Three Ways Research Continues to Support Digital Learning and Testing


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Higher education professionals have been discussing the efficacy of remote versus face-to-face instruction for decades, but the debate has been renewed with a passion since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that educators who were forced to abruptly shift to remote instruction are evaluating the last 18 months’ learning outcomes and determining how much online education will endure in the coming years, many researchers have been heavily motivated to revisit the controversy and develop strong claims of whether remote instruction does or doesn’t “work.” Many administrations are quick to stake a claim in one camp or the other, but most of us are still questioning the biases of studies like this one – and for a good reason.

For the study referenced above, Auburn University’s Duha T. Altindag compared academic performance indicators like course completion and grades from the fully in-person spring and fall 2019 semesters to the fully online fall 2020 semester for about 18,000 students at an unnamed public university. The researchers’ goal was to determine “to what extent the adoption of online education necessitated by the pandemic would persist in the future” and to provide “a complete understanding of the impact of online instruction on student learning.”

The data comparing performance indicators for just spring and fall 2019 revealed no differences in completion rates in remote versus in-person instruction and reported that face-to-face learners were five to seven percentage points less likely to earn an A or B than digital learners. In early spring 2020, students enrolled in online courses experienced a slight increase in grades, but by late spring 2020, grades, completion rates, and other positive performance markers unsurprisingly evened out across the board due to the catastrophic mental, physical, and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on students and educators.

Although much of the study’s data supported the comparability of online learning in relation to student success and indicated equivalencies between face-to-face and digital instruction before the pandemic and across undergraduate, graduate, and honor students, the researchers blamed “grade inflation” due to instructor leniency and “academic integrity violations” in remotely proctored exams for the advantage. In response, they developed a “student and instructor fixed effects” filter to illustrate that online learning might only be superior due to “the differences in the approaches to student performance assessment by instructors teaching online versus F2F [face-to-face] courses.” The study’s overall conclusion was that remote instruction, despite its acceleration and refinement during the pandemic, is still trumped by face-to-face learning.

Educators and administrators should certainly take into consideration variables like pandemic stress, technological barriers, and assessment strategies while determining the future of online learning. Although there will always be coursework that cannot be fully conducted on a digital platform, educators would be ill-advised to prioritize face-to-face instruction or limit the possibilities of post-pandemic online instruction based on very limited studies like this one.

Here are 3 important ways research continues to support digital learning and testing:

1. Most historical studies have demonstrated and recent studies still show that remote learning is comparable to face-to-face learning. 

According to Inside Higher Ed ’s Doug Lederman, despite the well-contested debate, “A majority of the scores if not hundreds of studies examining the comparative performance of online versus face-to-face learning have found ‘no significant difference’ in student outcomes.” Lederman also claims that many experts in the area are warning against comparing pre-pandemic data to mid-pandemic data due to the unprecedented nature of that period. They say many faculty who taught online during the pandemic had never done so before, had very little time to plan, and were prioritizing student stress. Altindag’s study places too much emphasis on student and instructor effects that are not fleshed out well enough to be understood.  

2. Students and faculty prefer online learning.

In a spring 2021 survey, Campus Technology found that 73 percent of students would prefer to take at least some of their courses fully online post-pandemic. Additionally, 53 percent of faculty felt the same about teaching online, and 57 percent of faculty said they would prefer hybrid teaching post-pandemic. Robert Hansen, chief executive officer of UPCEA, says the key takeaway of the survey “is that the pandemic did not threaten but in fact accelerated the long-term growth, acceptance, and desirability of online learning, and those numbers will only improve, as emergency remote offerings are rebuilt as modern online courses and programs.” 

3. Remote proctoring is easier and more secure than ever.

Despite remote proctoring being at our fingertips for quite some time, the rapid shift from paper-and-pencil testing to the online equivalent during the last 18 months really accelerated the adoption of online proctoring. As demand for solutions exploded, live remote proctoring emerged as the most adaptable, cost-effective, secure, reliable, and convenient assessment solution on the market. Business Line on Campus claims that “remote examinations have emerged as a lifesaver since technology has changed our perspective, provided immense opportunity for change, and online exams will continue to be a strong contender going forward.” They also cite recent research from India and Australia that claims 55 percent of students have a positive attitude toward online proctored exams, and they project that number will only increase as internet access and AI technologies improve. Remote testing pioneer ProctorU’s Chief Strategy Officer Jarrod Morgan remarks that through 2020’s growing pains, “we learned that online proctoring isn’t rife with the technology and security issues everyone thought we would have all along. You’re able to scale this in a way that works for students and instructors. And we’ve certainly learned that the Netflix generation expects to test this way, now and in the future.”

We look forward to seeing more research on the topics of online education and testing. If you want to know more about our remote proctoring solutions, please contact us.  


Altindag, D. T., Filiz, E. S., & Tekin, E. (2021, July). Is Online Education Working? National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29113/w29113.pdf

Kelly, R. (2021, May 13). 73 percent of students prefer some courses be fully online post-pandemic. Campus Technology. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://campustechnology.com/articles/2021/05/13/73-percent-of-students-prefer-some-courses-be-fully-online-post-pandemic.aspx

Kumaraswamy, S. (2021, July 29). Analysing the impact of remotely proctored exams. Business Line on Campus. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://bloncampus.thehindubusinessline.com/b-learn/analysing-the-impact-of-remotely-proctored-exams/article35606130.ece

Lederman, D. (2021, August 6). Do college students perform worse in online courses? One study’s answer. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/08/06/do-college-students-perform-worse-online-courses-one-studys-answer