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Is Online Learning Better?

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Does online (distance/web-based) learning work? If so, is it a better academic medium? Does it lead to more learning?

These are some of the questions I want to answer for myself and for all of you wondering about this sometimes-controversial topic. With the proliferation of online “schooling,” beginning with more and more traditional institutions, such as K-12 schools and colleges, offering more and more online courses, and ending with new, exclusively online schools, non-profits, and corporate organizations seemingly popping up every day, it is easy to conclude that if the instruction is delivered via the world wide web it must be better than the brick-and-mortar way of educating.

Does it work?

It can, but it might not.

For a sophisticated learner, online learning may be just what the doctor ordered as it allows more flexibility. For many others, especially the K-12 students, trying to learn while sitting in front of the computer screen ends up disheartening and detrimental to their success, as they find the coursework more difficult and more time-consuming.

One of the most ubiquitous myths about online learning is that it is easy, or at least easier than classroom learning. Many students fall into the trap of thinking that they can drop a tough high school course and do it online or resolve to complete a web-based college degree thinking it will be less time-consuming and stress free.

Many colleges and universities, including UNLV, report that online courses offer the same rigor and expectations as face-to-face classes. While flexible and convenient, online courses have deadlines and due dates for completing assigned reading, projects, and other activities.

In fact, when comparing face-to-face and online education, either coursework might be more difficult than the other, depending on the reading, instructors, projects, and assessments a student must complete.

So, a student expecting an “easy ride” in an online class is in for a rude awakening.

I have experienced this first hand as someone who has taken online college courses and as an online credit recovery facilitator in my school. All of the classes I completed via the web required discipline and major time commitment and the same is proving to be the case for the high school students I work with. Out of the 51 enrolled in online credit recovery courses 14 made any progress, and out of those only a few are on track to actually receive credit.

What I learned is that online education:

·      is not for everyone and not a sensible option for struggling or at-risk pupils.

·      requires a well-developed learning skill set that includes strong reading and writing skills, self-motivation, independence, and good time management.

Is it better?

To put it succinctly: the two models of learning are different.

Rigor is essential in the traditional classroom and is equally important online, as it leads to the understanding, knowledge, applications, skills, and competencies that are required for academic success. Institutions and organizations that offer online education claim the expectations and content are the same as in the physical classroom, and that flexibility students have is not synonymous with lack of rigor.

In a nutshell: While students can pick the times they choose to work on the online class content, there are deadlines they have to meet and learning objectives they must accomplish to successfully satisfy credit requirements.

I compiled a table of PROS AND CONS OF WEB-BASED LEARNING below to take a closer look of what a learner might encounter and should expect while completing on-line coursework.


Does it lead to more learning?

Answering this question requires to again look at the student and what I call his learning sophistication. As there is very little “hand-holding” in an online environment, the pupil has a much greater responsibility for his own learning.

Therefore, an independent, organized, and motivated strong reader has the potential to “get more out” of online learning than he would by being “stuck” in a face-to-face classroom.

However, a pupil who struggles with decision-making, needs frequent problem-solving instruction, or requires help with organization and time-management will likely experience many barriers to content and skill mastery.

So What’s The Verdict?

There is nothing wrong with online education when it is done well. There is nothing wrong with traditional education when it is done well.

Both models have their advantages and disadvantages.

The quality of instruction and student outcomes is essentially the same; so much so, that the phrase: “no significant difference” has become the comparison paradigm between web-based and classical learning.

Sometimes, a learner is better suited for online education. Sometimes he does not possess the necessary skills and habits to survive and thrive in an online environment.


What are your thoughts on online vs. traditional learning? Do you have any personal stories you can share? Please comment below and let’s get the conversation going. Sign up for my NEWSLETTER if you would like to receive more educational articlaes and infographics on brain based teaching and learning.

You have the power. Use it often.


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Oskar is a Science, Engineering, and Learning How to Learn teacher and an author of the Crush School Book Series.

His professional interests are brain-based teaching and learning, flexible seating (#StarbucksMyRoom founder), social-emotional learning, social justice, and using technology to enhance learning.

He is also a fan of the Jedi order (and uses DA FORCE frequently), ninjas, and the superhero in all of us. He is on a Quest to Change the World because he can. We all can.

  • Rita Wirtz |  @RitaWirtz
    Rita Wirtz | @RitaWirtz Monday, 11 July 2016

    This is just great, Oskar. Well stated. Thanks.

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Monday, 11 July 2016

    I appreciate it Rita!

  • Guest
    Kermeisha Patterson Monday, 11 July 2016

    This was very helpful. Our school is going to online math this year but we won't be 100% online. It'll be blended with the traditional classroom education. These are great points to consider, especially regarding the students who are at risk or that think online means easier. It's much like their thinking when you say there'll be an open book test. They get so excited and still end up failing of they haven't been applying themselves.

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Monday, 11 July 2016

    Thank you Kermeisha! I think the blended learning model works best. This is what I use in my classroom and I can help students who struggle with understanding the content etc. It can also be a great way to have students practice learning on-line and maybe removing the scaffolds as they get more proficient.

  • Guest
    elenglish Wednesday, 13 July 2016

    This is exactly what I needed to read :)

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