Online education vs traditional education

As teachers and schools move to online education and away from a strict traditional education environment, what are the key differences between these two approaches to teaching and learning.

What is online education?

Online learning takes place over the internet and is a form of distance learning. It can be teacher lead at a specific time (synchronous) or student-paced working through the material unguided (asynchronous). Content can be delivered as text, images and video, and features could include online assessment or interactive activities.

What is traditional education?

Traditional education occurs in a classroom with a teacher who plans and presents a particular topic lesson. The teacher can use various educational tools such as introducing information on a chalk or whiteboard, student presentations, group or partner work, and individual exercises or activities. Class quizzes or informal assessments can be held and homework assignments set.

What is the difference between online learning and a traditional classroom setup?

There are several critical differences between online and traditional classes. These are vital factors students consider when they choose one or the other.

Discipline and self-motivation

A traditional classroom set-up provides a structured timetable for classes. You need to attend a class at a specific time or miss the lesson and the teacher’s information (there may also be other repercussions!). Motivation to learn comes from the teacher, whose task is to present information to the students in an engaging manner and fellow students who may discuss course content together before or after class. In an online education environment, the student sets the pace of learning. They need to be disciplined enough to set aside time each day to focus on completing course content.

In some cases, they must complete all components in an online course by a specific date. In other cases, this is open-ended. While there may be online discussion forums for students taking an online course, or the ability to video conference or instant message with other students, the student must motivate themselves to continue and complete their studies online.


A traditional class takes place at a specific location and a set time. Students are given a timetable of their classes for the week, and the teacher will expect them to attend the course at the specified time. If they miss it, the students will have missed the teacher’s lesson. There may be an opportunity to catch up on some work, but this catch-up work will, in most cases, not be of the same standard as the lesson presented. In some situations, if the student misses too many set classes, they might not be allowed to write the final exam. This time dependency makes the traditional education approach difficult for some students with outside commitments, such as family or work. In these cases, the online education approach provides much-needed flexibility. Students can log into a course at any time of the day or night and complete the course content at their own pace. They will receive the same lesson content as other students completing the course and not be penalized if they don’t log in simultaneously. Communication in these courses can be asynchronous via, for example, an online forum, where students can leave messages and reply to other students at any point. Students can fit in their learning as and when they have the time for courses without a set completion date. Most online courses have set completion requirements such as reading or viewing all material and completing an online assessment and not set times spent online. This means the flexibility offered by online learning is ideal for students who have full-time jobs or might need to care for a family member.


If you live in a small town in a developing country, you may not have access to a wide array of educational options. Similarly, if you are interested in studying a specialized subject or with a particular teacher, you might need to move to a city or town the school is located. Online learning solves this problem. Someone in a village in India and a suburb of London can access the same content online (assuming access to devices and the internet). This decouples location from the learning experience.

Social interaction

One of the main benefits of a traditional classroom environment is the interaction with the teacher and fellow students. Informal discussions, as well as group work and classroom interactions, can be called social learning. In an online learning environment, teachers can replicate these interactions through forums or breakaway rooms for group work; however, the informal interactions in the classroom, corridor or break room are difficult to recreate online. Some students also report feeling isolated when taking online classes as it is sometimes tricky studying via a screen and browser at home or work.

online learning vs traditional education
Online education vs traditional education

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Internet and social media literacy

What does literacy mean?

Before we look at internet literacy, it is useful to understand what literacy means. Literacy is the ability to read and write and to understand the meaning of the words you read. Most of us learn how to read at school and are provided with a suitable material in a structured manner to develop this skill. 

What is Internet literacy?

Internet literacy is the ability to use devices, such as smartphones or laptops, to access the internet. It covers accessing websites and apps, navigating through them to access content and understanding, to some extent, how and why someone published that content online. The content you access on a website was put there by someone for a purpose, and the hyperlinks are chosen to direct you somewhere specific. Some content encourages responsible sharing through licenses such as Creative Commons while other content’s specific aim is go ‘go viral’. Likewise, the results from search engines such as Google are not purely information but are based on factors such as your location and your online profile. Lastly, the internet is a commercial space and adverts are often hidden as Instagram posts or blog articles. An aspect of internet literacy is the ability to identify what is an advert or not.

What is internet media literacy? And what is social media literacy?

Media literacy is the process by which we identify what media is in the digital age. TV shows, text messages, social media, advertising, video games and online video are all considered media. The second component of media literacy is to identify the messages that the media is sending out. All media was created by someone and for a reason. And now, with today’s digital technology, anyone can be a media creator.

Social media literacy is looking specifically at platforms such as Facebook or Twitter and learning how to critically analyse the content published here from a technical, cognitive, and emotional angle. The technical aspects centre on being aware of how the platform works – who can post what content, how it can be interacted with, and the underlying algorithms that present certain users’ content to you. Cognitively, you need to be able to identify what a reliable source on social media is by looking at, for example, the user’s bio, the number of followers, date when they joined and offline affiliations. Lastly, social media literacy is also about being aware of your emotions and how you react to specific content and interactions.

Internet literacy is the ability to use devices to access content online and to know how to analyse that content

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An introduction to integrating technology in the classroom

What is integrating technology in the classroom?

Integrating technology in the classroom is how a teacher incorporates some form of technology into their teaching practice to enhance learning by their students. This technology could be as simple as a data projector showing presentations or videos to something as complicated as an app-based assessment tool. Research has shown that technology increases student engagement and encourages teachers to explore new approaches to pedagogy. A virtual classroom, or virtual learning environment, could be seen as one result of integrating technology in teaching and learning. Technology becomes the frame in which education takes places. 

Why is integrating technology in the classroom important?

Marc Andreessen famously wrote an article titled Why Software Is Eating The World. Teachers and students are both parts of a society that is rapidly digitising. The much-hyped 21st Century Skills and Fourth Industrial Revolution are a reality today. From finance to health and everything in between, the world is driven by technology. Teachers need to embrace digital tools to adapt their teaching process to benefit from these tools’ advantages. Ideally, this is integrated into the curriculum, offering students new ways of engaging with educational content to improve their outcomes. When face-to-face teaching is not possible, technology facilitates the communication between teachers and students, enhancing this relationship. Certain types of platforms also allow for collaboration amongst students, peer to peer learning or group work.

How are teachers using technology in the classroom?

Technology has been used in some classrooms for decades now. Think of the inconspicuous calculator in a science or mathematics class. Or the overhead projector some teachers became adept at using. Nowadays, there are a plethora of options available to tech-savvy teachers. The data projector or smartboard is standard in most classrooms, while teachers have a laptop on which to prepare lessons and create class presentations. Where allowed by school policies, teachers can use smartphones or clickers to take a class’s temperature. A quick quiz or poll can inform a teacher whether their students have understood a topic. Some schools have installed a wifi network and bought Chromebooks, opening up online research opportunities and using platforms such as Google Classroom. Teachers can use interactive simulations to illustrate how an engine works or conduct a chemistry experiment at the more advanced end of the spectrum. Some teachers have embraced online assessment platforms and learning management systems when it comes to assisting in class management. For those teachers comfortable with recording their lessons, podcasts or video lessons can be made to allow students to refer back to for revision.

Presentation software was one of the first technologies widely adopted by teachers

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Virtual Learning Environments

What is a virtual learning environment?

A virtual learning environment, or VLE, is a set of digital tools or applications that allow a teacher to deliver an online course. Online learning has become more popular as teaching and learning have moved into the digital space. A virtual learning environment is essential to facilitate learning online. The virtual learning environment consists of a standard set of resource types to structure and manage an online course. These resources can be course content such as text, images and videos, assessment components to deliver quizzes, longer-form assessment, a forum or discussion space to allow for peer-to-peer learning, and collaboration tools to allow for group work. Not all of these resources are in every course – the teacher can decide to activate specific resources as needed, based on course content, the audience and their teaching approach. Administration tools, available only to the course creator, include options to structure the course content and data tracking of students, such as engagement with the assessment’s scope and results. Virtual learning environments can be used in schools, colleges or universities and for workplace training.

Purpose of a virtual learning environment

The primary purpose of a virtual learning environment is to deliver online learning to students successfully. However, if we look at the purpose of the virtual learning environment from the teachers’ point of view, we can identify some key elements. These include:

  • a tool to structure educational content in a logical flow
  • the ability to add several different media types to one course
  • support for setting up assessment components
  • tools for managing student access and communication
  • data tracking and analysis on student performance and engagement

What is the difference between a learning management system or a virtual learning environment?

A good question indeed. Most people may be familiar with learning management systems (or LMS) as these have been around for many years. Popular learning management systems include the open-source Moodle and Blackboard. These both have virtual learning environments as part of their offerings. Are you confused yet? The main difference between learning management systems and virtual learning environments is that the learning management system has many administrative features to record student data and progress across a course or courses. However, the primary function of a virtual learning environment is to deliver course content and facilitate student interaction with the teacher.

Is virtual learning good or bad?

The short answer is neither. Some people tend to vilify technology in education, but technology fulfils specific education needs based on certain circumstances.

Benefits of virtual learning

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Learning about Covid-19 at schools

How do you teach students about Covid-19 at schools? How do you explain the concept of a pandemic? And how to do you get across guidance around prevention? What does this look like for a six-year-old as opposed to a 16-year-old? These are some of the issues Cambridge University Press grappled with as we developed a series of worksheets to explain the virus and the situation we find ourselves in globally and in South Africa.

Working with Life Orientation specialist and author Edna Rooth, we have published these worksheets for use at home or in the class. The worksheets are a response to Covid-19 and function as a Social and Emotional learning (SEL) curriculum.  We divided the worksheets by the four phases in the curriculum, covering all twelve grades. Each pack has between ten and fifteen worksheets with extensive teaching notes. The worksheets are printable, and we are encouraging users to share them via email or WhatsApp, so they reach the teachers and learners who needed them most. Parents can also use these worksheets with their children. Topics covered include information on pandemics, facts about the Covid-19 virus, prevention, stigma and depression. There are many practical tasks included in the worksheets, such as guidance on how to make a mask.

Sample Worksheets for teaching Covid-19 at schools

They are really brilliant! What great work, and clearly a lot of work. This is the most comprehensive set of materials for schools I have seen – probably the best in the world right now.

Dr James Lees.  Senior Lecturer, HIV & AIDS Programme, University of the Western Cape

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