Online Learning vs Traditional Learning: Considerations for Educators and Students

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The debate for choosing online learning vs. traditional learning is growing each year.

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

While online learning offers students incredible flexibility and on-demand learning, post-secondary institutions who provide online courses also stand to benefit from increased recognition in new markets or countries, as well as a larger student base to draw revenue from.

But, it’s also evident that traditional learning methods involving in-person teaching and training from an expert will always be necessary for many reasons.

That’s why we interviewed Dr. Sarah Glova, the founder of Reify Media, which creates online learning courses, to answer the question: What is the best method for course delivery? Why should I choose online learning vs. traditional learning?

Sarah has a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and has taught online 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 piece, we’ll explain what the key differences are between delivering traditional learning and online learning, highlight the pros and cons to offering online learning 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’, who is the teacher, communicating with a group of students in a brick and mortar facility. The students gather together in physical classrooms within the facility during a certain timeframe (e.g. 8am-2pm) to learn about specific topics, subjects or get specific hands-on job training and experience. 

While many schools are incorporating more and more technology into the physical classrooms to enhance learning, handwritten note-taking, along with some assignments and exams are still often required to be completed with pen and a paper

The curriculum 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,” Dr. Sarah Glova, who taught technical writing to engineers at NC State University, and is now the director of communications and growth at RioT, says.

“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,” she says.

“[For example], I appreciate that the pilots who are flying me across the country have some in-person training experience. I appreciate 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,” she says.

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 would go unnoticed in an online setting. Most importantly, interacting with a teacher face-to-face allows students to build trust with the educator. 

“In an in-person format, I’m very focused on the time I have in front of my participants,” Sarah 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 can’t 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. 

Disadvantages of Traditional Learning

No flexible hours: Teachers and students might find the strict schedule of the educational institution difficult to keep if they have multiple commitments or other jobs.

Commuting: Driving back and forth to the facility every day takes up a lot of time for both educators and learners. Time and money on gas, vehicle maintenance or public transit will be spent towards getting you to the school.

Larger student loans: Piggybacking off of the last point, the loans taken out by students who do traditional learning in-person will 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 at the front of the class, students can be left listening passively and the potential for disengagement skyrockets.

What is Online Learning?

Online Learning is exactly what it sounds like: The participants or students’ learning takes place in an online format. A teacher will upload or post content on a learning management software (LMS) and share it with the class digitally. The learning content can be accessed on devices that are connected to the internet. 

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

In many cases for online learning, the students aren’t directly interacting with the teacher or faculty. Many LMSs offer students the ability to interact with teachers via chat room, forums or emails. 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 online learning industry is typically geared to working professionals who are looking to continue their education to gain a promotion or even pivot careers entirely (see below for more on that). 

Some popular online learning platforms are Udacity, Skillshare, MasterClass and Coursera

However, more and more universities and colleges are starting to offer full online bachelor, masters and Ph.D. degrees, as well. 

Creating an Online Course vs Teaching in Person

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

“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,” she 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.”

Sarah 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,” she says.

Advantages of Online Learning

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

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

Curation/collaboration of content: Another major advantage to online learning is the ability for the class to curate and collaborate on content in the LMS hub. Sarah explains how she asked her students to help build out the resources she needed for course topics in detail below.

“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,” she 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. 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. So much content and information is acquired through the internet now. Online learning gives many different mediums for students to absorb information in the method that’s most effective for them.

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

Disadvantages of Online Learning

Course Creator Responsible for Creating Community: It can be isolating learning by yourself. Not getting to interact face-to-face with your classmates and teacher can certainly take its toll.

“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,” Sarah says.

Content Requires Reformatting: Unfortunately, there are some faculty out there who don’t take advantage of everything an LMS has to offer. Instead, they 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. 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?” Sarah says.

Maintaining and Monitoring 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, requiring your undivided attention. It’s very challenging for online educators to monitor if the learner is engaged and participating fully in their class.

Lack of LMS faculty training: One thing Sarah has identified through her years of teaching and researching at NC State University was a real lack of LMS training for faculty across the country. She says this is due to a shortage of resources at many institutions, meaning 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,” Sarah 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? 

Nanodegrees and New Careers

Due to the rise in popularity of online learning, 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 doing multiple jobs in their lifetime.

Leading online learning 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 online learning courses tailored to job-specific training and knowledge can ultimately offer the best option.

Online Learning 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 online learning 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 more ‘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 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 online learning] 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 went to the University of Cambridge and Sussex University 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,” Corinne says.

And 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 also completely pivoted jobs just by taking some online courses and says it was a ‘total game changer.’

Vicky now runs the successful health and wellness coaching resource, the Flourishing Pantry.

“I did the 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,” Vicky 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.” 

What do you prefer, online learning or traditional learning? Have you ever taken an online course to pivot careers? Or maybe you’ve developed an online course! Do you have an online learning or eLearning course you need a voice actor for? Sign up for a free account today. 

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  • 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.