The Study That Shows the Significant Differences

January 18, 2014

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba, Founder and Editor,

By: Dr.  Farhad (Fred) Saba

Since the 1960s when Wilber Schramm (1907-1987), Professor of International Communication at Stanford University demonstrated that there is no statistically significant difference between learning in a classroom and learning from television, there have been many similar comparative studies. Researchers over the past fifty years have compared mediated education with classroom education in hundreds of studies. Invariably they found the same result: There was no statistically significant difference between the two.

There have been at least two reasons for this:

1- Comparative studies were not based on any theoretical foundations making it difficult to understand which measurable constructs were being compared. For example, if we televise a classroom lecturer and allow students who are viewing the classroom lecture on a TV set ask questions from the classroom instructor using a telephone, is there any operational difference between communication of instructional information to the students who listen to the lecture in a classroom and those who view the same lecture on TV? If there are no theoretical difference between the two, why would televising the lecture make a difference?

2- Comparative studies usually compared the aggregate score of students from the classroom lecture (control group) with the aggregate score of students who watched the lecture on TV. This research strategy, by its nature, ignored the individual differences among students. If there were any difference in learning among students, such differences were obscured by aggregating scores.

A recent study conducted by Benton, Li, Gross, Pallett and Webster (2013) has taken comparative studies in a new direction. While the study still relied on aggregate data, it employed  the theory of transactional distance to inform its research strategy. As such, it revealed the fundamental differences between how instructors teach online and in a classroom.

The theory of transactional Distance conceptualized by Dr. Michael G. Moore posits that distance in education is a psychological construct that is determined by the structural elements of a course and the aptitude of the learner for accepting autonomy. When autonomy increases, distance decreases, and when structure increases, distance increases as well. As such “distance” in education is different for each individual learner depending on his or her tolerance for autonomy. Therefore, aggregating student data obscurers this major significant element (individual differences) from comparative studies. If there are no differences; one cannot find any difference!

The study by Benton, et. all  investigated “whether elements of transactional distance –reflected in student and faculty perception– distinguish online from face-to-face courses.”

The results of this important research project confirmed the long held assumption that there is an important relationship between the nature of the discipline taught online and the primary approach to teaching with the level of transactional distance.  It also revealed a third dimension; that of the course format. the study, however, showed that learners did not see a strong role for dialog, although the it confirmed that instructors teaching “hard disciplines” had a less teacher centered approach to instruction by using discussion forums when they taught online.

This study is multifaceted and its various dimensions provide a rich source of information for reconsidering the role of comparative studies, as well as the centrality of theory in conducting such research studies. It also offers a plethora of new hypotheses for future theory-drive and database research about the theory of transactional distance.

Further instructional designers and instructors can use the results of this study to modify how they design courses and teach, if it results are confirmed in the future.


Benton, S. L., Li, D., Gross, A., Pallett, W. H.,  and Webster, J. W.  (2013). Transactional distance and students ratings in online courses. The American Journal of Distance Education. The American Journal of Distance Education (27), 4. 207-2017