A Comparison Between a Distance and a Traditional Graduate Accounting Class


The recent past has seen a proliferation of distance education programs. Total enrollment in all distance education courses has been estimated at 1.6 million students (B'ettcher 2000). The increasing popularity of online courses naturally leads to a consideration of the effectiveness of these courses - particularly in comparison with on-campus courses. The purpose of this paper is to provide such a comparison for an introductory accounting MBA course.

There are numerous advantages to the student and to the institution associated with distance education (Matthews 1999). For the student, distance education provides increased access to courses with flexible scheduling and less travel. For the institution, distance education provides the ability to increase enrollment without constructing and maintaining additional buildings. Unfortunately, distance education also has increased costs. Usually, a student will experience higher tuition and fees, while the institution will experience a high cost of entry. Providing an adequate infrastructure and other support for faculty offering distance courses can also be costly.

Prior studies comparing online and on-campus courses have consistently found that the performance of online students is not significantly different from the performance of on-campus students. This is a welcome finding for the organizations and students interested in distance education. Although this study supports this common finding, it differs from prior work in that it deals with a graduate introductory accounting course, and in that it has a relatively large number of students in each of the compared sections.

There are different definitions for distance education, ranging from the correspondence course format to full-motion video. Some of the variations in between include the following scenarios: the instructor travels to a satellite campus to teach the class; the instructor teaches in the classroom and transmits a video signal to a satellite campus (or campuses); or the instructor delivers the course via e-mail, chat room, or a Web-based interface.

This course was delivered in the traditional online course format. Students were provided with a Web-based interface. The interface allowed students to engage in synchronous chats and asynchronous threaded discussion groups via a bulletin board. Students were given their own workspaces where they could exchange files with the instructor and with each other. The students could also utilize e-mail and voice (phone calls) to communicate with the instructor and with each other. Online testing was also available, but not utilized in this course. The only synchronous capability was through the chat room technology and through phone calls. The majority of communication for the course was asynchronous in nature (e-mail, voicemail messages and bulletin board postings).

A graduate level introductory accounting course should be a good candidate for distance education delivery. Typically, students are required to master ways of organizing and presenting factual material. The required effort is methodical and logical. Problem sets are assigned and solution sets are used to allow the students to see how well they are progressing. An example of a course that might not be a good candidate for distance education delivery is an acting class or a biology class. This is not to say these classes can not be offered via distance education, but the required technology would be more complex than with the accounting course. As described above, the technology used for the distance students provided an environment conducive t'effective learning in this course.


The Research Project

This study analyzed the performance of two class sections in an introductory graduate level accounting course in the fall semester of 1999. One section was a traditional, campus-based class taught in the conventional face-to-face lecture mode. The other section was taught in a distance education format. In the distance class, the students had no face-to-face contact with each other or the instructor. The distance students could communicate via telephone, e-mail, threaded bulletin board discussions and synchronous chat technologies. Except for the textbook, the distance class received all material for the course over the Internet. The distance section received supplemental administrative and course information, e.g., solutions to assigned problems, via the Web. These materials were distributed to the campus-based students during class.

To enhance comparability, the same text, syllabus, assignments and examinations were used in both classes. The professor (who has over 12 years of experience teaching accounting) taught both sections.

The traditional section met once a week over a 17-week semester. Each class lasted two and a half hours. During class, approximately half of the time was spent presenting and explaining material from the text; the remaining class time was used to go over the assigned homework problems.

The distance section never formally met during the same 17-week period. In an effort to provide more of a "class" feeling, the students and instructor placed profiles on the class Web site. These profiles were intended to give a personal and professional perspective of the individuals. They included information such as work history, family history, favorite hobbies, geographic location, and other miscellaneous information that may help give a sense of who the student is. Many participants uploaded a picture to give others more of an idea of who they are.


Sample Class Demographics

At the start of the semester, the students were asked a series of questions designed to provide some background material. The three relevant questions for this study are the following: 1) how many graduate hours have you completed prior to this course? 2) How many accounting hours have you completed prior to this course? 3) How many years of work experience do you have?

The online and in-class students were similar regarding the number of prior graduate hours and the number of years of work experience. The finding of no significant difference in years of work experience is at odds with that of Dominguez and Ridley (1999). Those researchers concluded that distance education students tended to be older and have more professional experience than did the students in traditional classrooms. (Note: Age information was not collected for the students in these two classes. However, the average age of students admitted in the fall semester of 1999 in the distance MBA program was 32 years, while the average age of those students who were admitted to the on-campus MBA program was 31.4 years.)

The online students differed significantly from the in-class students regarding the number of hours of accounting completed prior to this course. The accounting hours could have been at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. This finding is not surprising. Students enrolled in the distance course were required to have at least three hours of accounting, while the students in the on-campus course had no such requirement.


Method of Analysis

One-way fixed effect analysis of variance was used in this study to determine whether the online students were different from the in-class students. The analysis of variance was applied to three demographic factors, to four class performance measures, and to four measures from student evaluations. In this study, analysis of variance allows a comparison between how much the classes differ with each other and how much the students within the classes differ.



Performance Comparison

As indicated earlier, both the online and the in-class sections used the same syllabus, text, graded projects and exams. The exams and projects were used as learning outcomes assessment measures to determine the students' mastery of the course material. In accounting, outcomes assessment "provides information on the question: What has been the learning achievement produced by the intervention in meeting its particular goals?" (AAA 1993). The performance comparison, based on these measures, is the main focus of this paper.

In these measures, the only significant difference is in the performance on the pretest. The online students had a three-hour accounting prerequisite; the in-class students had no such prerequisite. Most likely, the difference in the pretest scores is due to this requirement. By the time the courses were over, the performance of the two classes was similar.

The midterm was an objective, multiple-choice exam with 50 questions. It covered the financial accounting portion of the course. For the in-class students, it was administered by the instructor during one of the two-and-a-half hour class sessions. The online students were required to have the exam proctored, within the same two and a half hour timeframe. The instructor sent the exam to the proctor chosen by the student and received the exam back directly from the proctor. Both the student and the proctor were required to sign a statement that the rules outlined were followed. Students typically chose a member of the clergy, a librarian, or someone in the human resources department at their place of employment to serve as their proctor.

One of the issues that arises when grading distance education students is whether or not the student actually did his or her own work. Cooper (2000) suggests having the students attend the campus for a comprehensive final exam. This was not an option, as the students in the distance course hailed from around the world and the cost would be prohibitive for many. It was interesting to note that there were few complaints from the students about having to obtain proctors.

The final exam was a set of complex problems involving multiple computations and explanations of the managerial accounting portion of the course. For the on-campus class, it was a take-home exam that they were required to complete in one week. The distance students also had one week to complete the final exam.

In addition to the exams, there were three projects required for the course. In the first project, students were required to analyze the 10-K of a company from the EDGAR database provided by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). The in-class students did the exercise in teams, whereas the online students worked individually. However, the analysis required was the same. For the second project, the students read four articles on Activity-Based Costing (ABC) and/or the Theory of Constraints (TOC). The assignment was to analyze and synthesize the readings. The third project involved the construction of a capital-budgeting spreadsheet which would allow the user to change inputs (such as the amount of the investment, the cash flows, etc.) and get the correct resulting net present value (NPV).


Student Perceptions

Ryan (2000) has observed that if the students' quality perceptions and their performance in online courses are similar to those of students in class, then it can be assumed that the online class was as effective as the on-campus class.

In terms of the class as a learning experience, and for the overall course and the overall instructor, there were no differences between the classes. However, in responding to instructor availability, there was a significant difference. This finding is supportive of a common belief that interacting with the instructor and/or with other students is somewhat hampered in a distance course. Ryan (2000) observes: "Interaction with the online instructor using e-mail, telephone, or chat demands greater efficiency than open oral discussion, and therefore is more limited. This is perhaps the greatest limitation of the online delivery method. Almost all online participants felt that this was the greatest weakness of the class."

The online students communicated with the instructor almost exclusively using e-mail. On average, there were about 20 to 25 messages from the distance students per week. Interestingly, some of the in-class students frequently used e-mail to ask questions between classes also. This was in addition to fairly lively discussions and many questions during the weekly class time. On average, there were only about four to five messages from the on-campus students per week. In both cases, the e-mails were primarily concerned with the solution sets, or administrative issues. They were not used for informal conversation between instructor and student.



The findings of this paper supported prior research: the performance of students in a distance course was similar to the performance of students in the on-campus course for an introductory accounting graduate class. Furthermore, the students' evaluations of the course were similar, although students in the online course indicated that they were less satisfied with instructor availability than the in-class students. In terms of student performance, there did not seem to be a difference between the multiple choice exam format and the complex problem solving exam format.

Future research in this area should center on the issue of improving student perception of instructor availability. Is a richer medium required (i.e. video), or can certain procedures be incorporated to help students feel as if the instructor is more available? This theme can be carried out across different subjects to see if some subjects are more prone to the student perception problem than others. At least in this graduate level introductory accounting course, it appears as if distance education delivery is as effective as the traditional campus methodology in terms of student learning outcomes.


Dr. Margaret Gagne is an associate professor of accounting at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. She has taught undergraduate and graduate accounting, both on-campus and using the Internet. Her primary research interest is in the area of intellectual capital.


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Dr. Morgan Shepherd has been an assistant professor of Information Systems at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) since 1995. He has been an active participant in the distance MBA program at UCCS, developing and teaching courses using the Internet. His current research interests include technology support for education and decision support systems.


[email protected]


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This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.