By 2025, the online learning market will hit over $157.7 billion — and that prediction was made before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now many institutions, from elementary schools all the way to universities, have made classes available online for students to finish the semester. Platforms like Coursera have offered free courses to those who are unemployed.
Online learning has been around for a while. Many schools use some method of “blended learning” — a combination of technology resources and in-classroom learning — to provide instruction. One study found that 59 percent of teachers say their students are more motivated to learn when in a blended environment.
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Even before online learning, schools used distance learning or correspondence courses to deliver education. In 1728, Caleb Phillips offered the first distance learning course, a class in shorthand. Jerrold Maddox delivered the first online course in 1995 at Penn State University.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, online learning has come to the forefront. Since COVID-19 struck, 55 million students in elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools have transitioned to remote learning, and colleges have gone completely online. This raises questions about how online learning stacks up to classroom learning. Here’s what you should consider when looking at online learning vs traditional learning.
Learning style plays a big role
Some people learn better when they can go at their own pace, while others need a structured program with in-person instruction. For those who are comfortable with email, chat, video conferencing, and worksheets, online learning is a perfectly viable way to take classes, especially if it’s for a subject that doesn’t need a lot of demonstration — like a history class.
Some students prefer in-person interaction with their peers and teachers. Others learn by doing, like during a science lab, which can be difficult if there isn’t someone in the room to ask for guidance or give a demonstration. In those cases, it might be more beneficial for students to learn in a traditional classroom environment.
Flexibility is a double-edged sword
Perhaps the biggest benefit of online learning is the flexibility it offers compared to a traditional learning model. That means self-motivated students can log in when they have time and take courses on their own schedule. If they’re night owls, they can do lessons in the wee hours of the morning instead of signing up for an 8 a.m. class.
On the flip side, traditional classes that have schedules and rules are better for some students, especially children and teenagers. Regular classroom attendance in a traditional setting helps them learn how to stick to a routine, interact with their peers, and be more focused. In a recent Common Sense Media poll of 849 teenagers, 41 percent of them reported not attending a single online or virtual class since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Geography can help — or hinder
One of the advantages of online learning is that geography is no longer a factor. Students don’t need to worry about finding a local school with a program they want to study, which is ideal if moving isn’t an option. They also don’t have to worry about commuting to campus, which can save a lot of time and make it easier to take classes while holding down a job or attending to other responsibilities.
There is one major roadblock, however. Some areas don’t have high-speed internet, and in some rural communities, many students don’t have internet access at all.
The social interaction question
Finally, the importance a student places on social interaction can help determine whether online learning or traditional learning is better for them. In an online environment, students need to be comfortable using technology tools to collaborate with classmates, but they won’t get the same kind of casual interactions as they would seeing classmates in person.
With traditional classroom learning, a student physically sits next to a classmate, either working on a project or waiting for the lecture to start. It can be motivating to chat with a peer before or after class, discussing the latest assignment. Sometimes during these conversations, a concept might click in a student’s mind.
In the battle between online learning and traditional learning, it’s really up to the individual. If their learning style is better suited to a traditional classroom, or they need the motivation and accountability, that’s the best way for them to go. Otherwise, online learning can be very effective.