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eLearning vs. Traditional Learning: Considerations for Educators and Students

Keaton Robbins | September 8, 2022

The debate between eLearning vs. traditional learning is growing each year, and its relevance has only increased for 2021 with unprecedented amounts of people now learning from home.

The National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education revealed that in 2018, nearly six million students were enrolled in Elearning courses at degree-granting, post-secondary institutions in the U.S.

In this article

  1. What Is Traditional Learning?
  2. The Advantages of Traditional Learning
  3. The Disadvantages of Traditional Learning
  4. What Is eLearning?
  5. Creating an Online Course vs Teaching in Person
  6. The Advantages of eLearning
  7. The Disadvantages of Elearning
  8. Comparison of eLearning vs. Traditional Learning
  9. Nanodegrees and New Careers
  10. Elearning Success Stories

The global eLearning market is anticipated to climb to nearly $374.3 billion by 2026. On average, eLearning increases a learner’s retention rate to 82%.

Since 2020, 98% of universities have moved their classes online. The global eLearning market, which was already witnessing massive growth, only grew in importance. There is an unprecedented necessity for students to be able to take part in forms of eLearning, and more people than ever—students and teachers alike—are curious about the differences between eLearning vs. traditional learning.

In fact, during COVID-19, I was personally faced with the choice of completing my executive education program at Harvard Business School using their online learning platform, or defer and wait until I could once again enjoy the benefits of the in-person experience. (Spoiler: I decided to defer so I could attend in person and graduated from Harvard in June 2022).

While remote or eLearning offers students incredible flexibility and the ability to learn on-demand, post-secondary institutions that provide eLearning courses also stand to benefit from increased recognition in new markets or countries, as well as a larger student base from which to draw revenue.

At the same time, it’s also evident that traditional learning methods involving in-person teaching and hands-on training from an expert will always be necessary in certain circumstances.

That’s why we interviewed Dr. Sarah Glova, the founder of Reify Media, a digital media company that builds eLearning content. Glova helped answer our questions: What is the best method for course delivery? Why should I choose Elearning vs. traditional learning?

Glova has a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and has taught both eLearning and in-person at North Carolina State University. She’s spoken internationally to educators and businesses about online education, active learning strategies and how to engage the adult learner. 

In this article, we’ll explain the key differences between delivering eLearning vs. traditional learning, highlight the pros and cons between offering your learning content online or in-person, and hear from those who have taken online courses to successfully pivot in their careers.

What Is Traditional Learning?

Traditional learning almost always involves a ‘sage on the stage’: the teacher who communicates in-person with a group of students in a brick and mortar facility. This method of learning typically involves students gathering in physical classrooms during a certain timeframe with the purpose of learning about specific topics or to gain specific hands-on job training and experience. 

The curricula and lessons are typically based on a standardized and government-approved textbook, which the teacher and students work through. 

“There will always be a place for in-person learning,” says Glova.

“At the end of the day, we have to consider what’s best for the learners and content. There are some things that we’re just going to have to teach in person,” Glova says.

“I appreciate that the pilots who are flying me across the country have some in-person training experience. I appreciate that the experts who prepare my food in the restaurants I eat at have some in-person training experience. There will always be opportunities for in-person learning,” Glova says.

The Advantages of Traditional Learning

Face-to-face learning: Learning in-person allows students and teachers to get to know each other much better. Teachers can pick up on physical queues and nuances that might typically go unnoticed in an online setting. Most importantly, interacting with a teacher face-to-face allows students to build an intimate sort of trust with the educator. 

“In an in-person format, I’m very focused on the time I have in front of my participants,” Glova says.

Creates good routines: For many children and young adults, the discipline of following a daily school schedule establishes important routines and sets them up for success as a working adult. 

Hands-on examples: Educators have the opportunity to provide students with real life examples they can touch and interact with. This is a crucial element for hands-on learners.

Teaches good social skills: The idea of being put into a class with people of all different backgrounds and personality types allows for countless social opportunities that you won’t necessarily experience in an online format.

Better for physical health: Students are way more likely to get physical exercise if they have scheduled time carved out each day to do so, or have a campus gym nearby. 

The Disadvantages of Traditional Learning

Inflexible hours: Teachers and students might find the strict schedule of an educational institution difficult to maintain if they have multiple jobs or other commitments.

Commuting: Driving back and forth to an educational facility every day can take up a lot of time for both educators and learners. Getting to and from school can require a lot of time and money spent on gas, vehicle maintenance, or public transit.

Larger student loans: Piggybacking off of the last point, the loans taken out by students who take part in traditional learning in-person will generally be much greater due to living costs (residence or off-campus), commuting, and more expensive tuition

Passive listening: When educators deliver a lecture or lesson in front of a classroom of students, those students may end up only listening passively, which causes the potential for disengagement to skyrocket.

What Is eLearning?

eLearning is exactly what it sounds like: learning that takes place in an online format. eLearning typically involves a teacher uploading tailored content onto a learning management software (LMS) and sharing it with their class digitally. The learning content can be accessed on devices that are connected to the internet. 

This eLearning content can be accessed at any place or time, meaning that students don’t all need to be in the same physical place to take the same course.

In many cases of eLearning, students aren’t directly interacting with the teacher or faculty. Many LMSs offer students the ability to interact with teachers via chat rooms, forums, or email. Some LMSs also offer live online streams where students can engage with the teacher as they instruct on the course in a live setting.

A healthy chunk of the eLearning industry is typically geared to working professionals looking to continue their education or pivot careers entirely. 

Some popular Elearning platforms include Udacity, Skillshare, MasterClass, and Coursera

However, more and more colleges and universities now offer undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral-level courses and programs conducted entirely online.

Creating an Online Course vs Teaching in Person

It may surprise you that Glova, who founded a company that creates online courses, didn’t always think highly of eLearning.

“I was actually resistant to the idea of teaching in the online format. But once I taught on the online format, I learned about all the different affordances that are offered for that medium,” Glova explains. “I still love teaching in person. I think what’s important to recognize is they are two very different formats. It’s much more than taking your in-class or in-training assets and making them digital, that doesn’t constitute an online course.”

Glova says educators have to consider how your participants or students are going to be interacting with the course content, its instructors, and with each other.

“It’s different online. But that difference is not a bad thing, just like with any choice, there are pros and cons. You have to be intentional about considering each,” Glova says.

The Advantages of eLearning

On-Demand: Participants can access the learning content whenever it’s best for them. The teacher can also give the participants control over when and at what pace they see the content and at what pace they access the content.

“Whether [the students] do a deep dive into content to get a better understanding, or skip over some resources and focus in another area, it’s really giving that control back to the participant,” Glova says.

The ability to collaborate on content: Another major advantage to eLearning is the ability for the class to collectively curate and collaborate on content in the LMS hub. Glova explains how she asked her students to help build out the resources she needed for course topics.

“In an online format, you can create really robust curated libraries of content. You can tag them and organize them in ways to make it really easy for the participants to find what they’re looking for,” Glova says.

“I remember developing one online course and instead of going out as the instructor and finding all the resources I needed to teach a topic, I actually made it a challenge for the participants,” Glova elaborates. “I said, ‘go find resources related to these different topics and choose your favorite ones.’ So with the participants, I built this curated library that they had a hand in creating.”

Modern medium: Many students and working professionals are on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone for a large part of the day. Vast amounts of content and information are accessed through the internet nowadays. eLearning provides students with the ability to absorb information using the technological medium or platform that’s most effective for their style of learning.

“When I switched to teaching online, I found that I used so many different media formats,” Glova shares. “I was using podcasts and videos, and I was having students create videos. You just get opened up to so much more technology in different media formats.”

The Disadvantages of Elearning

The course creator is responsible for building community: It can be isolating learning by yourself. Without the opportunity to regularly interact face-to-face with your classmates and teacher, you can certainly miss out on the benefits of becoming part of an in-person community.

“I think the biggest drawback in the online space is if we’re not intentional about creating a community, it can be so cold and isolating,” Glova says.

Content requires reformatting: Some online instructors don’t always take advantage of all the functions that an LMS has to offer. Instead, they simply offload all of their course content into the LMS and call it an ‘online course.’

“That’s one of the biggest risks that we see. If instructors and professionals are just taking their learning assets into a digital space and calling it a course, that’s really dangerous,” Glova says. “When we’re not being intentional about how the participants are going to be involved with that content, then can we even call it a course?”

Monitoring and maintaining student focus: It can be extremely challenging to focus for long periods of time if you’re not in the same room as the teacher and required to give your undivided attention. It can occasionally be challenging for online educators to monitor their learners and accurately determine who is engaged and fully participating in their class.

Lack of LMS faculty training: One thing Glova has identified throughout years of teaching and researching at NC State University was a real lack of LMS training for faculty across the country. Glova says that this is due to a shortage of resources at many institutions, meaning that teachers never fully get trained on how to properly move their course content into an online space. 

“That’s when we start to see courses that aren’t effective. Students aren’t focused on the learning objectives, they’re focused more on the technology. Or they’re in a course that’s much more like an online resource library and it’s not clear how they interact with content. With that, only basic information is memorized and lost after the next semester because it wasn’t interacted with in a way that students are able to remember it,” Glova explains.

Cheating: Do you actually know the answer because you studied and retained it? Or did you just search the question online and forget about it immediately after you input the answer? 

Comparison of eLearning vs. Traditional Learning

Since there are a number of elements of eLearning and traditional learning that stand in contrast with one another, we figured it might be helpful to see a visualization of them side by side to help determine which method of educational delivery works better for you. 

ElearningTraditional Learning
Learn anywhere with an internet connectionLearn in-person in a physical setting
Access content anytime you chooseAdhere to a schedule
Limited socialization and sense of communityInteract with teachers and other students in the classroom
Virtual interaction with course contentHands-on learning
Employs contemporary technology that comes naturally to studentsConducted in person using means that most educators are familiar with

Nanodegrees and New Careers

Due to the rise in popularity of eLearning, many are forgoing traditional learning environments to get the convenient career training they need, exactly when they want it.

In the U.S., the average job length is 4.6 years and 20% of workers are in a temporary position, according to Forbes. These short-term career stats are showing that more and more people are holding multiple positions in a number of jobs throughout their lifetime.

Leading eLearning platforms like Udacity offer ‘nanodegrees’ that allow learners the ability to land jobs, promotions or pivot careers in emerging fields like AI or blockchain, for example.

Well-equipped, working professionals, many of whom already have diplomas and degrees from post-secondary institutions, often don’t have time to go back to school full-time. Nanodegrees or eLearning courses tailored to job-specific training and knowledge can ultimately offer the best option.

Elearning Success Stories

Jamie Cambell went to the University of California, Berkeley to get his Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science. But in order to pursue his career as a cyber security specialist, he still needed some extra training after getting a Ph.D. from such a prestigious university.

Jamie ended up taking some specific eLearning courses to land a much-coveted job at Google as a security engineer. 

“To be a specialized security engineer in a Fortune 500 company (Alphabet) means you need to be a bit ‘extra.’ You must go out of your way to pursue extra training, develop a skill set that fits a certain niche,” the cybersecurity expert and founder of GoBestVPN says.

“Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen many of my colleagues who had taken the same route as me – a mix of both [traditional learning followed by specific Elearning] can go a long way.”

The same trend is occurring in the UK as well. 

Corinne Card is the co-founder of Full Story Media and the former marketing manager at atom42 in London, England. She attended the University of Cambridge and University of Sussex, but still needed to take some online courses to pivot careers.

“In 2017, I decided to leave my job and start my own company, but I didn’t have experience running a business or time to go back to university or college. Instead, I did an online course with FutureLearn about how to start and run a company, and it was really good,” Card says.

It didn’t take her too long either.

“It took eight weeks because they drip-fed the content but the total time needed to actually do it was more like eight hours.”

Vicky Shilling was also able to completely pivot jobs largely due to the help of some online courses, and says it was a “total game changer.”

Shilling now runs the successful health and wellness coaching resource The Flourishing Pantry.

“I did No Bull Business School’s Blog School back in 2016 and it totally changed my life. I was working in the music industry in London before I did the course, in a job that I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with. The Blog School tools allowed me to build my own blog and start following a passion in health and wellness,” Shilling says.

“I now coach wellness entrepreneurs to set up and run their own businesses, run a series of retreats called ‘The Reset,’ and continue blogging and working with brands, focusing on helping entrepreneurs to eat and live healthily.” 

Do you prefer eLearning or traditional learning? Have you ever taken an online course to pivot careers? Or maybe you’ve developed an online course!

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  • Avatar for Rachel
    October 28, 2019, 11:28 am

    Keaton—this is an interesting article as the majority of it positions different types of learning as an “or” situation, but not an “and” situation. As you shared under “online learning success stories,” many people find success with a blended learning approach as there are benefits of online learning and benefits to in-person training. I don’t think organizations should only choose one route for their training program. I used to work for an organization where training was strictly delivered in a classroom and to state it simply, it was terrible. Then, I moved to a company that uses both in-person and online training and the entire team loves it. We get the chance to learn and discuss new information together in a classroom setting but then have the option to access that same info on-demand with online learning. It helps us with retention and offers our team a healthy balance of training methods so there’s something for everyone’s learning style. For training to be successful I really think it’s time for companies to stop saying training should be online OR in-person and instead shift to blending learning approach.

  • Avatar for jerry miller
    jerry miller
    March 22, 2021, 2:09 am

    Your information content is awesome.

  • Avatar for Sumita Mukherjee
    Sumita Mukherjee
    September 18, 2021, 6:02 am

    Thank you for sharing this information. It helped me a lot in one of my projects on the evolution of education. Do check out my website for this blog – https://wizkidsclub.com/blog/