How Students Learn Differently in Online vs FTF Classes

by Staff Writers

An offhand comment by a caller to NPR's On Point discussion of "Big Changes in Higher Ed" about the difference in learning between online education and traditional classes got me thinking about what those differences actually are and whether one mode of learning is inherently superior to the other. Here's my take on how learning varies between the two to help prospective students decide which path to choose in higher education.

Tech Skills Comparison
Unless you are talking about a lab-based course or a hands-on media production class, there is no comparison between the technology skills that an individual routinely learns in an online environment vs. those supported in a traditional classroom. The technology-mediated nature of e-learning makes it a requirement for the online student to gain more 21st Century skills and practice using those skills than their FTF peers.

Among the advantages for online learners are increased proficiency with:

  • File management
  • Web navigation
  • Web searching
  • Information evaluation
  • Word processing
  • Electronic communication
  • Troubleshooting
  • Electronic collaboration tools
  • Video conferencing tools

In contrast, a traditional student may gain some experience with word processing and information evaluation, but they are not nearly as reliant on these skills to be successful in their classes as the e-learner. Online students must develop these skills if they do not have them, or they cannot be successful in their education. While a sink or swim situation may not be ideal for some learners, it is nevertheless an effective way to learn. Even if online students already possess these skills, they are still practicing using them and that effort will be rewarded with greater future proficiency in some very important workforce skills that can be easily documented for prospective employers.

Social Skills Comparison
To a certain extent this is a comparison between real apples and virtual oranges. The social skills learned in each of these contexts are fundamentally different, but both are extremely important for success in the real world. Students in a traditional classroom learn or reinforce knowledge about reading non-verbal cues. They make personal connections with classmates and professors who can be valuable future contacts, and they learn to collaborate in person with others. This last skill should not be undervalued as it is one of the keys to success in any organization where teamwork is required.

In contrast, online learners gain an equally valuable skill set. They reinforce knowledge of how to communicate in writing via email, discussion boards, or Twitter, and the social norms that surround those modes of communication. They learn how to communicate through video, audio, and instant messages – all valuable tools in the current connected global economy. Finally, just like their FTF peers, they learn to work together and collaborate in the more challenging virtual world. This skill is increasingly valuable as more and more positions require exactly this kind of collaboration and knowing how to work with others at a distance becomes a mainstream skill.

Core Content Comparison
While the first two categories of comparison are important and should be part of this discussion, the real evaluation of these two modes of learning is in how well students actually learn the content. A chapter by Karen Swan in the 2003 book Elements of Quality Online Education, Practice and Direction, by the Sloan Center for Online Education, reviewed more than 20 studies comparing online and FTF outcomes and concluded that, "it is clear that when compared using gross measures of learning effectiveness, students learn as much if not more from online courses as they do in traditional higher education courses."

Given the technological advances since 2003, it is possible that online learning has surpassed the traditional model as a vehicle for learning. A study such as this one reveals that on the macro level, at least, these two formats provide comparable opportunity for students to learn the intended content.

Differences may also arise in the quality of learning and retention of information when the differences in the delivery methods and student motivation are taken into consideration. A white paper by David Rashty for Research indicates that online learning is significantly more student-centered/directed than a majority of traditional education. This is significant because student-centered education has been established as a more effective means of learning and having students retain what they have learned (O'Neil & McMahon). Given the heavy emphasis in online education for students to be self-motivated and self-directed, there is compelling evidence that online learning may actually be a better method for teaching course content.

Add to this evidence the idea of the flipped classroom and the benefits to students of being able to replay a course lecture and learn at their own pace, and online learning becomes an even more powerful alternative for learning content.

And the Winner Is?
Neither actually. Both models for teaching and learning have benefits and limitations that make each appealing to a variety of students with different learning styles and needs. If content learning in either platform is effectively equal, it probably benefits every student to have experiences in both types of environments. In this way the skills that either one are better at promoting can be supported to the overall benefit of the student.

In reality our lives and our educational system are moving towards a hybrid model that incorporates FTF and online modes of interacting into a seamless whole that represents the way we actually live our connected lives. That change is coming to higher education sooner rather than later and is likely to become the norm. Until it arrives, however, go out and take advantage of the opportunities available to participate in both kinds of courses. It will benefit you in the long run.

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