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.
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 teaching vs classroom teaching
Studies have shown that both online and classroom teaching is effective. In some scenarios, online learning may even be more effective. This depends on factors such as the student, technology infrastructure and subject taken. One of the critical factors in a successful online learning experience is student engagement. In a traditional classroom, the teacher constantly monitors student engagement, asks certain students for feedback on a topic or if they have any questions.
Student engagement is key to successful online learning. Original project work that centres on compelling content, community and peer engagement, instructor presence, synchronous meeting capabilities, advanced video production, and social learning opportunities bridges new concepts to real-world applications.
What is the advantage of online education?
- Choice – when you decide to enrol in an online course, the topics available for study are substantially more than in a traditional education environment. This means you can study subjects that are not available to students in your city or town, or specialist subjects only available from certain institutions.
- Costs – online education usually comes at a more affordable price than face to face or traditional education. This lower cost is because there are fewer physical infrastructure costs, and you don’t need to employ a teacher full time to conduct the class. However, more and more online courses are being offered at a cost equivalent to the price of a traditional college or school education.
- Flexibility – as mentioned above, flexibility is one of the main differences between a traditional and online education. It is also one of the main benefits for students who, for example, need to work or are not able to attend courses at a fixed time or location. This flexibility also allows students to choose subjects they are interested in but do not necessarily want to pursue as a career.
- Guest classes or lectures by experts – while it is possible to invite a professional or business leader to conduct a lesson in a classroom, this requires scheduling the course at a time available to the guest lecturer. It is much easier to ask them to run a lecture via Zoom or Google Meet, where they can take time out of their day but remain at their office or place of work. This also allows lecturers from across the country or the world to share their expertise with the class.
- Lesson recordings and notes – online courses come with the ability to record online lectures and make them available for repeated viewing by the student. Likewise, class notes and readings can be made available to the student digitally for repeated reference and adaptation and enhancement as required by the student to facilitate their learning. Lastly, digital resources can be quickly and easily updated with new or more relevant content as needed, meaning the student can access the latest information in their subject.
- Participation – participation rates can be higher in an online class, particularly when there are rules for online learning that require a certain number of interactions via different channels per student.
- Quality teachers-student interaction – if the instructor or teacher is comfortable using digital communication tools, the student could have more access to the teacher to ask questions or engage in discussion. This communication can be through email, instant messaging such as WhatsApp, or online forums and discussion groups.
What are the disadvantages of online education?
- Cheating – some students cheat at assessments in both online and traditional classes. However, it is difficult for the teacher to monitor an online evaluation where students may have a browser open searching for answers or instant messaging other students to assist.
- Communication skills – listening to fellow students in class, discussing topics, defending arguments, and listening to others’ opinions develop interpersonal communication skills. This is one of the benefits of a traditional classroom setting, and these skills are difficult to develop in an online course, particularly when asynchronous.
- Procrastination – putting something off until the last minute is a classic trope of the student. However, in an online class that may not have set deadlines for submitting assignments or a completion date, it is much easier to procrastinate.
- Self-motivation – online students need to make the time and effort to complete their course requirements. With no set schedule and, in some cases, no teacher, self-motivation and time management skills are critical to a successful outcome for online learning.
- Social isolation – some students, particularly those who are not employed or involved in other activities, may experience some form of social isolation when participating in an online course. Even though there are chances to interact with the other students online, the informal conversations and discussions between students in a traditional classroom setting are difficult to replicate.
- Time commitment – when an online course is not instructor or teacher-led, there is sometimes substantially more reading or reference material to watch. This means that the student’s time commitment is more significant than a student taking a similar class in a traditional classroom setting.
What are the advantages of traditional education?
- Confidence – in a classroom setting, where a group of students work together with a teacher on a problem, a sense of academic confidence is built in students around their ability to approach new topics.
- Group work – an essential part of the traditional classroom experience is the interaction between students and working together on group projects. These projects can be completed in an online environment but don’t allow for the same level of social interaction and informal learning in a classroom setting.
- Interpersonal skills – by sitting in a class with fellow students and learning to interact with a teacher, critical interpersonal skills are cultivated. These skills are helpful in other situations in students personal and professional lives.
- Pressure – a traditional classroom has a set schedule, with deadlines and set times to complete work. Students need to learn to work in high-pressured environments, which is a skill that is transferable to other areas of their lives.
- Public speaking – having to ask questions in an entire class or debate your point of view in front of a teacher builds confidence in a student’s public speaking ability. These skills are difficult to make in an online class, even one where Zoom presentations are required.
What are the disadvantages of traditional education?
- Costs – there are higher costs incurred with a traditional classroom-based course. These include fees, which can be substantial, particularly at the college level, travel costs to and from the school or campus, and lost income for students working and needed to stop to complete their studies.
- Interactions – depending on the lecturer or teacher’s class size and personality, students could have limited direct interaction with them. For students who need remedial support or would like extension activities, this could be a problem.
- Lack of flexibility – with a set schedule, deadlines for assignments, required study hours and exams set on particular days, there is no flexibility for students who may need to work or care for their family. Likewise, a traditional education structure would have limited course options for a student to choose from.