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  • Writer's pictureMichelle D Rogers

Equivalency Theory

Equivalency theory is essential to designing online learning experiences that provide comparable learning experiences to students as traditional delivery models..

Not Equal But Equivalent


Equivalency theory is an important instructional design concept that supports quality in eLearning design.


What is Equivalency Theory?


In short, it is that online courses should provide an equivalent learning experience to face-to-face courses. Note that equivalent does not necessarily mean equal. Online and face-to-face learning are two different delivery formats, and in there is no way to have an exact, equal, copy of the face-to-face learning design for the online delivery of the same course - nor should a course designer even try. But, the same level of quality and learning opportunities should be offered, regardless of the delivery.


Based on that, in order for the online course to meet the highest quality standards of educational design and delivery, it should provide an equivalent learning experience to the face-to-face course. This should be completed even if done differently, since online delivery requires alternative approaches to teaching and learning practices.


Here are some examples to highlight the importance of equivalency theory:

  • PowerPoint Lectures: Some course designers have taken materials from the face-to-face course and put them into the online course, as is, without changes. This might at first seem like equivalency is being addressed, but in fact it is not. Taking a PowerPoint lecture from a face-to-face course and putting it in the online course is not providing equivalency unless it also has lecture notes and/or audio commentary to go with it. A faculty member would not stand in the back of a classroom and flip through the PowerPoint slides without saying anything about each slide. Putting a PowerPoint lecture file in an online course without the audio commentary or notes for each slide is like doing just that. The instructor should talk about each slide, give examples, and lecture on the topics just like they would in a face-to-face course. The PowerPoint lecture in the online course should come with the same learning opportunities. To do this, the instructor could screencast themselves talking about each slide and put that video in the course. At least notes should be added to each slide. Doing these two latter things provides better equivalency in the learning opportunities between the face-to-face course and the online course.

  • Guest Lectures: In the face-to-face course faculty often bring in guest lecturers, experts on specific topics to help expand and broaden the learning horizons for students. This is also possible in the online course, they are just a remote guest instead.

  • Field Trips: In the face-to-face course faculty often plan field trips to help gives students more experiential learning opportunities. This is also possible in the online course, just done differently. The instructor might have the students go out to a museum, national park, or other relevant location to the course content and experience that place on their own. Then have the student post photos in the forums in the online course to show they went to that place, and they can Tweet or post about all they learned.

  • Debates: In the face-to-face course the faculty might plan role-plays and/or debates. This can be done in online discussion forums, too. With some planning and good organization, it can be a great way to create far more interesting and interactive online discussions for the online students.

These are just a few examples of many of the ways that technology can help the instructor or course designer harness equivalent learning experiences for students that really enhance the quality of the online learning.

Here are some links about Equivalency Theory to learn more:

  • Equivalency Theory and Distance Education, by Dr. Michael Simonson (click on 'LOOK INSIDE' to view it)

  • Distance Learning Theories : Equivalency Theory

  • SlideShare on Equivalency Theory ( no audio though, so not fully equivalent. :) )

  • Reflections on Simonson's Equivalency Theory


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