Online learning is more effective than traditional classrooms

Online learning is more effective than traditional classrooms


Distance learning used to have a bad reputation. Many students saw correspondence courses, courses on tape and video and telephone-based courses as low-quality education for low-paid jobs. When online courses began to be offered, they didn’t raise the reputation of distance learning much at all. But technology has risen to the occasion, and now the balance is shifting: the evidence shows that online learning is becoming more effective than traditional classroom-based learning, and perceptions of online learning have turned in its favor, too.

The benefits of online learning

Online learning offers the possibility to learn from anywhere, anytime, in any rhythm, with any means. But does that necessarily mean that it is a more effective way to learn? Recent research says yes.

Students can work around their own schedule

This may be the most obvious benefit, but generally, students can fit learning around their already busy lives. This may not be a consideration for traditional undergrad students, who have no responsibilities outside of academia, but for everyone else, the ability to learn at a time that suits them is critical.

Students can learn more, at their own pace.

One theory as to why online learning is so quick for students is because they can go at their own pace. If they are already familiar with a topic, they can breeze through a bit faster, and they can spend more time on material they don’t understand as well. This ability to go at an individual pace means attention is kept on topic, which increases material retention rate by 25-60%, according to a Research Institute of America study.

It saves everyone time.

The ability to stay at home or work and learn is an obvious benefit to students, but the time saved applies to lecturers, too. They don’t have to travel to campus to deliver lectures when they teach online, giving them more time for original research. But it’s not just travel time. One study by Brandon-Hall shows that e-learning requires 40-60% less time for employees than face-to-face training and education.

The associated costs are lower.

For universities, the costs of online learning are lower. They can utilize one instructor to teach courses across several locations, and relatedly, a single instructor or tutor can handle a larger number of students. The universities don’t have to provide classrooms, tables and chairs, electricity or the other costs of maintaining a classroom. The costs are lowered and the market is larger, which means the cost of the course to the student is lowered, as well.

There is more flexibility in the learning materials and approaches.

Online learning is widely influenced by how people use digital tools and services. People with different abilities and skills can use subtitles on videos, speed up or slow down recordings, take quizzes and fill in forms, ask for advice or information in groups that share their interests, and so much more. And they can do all of this in an educational environment online to supplement and support the reading and lectures they already consume.

Online learning students love their courses – and they do more work

Much research surrounding online learning focuses on what remote learners think. Generally, studies find that students who study online tend to have a positive view of their courses, and they report being more motivated than their traditionally educated counterparts.

It seems obvious that students who only took online courses would self-report being largely satisfied. They have no direct experience of traditional education to compare their online courses to. Researchers at Troy University sought to address that issue and interviewed students who had taken both online and traditional classes. According to this survey, 57% of respondents felt that they learned more on their online courses. A full 69% preferred online learning over traditional courses.

And most surprisingly, 92% said they read texts for their online courses, while only 57% did for their traditional classes.

The researchers theorized that this was because in online learning, students have to take more personal responsibility for understanding the course material, where traditional students often relied on the lecturer feeding them the material in the classroom.

This is borne out by more of their data. Survey respondents reported spending 13 hours a week on their online courses and 11 hours on their traditional ones. They also reported making more use of additional learning materials, including presentation slides, handouts and other notes, in their online courses. The researchers went on to say “By requiring students to take a more active role in facilitating their own learning, [distance learning] may be enriching their learning environment in the same way  that we enrich jobs in the workplace (Hackman & Oldham, 1976). By adding task variety, task  identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback to the learning process, we have generated outcomes such as higher  levels of motivation to learn, higher levels of satisfaction with the educational process, and higher quality performance.”

That might be why 52% of American graduates with a master’s degree or higher believe online learning is better than classroom-based learning.

Mitigating the challenges for online learning

There are, of course, challenges that come with online learning. First and foremost are the technical challenges that are involved with any digital endeavor: user errors and technical glitches. These are becoming less of an issue, however, as more people become more comfortable using technology to access education materials. One study found that 63% of high school students and 45% of elementary school students use digital learning tools every day.

Other challenges involve issues with clear communications, including difficulty in communicating between lecturers and students, limited interaction between students of diverse backgrounds, and a lack of collaboration between students. This is being addressed in the learning technology, which incorporates many of the elements of social media now, including discussion boards, instant messaging, and video meeting equipment that allows for ‘breakout rooms’.

In short, universities and other learning institutions can’t simply put lectures online and expect student engagement and attainment to reach the heights of a traditional classroom. They have to consider these and other challenges to online learning and mitigate them. They must listen to students as well, and adapt the courses to meet their changing needs. Luckily, course technologies like Blackboard and Campus are providing the flexibility to keep students engaged, interested, and talking to each other.

The future of the classroom

While no one is predicting the end of the traditional classroom as we know it, it seems clear that online learning has significant benefits over traditional learning. It provides flexibility, which allows students to learn more, faster. The associated costs are much lower, and the barriers to communication are being lifted as education technology evolves and students become more comfortable with these tools. Students can approach a subject with tools that can be tailored to their needs, and they can fit the learning into their already packed lives. And since they don’t have an instructor right there to lead them by the hand, they have to be much more proactive and involved in their own education.

Simply put, it is faster, easier, and cheaper to get an education that meets or exceeds the learning delivered in a traditional classroom setting. And as the technology gets better, so will the online education.