Monday, November 19, 2012

No Signficant Difference Phenomenon

What is the "No Significant Difference Phenomenon?

In the early 1900's, as correspondence courses came into vogue, there was a question that weighed on the minds of educators: could students learn as well at a distance as they could face to face? As with most controversial issues, there were proponents on both sides: traditionalists held face to face as the gold standard, while innovators held that distance courses could deliver equivalent, if not improved, learning outcomes. Both sides were eager to gather evidence to substantiate their claims - and thus began the movement in media comparison studies (MCS) in education. In these studies, researchers looked to compare student outcomes for two courses that were delivered through two different methods, thereby identifying the "superior" method for teaching effectiveness. The "No Significant Difference" phenomenon refers to a body of literature consisting of a particular type of MCS - those comparing student outcomes between face to face and distance delivery courses. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that when the course materials and teaching methodology were held constant, there was no significant differences (NSD) between student outcomes in distance delivery courses as compared to a face to face course. The student outcomes were neither worse nor better in either delivery method. Thomas Russell has compiled a collection of the results of these studies and coined the now common identifier phrase "No Significant Difference Phenomenon" for this body of literature.

Just when we thought it was safe to move beyond the “no significant difference” phenomenon, knowing that scarcely any college class today is untouched by technology – we find ourselves in 2012 still engaged in debates about “online” versus “traditional” instruction. In September 2012, the Colorado Department of Higher Education released a comparison study of Colorado Community College System students who took science courses online versus in traditional classrooms, and then tracked those students who transferred into four-year institutions in Colorado. The study suggests that students who took online science courses at the community college level perform just as well in science classes at four-year institutions as students who took traditional on-campus science classes.

As the Colorado study has shown, research once again supports the efficacy of online delivery, even in science courses.  Now we must work together to ensure that the online education we are delivering is relevant, high quality, and accessible.

Click here for more information about the No Significant Difference Phenomenon and Thomas Russell's research.

Click here for more information about the Colorado Study.

Epper, R. (2012, June). Colorado study finds "no significant difference" in online science courses. WCETblog. Retrieved from

Thomas L. Russell, “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon.” 2001, IDECC, fifth edition.

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