Students perform significantly better in exams when taught online, a study from the UAE showed. Experts described the experience of distance learning as remarkable.
Research found significantly improved grade point averages at Al Ain University among students assessed online in the 2019-2020 academic year.
But the authors cautioned that virtual exams are susceptible to cheating and said physically attending classes should not be abandoned.
The findings come as debate swirls about the merits of distance learning compared with in-person lectures.
The coronavirus pandemic upended long-standing assumptions about learning, with thousands of educational institutions replacing lectures with web-based alternatives.
For many students it was their first experience of taking courses online, the study said.
"At Al Ain University, the experience has been remarkable, particularly in academic performance," the researchers said.
They analysed the results of 591 students, almost evenly split by gender, taking engineering, pharmacy or business courses in English, or law, education or communication in Arabic.
The performance of students in the first two terms of the 2019-2020 academic year, when courses moved online, was analysed.
With face-to-face teaching, 38 per cent of students achieved a semester grade point average between 3.0 and 4.0, whereas with distance learning, the figure was 49 per cent.
In their paper, published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, the researchers said the improved performance may be the result of "the use of innovative technologies and digital resources in distance learning".
"Distance learning provides many opportunities to students, including unlimited access to learning materials such as recorded lectures, networking with people from different geographical locations and different cultures and convenience in terms of timing," the researchers, themselves from Al Ain University, said.
“Non-distance learning institutions should continue offering distance learning programmes side by side with face-to-face learning programmes. This will attract more students and prepare for any other circumstances that might prevent the provision of face-to-face learning.”
But they cautioned that distance learning was more vulnerable to cheating and suggested this may account for some of the improved performance.
"Despite the advancement of educational technologies in preventing academic dishonesty in online education, students cheat and plagiarise in distance learning more frequently than they do in face-to-face learning," the researchers said.
Previous research referred to in the study indicated that there is 12 times as much cheating with distance learning than with face-to-face teaching and assessment.
One of the authors of the new study, Dr Shorouq Eletter, an associate professor at the university, said it was important not to abandon face-to-face teaching.
She was concerned that results from online learning were less reliable because of the risk of cheating, and said that she would expect similar results if schools were considered too.
“The environment in the classroom is different,” she said.
“The students can elaborate from the interaction of the other students. It creates more incentives to participate in the discussion. They can learn from the discussion, from the contribution of their colleagues.”
It was harder for teachers to engage with students online, she said, especially with larger classes, such as those with 30 or more students.
“In the class I can understand from their body language if they don’t understand, if they need me to repeat information. I can help them more,” she said.
An ideal situation, she said, was to have about 75 per cent of teaching carried out face to face, with the remainder online.
Some experts, such as Dr Kyungmee Lee, a lecturer in technology enhanced learning at Lancaster University in the UK, believe that online learning offers numerous benefits.
Writing in The Conversation, an online portal for academics, she said online courses were more accessible to students with disabilities, more easily personalised to individual students, and more flexible, with size and attendance requirements easily varied.