Face to Face Teaching in Distance Education a literature and case study review Ormond Simpson

Table 1 The range of teaching modes (from Allen, 2013)

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Table 1 The range of teaching modes (from Allen, 2013)

While of course it still uses blended teaching, from an Associate Lecturer perspective the Open University currently appears to be moving increasingly towards the online end of this spectrum.

Some educators make considerable claims for blended teaching. Bauk and Scepanovic (2014) claim that blended teaching is now the most popular educational model for teaching, and assert that institutions see benefits through increased retention rates and an upsurge in popularity. However their argument seems to apply particularly to dual mode institutions and the evidence in their paper lacks firm data.

Research into blended teaching.

Research into blended teaching tends to focus on comparisons between various forms of distance teaching such as:

  1. F2f with exclusive online distance modes

  2. Blended with exclusive online modes

  3. Blended teaching with f2f modes

But there are other aspects worth noting such as the timing of teaching, students’ learning skills and preferences and so on.

Comparisons of blended teaching. Most of the studies detected in this survey compare blended and traditional teaching. One of the most important is the ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning’ from the US Department of education (2010). This meta-survey of some 50 studies which were deemed to be of sufficient rigour, reported that exclusive online instruction had an edge over classroom instruction, but that both modes of delivery were less effective singly than a “blended” mode using elements of both.

However this report also noted that whilst the studies in the meta-analysis were strong (i.e. experimental or controlled quasi-experimental), many of them ‘suffered from weaknesses such as small sample sizes [and] failure to report retention rates for students in the conditions being contrasted’. For example Dell et al (2009) compared student achievement in online and f2f classes by looking at submitted grades on both graduate and undergraduate courses and found no difference. Yet the report appeared to make no record of the comparative retention rates. This latter point is particularly relevant: many studies identified in this survey appeared to focus on what gave students the ‘best learning experience’ whilst ignoring retention rates. This misses the point: after all the best learning experience a student can have is to pass their course.

Another study which compared exclusive online teaching with f2f teaching was by Bergstrand and Savage (2013) whose results of ‘a series of hierarchical linear models indicated that students felt they had learned less in online courses, believed they were treated with more respect in in-class courses, and rated online courses less highly than in-class courses’. Jaggars (2014) studied community college students who discussed their experiences with online and face-to-face learning as well as their reasons for selecting online (rather than face-to-face) sections of specific courses.  Students reported lower levels of instructor presence in online courses and that they needed to ‘teach themselves.’ Accordingly, most students preferred to take only ‘easy’ academic subjects online; they preferred to take ‘difficult or ‘important’ subjects face-to-face.

The most important meta studies may be found on the ‘No significant difference’ website www.nosignificantdifference.org which collates a large number of studies comparing f2f teaching with distance teaching. For example Rovai and Jordan (2006) found evidence to suggest that blended courses produce a stronger sense of community among students than either traditional or fully online courses. There were a number of other meta-surveys which compared blended or hybrid teaching with online and f2f teaching such as Xu and Jaggars (2011) who found that after controlling for student characteristics, results indicated that students were more likely to fail or withdraw from exclusive online courses than from face-to-face or hybrid courses.

A small but useful comparison was made by Burns (2013) in a study in Indonesia. A course for 60 primary school educators was presented in three ways - fully online, hybrid (50% each online and face-to-face) and web-facilitated (25% online and 75% f2f) with 20 learners in each. She found that the purely online group experienced a 31% attrition rate while 100% of the other two groups completed the programme. A survey suggested that the greatest factor impacting the attrition in the online programme was the absence of f2f interaction with instructors and other students. It is not possible to draw global conclusions from a small scale study in a country where internet connections are sometimes poor, but it is an excellent example of the kind of comparative study that should be undertaken before investing heavily in one teaching media at the expense of another.

Timing of f2f and blended teaching. There is some evidence that some initial f2f component is a positive element in enhancing subsequent online interaction. Haythornthwaite et al (2000) studied a part-time online Masters degree which started with a f2f ‘boot-camp’ and found that the f2f period helped students get a clear sense of the others in the community. This may be an important finding for the OU: Kear (2010) found concerns amongst OU students about a lack of social presence in online forums and an interesting finding from the international case studies (qv) is that the Dutch OU, Dublin City University, FernUniversität in Germany and the Korean National Open University start their courses with f2f sessions (in the case of both DCU and KNOU these are compulsory).

Clearly a student’s first impression is important in their subsequent experience: research amongst full-time students has recently found that universities who fail to make new students feel welcome suffer higher dropout rates than those who make a good first impression (THE 04/09/2014).

Student skills for online learning. There has long been a belief in distance education institutions that young people brought up in the age of the internet (the ‘Google Generation’) have a high level of skill in using the Web for learning. However a report commissioned by JISC from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER) research team at University College London (Rowlands et al, 2008) claims that although young people demonstrate an ease and familiarity with computers, they ‘rely on the most basic search tools and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web’. The report suggests that ‘research-behaviour traits that are commonly associated with younger users – impatience in search and navigation, and zero tolerance for any delay in satisfying their information needs – are now the norm for all age-groups, from younger pupils and undergraduates through to professors’ […!]. A more recent study (Garcia et al 2013) also found that ‘although most university students have a basic set of technological abilities, these do not necessarily translate into sophisticated skills in the use of other technologies or information literacy in general’.

Student preferences. There were a few studies which looked at what students actually preferred such as Miliszewska (2007) who found that students preferred a blended model of teaching to a exclusively online approach. Similarly Shakker and Hu (2008) found that students offered f2f and online teaching were more satisfied than students just offered online teaching and the KNOU f2f sessions were introduced due to students demand (qv).

Jakobsdóttir (2008) in Iceland found that ‘students who liked online asynchronous discussions also tended to like to spend campus time for f2f discussions. There are pros and cons to both types and use of one type does, at least not yet, cancel out a need for the other. Other uses of campus time may depend on the type of course and subject (and the teacher) but hands-on experiences and creating a good group spirit should be high on the list’.

Stodel et al (2006) found that learners reported that they miss face-to-face contact when learning online. An investigation into what they missed identifed five themes: robustness of online dialogue, spontaneity and improvisation, perceiving and being perceived by the other, getting to know others, and learning to be an online learner.

Full-time faculty preferences. Much of the literature on teaching faculty preferences concerns resistance from faculty to using new online methods. This resistance is usually put down to technophobia or just innate conservatism. There is seldom a specifically analysis of what faculty reasons are for such resistance, or whether such reasons are well-founded.

Adjunct faculty/part-time tutors/OU Associate Lecturer preferences. There are few findings about the teaching preferences of part-time staff. There is an old (pre-e-teaching) finding from Cooper (1993) who found that the f2f teaching was the most satisfying and motivating elements of an OU AL’s work, but there appears to be no later work on how OU ALs view the current teaching methods they are requested to use. This is important as AL motivation could be a key element in their efforts to maintain retention amongst their students.

Time issues for faculty. Some educators believe that wholly online teaching requires more time from faculty both full and part-time, than f2f teaching. Vord and Pogue (2012) found that, overall, f2f teaching took a little time longer than online teaching, but that certain aspects of online teaching such as assessment took considerably longer than the f2f . Such time comparisons are part of the wider and vital consideration of the costs and benefits of f2f teaching in distance education - see below.

Time issues for students. There appears to be very little research into comparative time issues between blended and online teaching for students. Given that the biggest single issue identified by students is often their lack of time to study this is surprising, although admittedly the research would be difficult. Whilst on the face of it e-learning avoids the problems of f2f session travel time, working with computers is not always trouble-free, and once at a f2f tutorial interactions are likely to be far speedier and richer than similar exchanges online.

Trends. There are also a few studies which asked what the trends in distance education are likely to be - i.e. is there a trend to exclusively online courses in distance education? The answer, at least in the USA, is that there is little evidence that there is a move from blended to exclusively online instruction modes. There are far more blended courses and programs being offered than would be present if institutions were using them only as a transition to fully online.

Other media for blended teaching. Of course there are other media used in teaching in distance education apart from f2f contact. For example the OU Access Programme uses a mix of phone and email contact from tutors to students with no f2f teaching. The % pass rate for the latest presentation of the three Access courses in 2013 together with the pass rates for course modules on similar topics in the undergraduate programme is shown in Table 2.

Access Course modules

Undergraduate Level 1 modules

Course module

Pass rate

Course module

Pass rate

Y031 Arts and Languages


AA100 Arts Past and Present


Y032 People Work and Society


DD101 Social Sciences


Y033 Science, Technology and Maths


MU123 Discovering mathematics


Table 2 Comparative pass rates on a selection of course modules in 2013.

For this selection of modules the pass rates are not very different. The z-scores (a measure of how successful a course is in retention terms given the entry level of its students) for the Access courses are not yet available, but the previous Openings course which had a similar model of phone and email teaching appeared to have much the same range of z-scores as undergraduate courses.

However there are too many variables for this data to suggest that phone and email teaching are clearly as good as f2f teaching. But the data does suggest that there might be a treasure house of data in the OU which could be analysed to get a clearer idea of the retention value of f2f teaching.

Costs and benefits of f2f and online teaching.

Finally, and perhaps the most important for this study are the comparative costs of blended and online teaching. But as Rumble (2014) remarks ‘there are very few comparative studies that that allow one to say with any degree of certainly what the cost implication of a particular socio-technological design will be’.

That certainly turns out to be the case in this study where the search found very little evidence of any effective cost-benefit analysis of the relative financial consequences of f2f and online teaching. This is remarkable given that so many decisions in universities are made on the basis of cutting costs without a full analysis of the consequences. It is clear that spending money on students which increases their success and retention actually produces income or savings benefits to the institution because such students will go on to pay further fees.3 That income can exceed the initial expenditure - that is, it can have a cost benefit ratio of more than one hundred percent.

For example, this author has shown that a simple phone call to new students in the OU can produce a retention increase at the end of their first module which has a cost benefit ratio of up to 500% (Simpson, 2014 op cit). In other words the benefit of the increased retention due to the activity far exceeds the cost of the activity. Applied to all 30,000 new OU students each year this increase in income could amount to several million pounds.

Inversely, a cut in support to students designed to save money but which results in a reduction in retention may actually create an overall loss of income, contrary to the intentions of the authors of the cut. This could be one of the causes, in some part, of the reduction in graduation rates experienced by the OU in the last twenty years. For example cuts were made in the system of continuity of student support which could have affected retention between course modules. It may be that the effects of these cuts are now having to be reversed in the form of the establishment of the University’s ‘Student Support Teams’ who have a remit to support inter-module retention amongst other tasks.

Thus without better analysis of the cost-benefit effects of f2f or blended teaching on retention within an institution it will be dangerous to modify such teaching. Unfortunately this survey has been unable to find any examples of such analyses.

There are general investigations into costs in distance education and, for example, both Rumble (2004) and Hulsmann (2000) both claim that when overheads are taken into account e-teaching is not less expensive to institutions than conventional teaching. Nor is e-learning necessarily a zero cost to students when amortised costs of computers, peripherals and internet access are taken into account, although f2f learning also has its costs to students with transport to tutorials. Again this survey has found no studies which address these issues.

It may be possible to isolate the effects of OU tuition in distance education by noting that the OU’s MOOC ‘FutureLearn’ which uses OU course material with no tuition, has a completion rate of around 12%. This compares with the same material in undergraduate courses taught by Associate Lecturers which have completion rates of around 60%, a difference of nearly 50% points.

Of course FutureLearn courses do not lead to qualifications, but on the other hand the courses are much shorter than undergraduate courses (only a matter of a few weeks compared with several months), and around 80% of the FutureLearn students have degrees - a far higher proportion than new OU undergraduates. Thus it maybe that blended teaching - in whatever forms it takes - does add a very substantial retention value to the OU. It’s very probable that the benefit of that value to the OU in terms of increased subsequent fee income will far outweigh its cost (Simpson 2006).

International Case Studies

The OU has always tended to regard itself as being at the forefront of progress in distance education - a world leader in the field. However it may still have lessons to learn from other distance institutions. Thus, as a follow-up to the literature review, a number of distance institutions were contacted to enquire about their current and future polices with regards to their f2f teaching operations and regional structures. The selection of institutions was necessarily somewhat random, but they cover a wide range of types. There are replies or information from the following institutions.

1. The University of London International Programmes (ULIP)

The University of London International Programmes is a recent rebranding of the London External Degree which has been in existence for more than 150 years. It has more than 50,000 students in more than 50 countries.

When surveying the role of f2f teaching in distance education ULIP is of particular interest. The programmes are presented in two modes - the first mode entirely at a distance with no f2f teaching and limited online support via email and a VLE, and the second mode which is supported with f2f teaching at local approved institutions. These two modes have very different outcomes - see Figure 3. The f2f mode graduation rate is 61.5% and the distance mode rate is 15.7%, a difference of 45.8% points, the most substantial distance education deficit known to me.

Both modes have identical entry requirements, syllabuses, texts and exams, so the difference in graduation rates between them seems likely to be largely down to the different delivery modes, and in particular to the role of f2f contact in the local approved institution mode. It may not be possible to exactly determine whether that f2f contact is most importantly between teachers and students, or students and students and may well be a mix of both. Nevertheless this data seems to me to be one of the most important pieces of evidence supporting the possibility that it is the lack of the f2f mode that explains a substantial part of the distance education deficit, at least in the ULIP situation.

The extra costs of the f2f mode for the ULIP are borne by the students in the form of the fees to the teaching institutions (students choose the f2f option over the exclusive distance option in roughly the ratio of 4:3, although that must reflect the availability of the f2f option locally).

As an example of comparisons, see Table 3 for the annual fees for the three year law degree (LLB) from two ULIP approved institutions and the OU.

Institute of Law, Jersey

Kaplan Holborn College London


F2f Contact hours

(All these institutions offer online support via a VLE)

Weekly and all weekend f2f tutorials - total hours not specified

Weekly f2f tutorials -

15 contact f2f hours per week

20 hours per presentation

Annual institutional fee



ULIP fee



Total annual fees




Table 3 Fees and contact comparisons between ULIP approved institutions and the OU

The OU’s fees are a little cheaper than the total fees charged jointly by these institutions and ULIP. However it appears that the f2f hours offered by these institutions are considerably greater. This table is included in the report as:

  1. It may be one of the few situations where it may be possible to get some kind of estimate of the extra cost of f2f teaching over a exclusively online support - an average of very roughly £5000 per year in the example of the two ULIP-approved institutions.

  2. It may give some idea of the possible competition to the OU. If the OU moves away from f2f teaching whilst students appear to prefer that mode, then that move may well affect recruitment as students choose the competition.

ULIP has no plans to change its mixed model although there are signs of concerns about the need to supply a better level of support to its exclusively online students in future.

2. Dutch Open University

My contact says “Also here at our OU there is a discussion about regional centres. The board is going to put our intentions in a paper which is going to be published around the middle of October.4

 “At the moment we still have f2f sessions in the study centres and they are on the increase but always combined with virtual/online sessions. The basic idea is to start with a f2f introduction, a couple of collaborate sessions and to finish off with a f2f session.

“Often only 2 or 3 of the regional centres are involved in f2f sessions. The organization is done in Heerlen. Most centres are only used for exams and information.”

3. Indira Ghandi National Open University (IGNOU)

IGNOU used to offer some programmes through a f2f mode (like their MSc in Chemistry). However it was recently (June 2013) decided that, as the mandate of IGNOU was to teach only through the distance education mode, a decision should be taken to withdraw all courses taught through f2f contact. Currently there is no f2f teaching, except for services continuing for old students to help them complete their degree.

Nevertheless IGNOU maintains a network of Regional Centres (and under them Study Centres). The Study Centres are grassroots contact points for students where they go for study and practical and library or other kind of student support. IGNOU has a network of 67 regional centres, around 2,667 learner support centres

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