Learning and Achievement in Distance Learning and Traditional Students



The researcher began this study and subsequent thesis in order to adequately define and understand the differences in student achievement, attitude and retention for distance learning students and traditional students for a set curricula at one particular community college located in the United States.


The researcher has utilized an extensive variety of written works on the subject of distance versus traditional learning as research material. Information derived from these sources will be interpreted and presented to employ a thorough research method. In addition, a survey was administered which will be analyzed and discussed to add depth to the research.


The researcher has presented findings in a sufficiently technical, yet easily interpreted format, designed to allow the thesis to be easily understood.

Chapter 1
Learning and Achievement in Distance Learning and Traditional Students


Statement of the Problem

Because of the proliferation of high speed communication methods such as the Internet, many aspects of every day life have been transformed, including education. As an ancestor of the “correspondence schools” of yesteryear, which offered the option of learning through the mail, the modern model of distance learning gives the student the chance to study and learn outside of the traditional brick and mortar classroom, harnessing the power of the Internet to earn a college degree, for instance. With this technology arises the questions as to whether or not there is a substantial difference between learning and achievement in a classroom or a “virtual online” classroom.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study is to discuss both traditional and distance learning, trace their development, objectively present its pros and cons, discuss the ongoing debate over the subject, and offers an effective action plan.

Chapter 2
Review of Related Literature


The quest for knowledge is as old as recorded time; since the dawn of the human race, people have sought to learn about their surroundings and the human experience. As people and time moved forward, formalized educational institutions gained popularity as a means of gaining and sharing knowledge. Moving forward even further into the present day, the use of technology such as the Internet has given birth to the system of distance learning which facilitates learning via computer without attending a physical classroom location on a set schedule. The value of this experience, and its impact on students, has been debated in recent years. In order to properly understand the situation, a discussion of the development of the concept is appropriate.

Birth of the Community College

As a precursor to distance learning, the community college played a pivotal role in the education of the masses who may not have attended a traditional university for one reason or another. Community colleges really began to emerge in America in the period immediately following World War II (Baker, et al, 1994). In that time, soldiers returning from military service took advantage of government sponsored scholarships and educational grants to receive a higher education in an effort to learn marketable skills; the government launched this initiative in part to foster a revival of the post-war economy. Traditionally, the community college has offered a two-year degree as opposed to the four-year degree of the university setting, allowing the student quicker entry into the workforce. It is accurate to say that the community college offered the student the best of all possible worlds- an affordable way to obtain a quality education in a time sensitive, convenient way. Convenience should be emphasized in the community college model; as the name itself implies, the community college became an important asset in the community itself.

The Need for Adult Education

Community colleges came into the forefront in large part because of the need for adult education following World War II, as was previously cited. Adult education itself has become a major part of all education over the past two centuries or so (Adult Education, 2004). More than the privilege of the wealthy, the innovation of adult education made it possible for the average person to obtain a meaningful education that taught marketable skills, thereby advancing that person in the society itself, fostering economic growth for the communities in which the person offered their newly learned skills, and adding value to family life and society. Adult education truly made a valuable contribution to the life of the average person.

An overall priority of adult education over the years has been to make the educational process convenient, as many of these people were working adults who attended schools part-time. Eventually, such programs as “correspondence schools” began to offer education via the mails. Community colleges eventually offered such courses as well to keep up with modern needs and trends (Deal, 2002). This distance learning continued to evolve along with communications and technology.

Technology and Distance Learning Meet

The original purpose of distance learning was to provide an alternative way for busy people to obtain an education without having to adhere to a set schedule and attend physical classrooms. As this concept has evolved, a priority has been to offer another form of education, but not a watered down substitute for it (Bradley, 2003). This has been extremely valuable in allowing distance learning to grow into a viable method of education. In an effort to make distance learning timely and relevant, the programs have embraced technology as it has developed. Just as the mail system was used as a revolutionary tool in distance learning early on, the Internet is used today to provide a high-tech interface for the “non-traditional” student.

The Internet has put a new twist on the traditional distance learning model; through the technology of the World Wide Web, the student is given some exciting options outside of the traditional classroom, namely Synchronous and Asynchronous delivery. In the Synchronous delivery, lectures, discussions with instructors, and the like are taking place “live”, in actual time. This gives a timely option to distance learning, but of course places a time schedule on the process. In the Asynchronous model, studies are engaged in online at the time of the student’s choosing, allowing for time flexibility, but taking away the “live” experience (Harry, 1999). Regardless of the option the distance learner chooses, each provides some valuable options depending upon the student’s needs.

Popularity of Distance Learning

The technology boom of the last few decades has certainly led to a similar boom in the popularity of distance learning. For example, University of Maryland University College(UMUC) is the largest public university in the country offering online classes, with 650 courses available in 91 undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs and typically 22 to 25 students in a class. Enrollment figures for the fall 2003 semester – the latest available – include about 57,500 U.S. military members and their dependents. The next-largest enrollment – 16,485 – is of Maryland residents. UMUC, one of 11 schools in the state university system, is expected to account for one-third of all students in the state system by 2011 (Geracimos, 2004). These statistics are impressive and enlightening; they clearly show that distance learning is growing in popularity and becoming more mainstream as the nature of our fast paced society continues to evolve. Many students are finding distance learning to be an attractive alternative to the commitment of a set school schedule. The feeling of independence afforded by distance learning also is a big draw for the student (Bradley, 2003).

Student Performance in Distance and Traditional Learning

The consideration of how students perform in distance learning environments as opposed to the traditional classroom is an important factor to consider when evaluating the merits, or lack thereof, of the two options.

In general, there are factors that affect the performance of students in distance and traditional learning environments. Research indicates that education and engineering courses showed significant differences that gave an advantage to distance learning , while no such differences were found for business and liberal arts courses. Possible explanations include student differences, differences in methods used to determine final grades, and content characteristics (Kochman, et al, 2001). In all fairness, the quality of the programs themselves and the population being studied plays a key role in the success of any educational program. Further study will shed light on these assertions later in this paper.

Overall Student Retention

There has been an assertion that distance learning gives the student an attractive avenue for education, and therefore offers a higher level of overall student retention than the traditional learning environment (Geracimos, 2004), but it admittedly came from an advocate of online learning. In fairness, this assertion deserves a closer examination.

Research indicates that regardless of the environment-distance or traditional- the period between the enrollment in a course and the beginning of the course is a critical period in student retention (Simpson, 2003). This is when students need the biggest amount of encouragement and reassurance, and this could be provided online or in person.

A popular school of thought is that the retention or lack of retention of a student is greatly due to what the student expected from the experience, and has little to do with how the material is taught (Glen, et al, 2003). Overall, little research exists to prove or disprove that the method of learning affects retention levels within the courses themselves, which makes research in this area especially valuable and timely, thereby validating this research.

Chapter 3
Method Used in Research

The literature that was reviewed in the preparation of this paper clearly showed a need to take a closer look at the effectiveness of traditional learning and distance learning. With this in mind, a study was undertaken of four classes at Ocean County Community College, Fall Semester 2005, for a traditional course and a distance learning course in Business Law I and Business Law II, respectively. This study aimed to address student achievement, attitude and retention in both settings. To facilitate this, data that was collected is presented, analyzed and discussed in the following section of this paper.

Chapter 4
Data Analysis

Grade Distribution in Traditional vs. Online Settings

To begin the Data Analysis, the following graphic representation of the grade distribution for the OCC students in traditional and online environments for Business Law I and 2, respectively, is presented as follows:

What can be concluded from the above data is the following:
�· Business Law I enjoys the highest final grades in both the online and traditional settings for the course
�· Business Law I also has the highest number of withdraws from both the online and traditional classrooms
�· Traditional Business Law II has higher final letter grades than the online version; moreover, the online version has higher withdraws than the traditional offering

This scattering of results sheds some interesting light on some of the assertions that were made in the Literature Review of this paper. This data seems to indicate that online courses are not necessarily “easier” than the traditional classes; high and low grades occur in both settings. Also, the online offering has retention and withdraws as well. A reasonable argument can be made that some of the causes of withdraw from courses that were presented earlier occur in either classroom setting and is due more to the attitudes and actions of the students themselves than it is due to the virtual or physical location of the classroom where the course is taught.

It is also reasonable to assume that Business Law I enjoys high grades in both forums because it is mostly an introductory level course which is easier to comprehend than the higher level courses, or perhaps the ability of the instructor is superior, and this carries forward to either setting.

Retention/Withdraw in Each Course and Setting

Pie charts are presented in order to illustrate the retention and withdraw in each course, and each setting. Following each chart, some conclusions are drawn to add to the graphic representation as follows:

As the above chart indicates, the vast majority of students in the traditional setting, Business Law I class chose to complete it; a small portion chose not to, but not to the extent beyond the normal withdraw rate of any other course in any other community college. In fact, the withdraw could also be attributed to a change in major, etc, rather than a negative outcome.

The graphic representation for the same course, offered in an online setting, is as follows:

Again, the retention rate for the online course mirrors that of the traditional classroom setting. Also, it is safe to assume that the same conditions apply to the withdraw online as they do in the traditional setting. There is nothing here to indicate anything beyond the ordinary.

Applying the same sort of analysis to the traditional and online offerings of Business Law 2, the following is presented:

The retention rate for the traditional offering of Business Law 2 at OCC is very favorable, with a very few withdraws. These withdraws are not of any significant number to indicate any type of a trend, and once again can safely be attributed to normal causes and no adverse reaction to the course content, instructor, etc. The representation is more than likely typical of this level course at any community college, and should not cause any intense concern.

The online version of Business Law 2, as the chart indicates, showed a slightly higher number of withdraws. The graphic representation is as follows:

There could be several reasons for the somewhat higher withdraw rate of the online version of Business Law 2. Among them, there could be a situation whereby the material is difficult for the students to learn and get comfortable with online, as it is a level 2 course, or perhaps the students chose an easier course in an effort to lighten their workload. These are both reasonable assumptions given the figures presented, but without more comprehensive data, these are merely theories. More involved data would be required in order to fully understand the trend.

Analysis of the Student Survey on Distance Learning

In order to better understand the opinions of the students of OCC in regard to distance offerings of these courses, as well as to better understand retention and withdraw from the courses, a voluntary and confidential survey was administered to the students. What follows is graphic representation of the results of the relevant questions taken from the surveys as well as a discussion of the findings.

Overall, distance learning at OCC was given an excellent rating by the respondents to the survey, with good as the second major response. Satisfaction with the distance learning courses is indicated by these responses, and it can be inferred that due to the very favorable reception to the distance learning offerings, the likelihood that students would have withdrawn from these offerings due to some dislike of them is not realistic.

Echoing the overall opinions about the distance learning courses, the responses shown above indicate that the students found the distance learning options to be effective. While one’s definition of what is considered to be effective can certainly vary from student to student, given the research that has been conducted and the resulting analysis, it can be inferred that effectiveness in this case corresponds to the learning experience that the students had in the course completion itself: retention of learned concepts, the ability to apply what has been learned to situations outside of the classroom, etc.

When students find courses to be effective, it should be noted, this is also an indication of satisfaction, and with satisfaction comes the higher probability that the students will continue their studies and enroll in future distance learning courses. Of course, these items are critical to the long term success of any educational institution, especially in the case of a community college that is competing with the larger universities for the enrollment of students.

The overwhelming approval of the ease with which the course components could be accessed, with most responses coming in to the excellent and good ranges, speaks volumes in regard to the overall educational experience of the courses. With the ease of access to the courses comes a comfort level on the part of the student. When the student is comfortable with the learning process overall, the comfort level is likely to translate into a higher level of learning and retention, which of course will result in better final grades and improved attitudes on the part of the students.

The clear ease with which the distance learning courses can be accessed also says a great deal about the evolution of technology, such as the Internet, which has allowed for easier access to education. This advancement makes a strong case for the possible development of other distance learning curricula for the future, as well as the continuation of these present offerings as well.

Relevance and usefulness are important criteria that also mean a great deal when measuring student attitudes about a given course offering. These are criteria that are associated to emotional responses to a certain extent, and therefore create a relevant blueprint as to the overall mindset of the respondents.

While the previous questions were evaluated on an excellent to poor scale of evaluation, there were also some questions about the distance learning experience that measured responses from a range of much higher to much lower to measure the expectations of the students, the level of challenge they felt by the distance learning options, commitment levels, etc. As in the previous portion of the research, the key questions in this series will be presented with charts that will show the responses in a visual format, followed by discussion and observation.

Students have responded that the distance learning format, to some extent, provides more of a challenge, or the same amount of challenge, as the traditional course offering. This data leads to several conclusions and the proof or disproof of the myths surrounding distance learning. In an excellent learning environment such as OCC, the distance learning experience is far from easy, or to take it a step further, far from being easier than the traditional course offering, attributing to the feeling that the course was more challenging than or just as challenging outside of the traditional classroom as it would be in the traditional classroom. Furthermore, the challenge level shows that the students took the distance learning experience as serious as the conventional courses, and did not regard it to be less of an educational experience than that which is offered in the brick and mortar classroom. The students felt challenged in the distance setting, and maintained an attitude that the course was valid and a suitable alternative to traditional learning.

Students in the distance learning environment for the most part expected either a higher grade or a grade that would be about the same as the conventional offering. What conclusions can be drawn from this finding? First, there may be a perception that the distance learning course to some extent should provide a higher grade for some reason; whether that is due to a thought that the grades are automatically given in distance learning and the standards are not as stringent is a possibility in the expectation of higher grades. However, in the expectation of a grade that is about the same, there exists some attitude that the distance learning offering is on an equal footing as is the traditional course setting. As distance learning has evolved, it is a strong possibility that the respect for these types of courses has grown. Also, in the opposite of favoritism in grading, this finding indicates that students may feel that they will not receive special treatment in distance learning.

Students actually put more, or the same amount of effort into the distance learning experience than what was done in the conventional classroom setting. This could be indicative of the findings in the regular classroom as well. Some students simply put forth more effort than others.

General Conclusions on Distance Learning

From the data that was collected in the surveys, there are several general conclusions that can be made regarding distance learning:

1. Students are overwhelmingly pleased with distance learning
2. Distance learning is an easy way to learn
3. Equal effort is put into distance learning on the part of students
4. Students do not expect special treatment in regard to distance learning versus traditional learning
5. Distance learning offers a challenge as great as that of the traditional classroom
6. In summary, distance learning, at least from the point of view of the OCC students surveyed, is an excellent equivalent alternative to the regular classroom setting.

Chapter 5
Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations

In summary, it can accurately be said, based upon the material presented in this paper, that student achievement, attitude, and retention all reach favorable levels when distance learning is employed as an alternative to the traditional classroom. The advent of technology, such as the Internet, has added tremendous value to the distance learning experience, which is evidenced by the favorable results of the student surveys that were administered at OCC. Moreover, it is important to note that student hold distance learning in as high a regard as their courses that are attended in physical classroom settings.

As a result of the Literature Review, Data Analysis, and research that were conducted as part of this study, there are definite conclusions that can be reached concerning each facet of student behavior that was originally considered as an area of evaluation for this research. These conclusions are as follows:

ACHIEVEMENT: Students seem to be prepared to achieve the same outcomes in distance learning as they would in the conventional classroom setting. There is no lowering of standards or expectations on the part of the student, whether they are sitting in front of a computer or in a lecture hall.

ATTITUDE: The same level of respect for the materials presented, the course requirements, and the amount of effort that must be put forward is similar in distance and conventional learning settings. Moreover, the students show a high level of satisfaction with both types of course offerings.

RETENTION: From an educational standpoint, the retention of information learned at a distance is comparable to the retention gained by those students who attend the actual classroom for the same courses.

After the completion of the research and data analysis, there are several valid recommendations that can be made in regard to the mix of distance learning and conventional learning as follows:

1. Continuation of current distance learning courses- It is abundantly clear that the Business Law courses are as effective, enjoyable, and challenging in a distance learning setting as well as in the classroom. Therefore, these courses need to be offered as distance learning courses for the long term.

2. Development of new distance learning courses- There is sufficient data to suggest that additional distance learning courses would be viable; therefore, new offerings need to be explored.

3. Harnessing of emerging technology for distance learning- The latest technology will be important to use to enhance the distance learning experience.

4. Continue conventional offerings- Distance learning should be used as a complement to, not a replacement for, the conventional classroom at this time.

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Geracimos, A. (2004, September). Distance Learning: Net-Savvy Universities Seeing Huge Enrollments. World and I, 19,.
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Simpson, O. (2003). Student Retention in Online, Open, and Distance Learning. London: Kogan Page.

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