Learning Online, Learning Offline

At my workplace and far beyond, the debate continues about the value of online teaching and learning. Many profs vehemently disagree with offering online learning opportunities for residential students. Strangely enough though, it seems that those who passionately oppose the online course development are not actually engaged in designing or delivering online courses, so it must be difficult for them to see both sides. I teach ~700 on-campus students and ~900 online students per year, so that puts me in a position to see some of the costs and benefits of each method of teaching and learning. In my experience they are each very unique experiences for profs and students, and each offers enormous, differentiated value.

I’ll focus my remarks here on the online course experience. Especially with all the innovation around MOOCs, in 2012 online teaching and learning really took off. For many of my online students, located remotely, the opportunity to take a course over the web is a great flexible solution. But I also teach a lot of local, full-time students who, for a variety of personal and practical reasons, opt to take the class online instead of in a lecture hall.

On their exit surveys these online students rarely say they would have preferred to take the course on-campus. Far more often the on-campus students report that having dropped into the webinar-version of the course to see how it worked, they would opt to take the class online if they did it again. Why? The number one reason cited is the convenience factor.

The flexibility of online learning is a big draw. But what about the quality of the courses? Do online students get the same learning experience, the same educational value and instructional quality as they would taking a course delivered traditionally? For anyone involved in designing and delivering e-courses, the answer is obvious — that depends entirely on how the course is constructed, who is teaching it, and who is taking it. There can be a world of difference between canned e-courses and purpose-built online courses — yet both can be effective.

Factors distinguishing a great online learning experience depend largely on the instructor’s accessibility and technical fluency. Also important is UX: are the instructional materials well designed for online students or repurposed without taking into consideration the different delivery method? Likewise, a key factor in my teaching experience is the availability of feedback loops so online students can easily connect with prof and peers. Socializing an online course allows for on-demand formal and informal support, troubleshooting, and engages learners in a real P2P community. To that end I use my campus learning management system discussion forums, supplemented with social platforms including Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

Online courses can sync nicely with some students’ learning styles and frustrate others. Some find the experiencing isolating, others say it helps them to focus without the distractions of the lecture hall. Some students prefer to learn socially offline, others prefer to learn socially online (my courses use live interactive lectures delivered via the auditorium or via webinars).

I found this infographic today (excerpt below), reporting that about half of students surveyed feel there’s no significant difference between online and offline courses. Whether the other 50% could not comment, having no e-learning experience, or whether they reported enormous differences between on- and off-line learning — the infographic doesn’t say. Surveys of faculty members engaged in teaching online report that the majority see those e-classes as “the same as” or even “better than” traditional classroom settings.

For me the takeaway is that we have a way to go before online teaching and learning is viewed by all stakeholders as on par with traditional campus classes.  For those of us who love teaching and enjoy a challenge, this is a great one to work on, together with our students.


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About Sidneyeve Matrix

Professor, blogger, trendwatcher. I share research & news about digital culture & commerce on Google+, Pinterest, and Twitter.


  1. My view too is that online education is going to solve the issues like quality education at any place and any time. A lot of student cam not afford to have quality face to face teaching. For them online learning, e-learning ( http://www.wiziq.com/elearning/ ) is a boon. I am an online teacher and can feel that gradually people are understanding its merit and adopting this mode.

  2. Learning never ends and it’s always good to challenge our minds and skills whether or not we are in the educational profession. What’s important to remember here, I believe, is that online learning tools support traditional classroom learning; it’s never intended to replace the other. And how the future is shaped will greatly depend on the educators and how they present and utilize these tech tools to enrich the minds of their students.

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