technology argue that these expected achievements have been minimal at best. Some argue that when there have been improvements in student learning as educational technology has been implemented that these improvements are really a result of novelty rather than the actual educational technology being used. (Clark, 1985)


In an analysis of the 5 largest scale studies (at the time) on the effectiveness of educational technology Schacter [32] came to some mixed conclusions. The following negative conclusions were made:

  • Computers did not have a positive effect in every area in which they were studied.
  • There was no guarantee that computers positively affected educational performance because the effectiveness of educational technology is determined by many factors including the type of student population, software design, the role of the educator, and the level of the students’ access to technology.
  • The results of standardized test scores between students that had access to computers were no different than the scores of students that did not have access.
  • Students who used computers to play learning games only did marginally better than students who didn’t.
  • Students who used computers for drill and practice actually performed worse on evaluations than students who did not use computers for drill and practice activities. (Schacter, 1999)

Positive Findings

While there were studies that indicated that the educational advantages of educational technology were minimal, there were several positive outcomes of using educational technology found within the same studies [33]:

  • On average students who used computer-based instruction scored 14 percentile points higher than students in the control group.
  • Students learning was more efficient in that they learned more in less time.
  • Students reported having more positive attitudes towards their learning if they were allowed to use educational technology.
  • Students in technology rich environments experienced positive effects in all subjects.
  • Students showed increased achievement.
  • Student attitudes and their self-concept improved consistently when computers were used for instruction.
  • Development of higher level thinking skills and problem solving skills improved.
  • Using computers to aid in teaching basic skills in spelling, vocabulary, reading and math was demonstrated to be more cost effective in improving student achievement than (1) dramatic class size reduction (from 35 students to 20), (2) increased instructional time and (3) cross age tutoring programs. (Schacter, 1999)

Kulik [34]found that the overall effect of Writing To Read [35], a multimedia computer-based program, helped to increase reading scores from the 50th to the 60th percentile. Kulik also found that studies of computer tutoring demonstrated positive effects. The students would perform at the 64th percentile on relevant achievement tests, whereas conventionally taught students would perform at the 50th percentile. Computer tutorials were also studied and Kulik found that students who received computer tutorials would perform at the 72nd percentile on their tests in contrast to students receiving conventional instruction, who would perform at the 50th percentile. (Kulik, 2003)

The Problem With Standardized Tests

Education and business leaders have begun to question whether current assessments focus too much on measuring students' ability to recall facts at the cost of not adequately measuring students' ability to think critically and solve problems [36]. Standardized tests do not effectively measure a student’s ability to think creatively, analyze information, work collaboratively and other 21st century skills that are gong to be required of today’s students.

The Hidden Benefits of Educational Technology

Roschelle [37] identifies four fundamental characteristics of how technology can enhance both what and how children learn in the classroom: (1)active engagement, (2) participation in groups, (3) frequent interaction and feedback, and (4) connections to real-world contexts (Roschelle, 2000). Research indicates that computer technology can help support learning and is especially useful in developing the higher-order skills of critical thinking, analysis, and scientific inquiry [38]

When it comes to using computers in education two general distinctions can be made. Students can learn "from" computers—where technology is used essentially as tutors and serves to increase students basic skills and knowledge; and students can learn "with" computers—where technology is used as a tool that can be applied to a variety of goals in the learning process and can serve as a resource to help develop higher order thinking, creativity and research skills. In more recent years, use of computers in schools has grown more diversified as educators recognize the potential of learning "with" technology as a means for enhancing students' reasoning and problem-solving abilities. It is this use of educational technology that will eventually deliver the changes and improvement in student learning that critics have been calling for [39].


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