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Online Teaching versus the Traditional Classroom: Which Is Better?

Updated on January 5, 2018
College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania Campus
College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania Campus | Source

The Importance of Education for All Cannot Be Denied

When one stops and thinks about it, human learning can, and does, occur in a wide variety of settings and through a diverse range of educational methods. Human beings of all ages have always learned from friends and relatives as well as from experts in the larger community. From a mother teaching her daughter to cook and clean, to a father teaching his son to carve a tool, to a shaman teaching an acolyte songs and herb lore, humans have always guided each other to learn and grow. Learning can happen anywhere; it is not restricted to a special building with blackboards (or today’s whiteboards) and rows of desks.

Human beings are each ultimately responsible for learning and growing intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Ideally, each person should develop fully, maturing internally and externally, becoming capable of functioning successfully in the natural world and of loving unselfishly. Arguably, in a healthy society, humans help each other grow to this extent, both within birth families and in the larger society, through peer guidance, mentoring, and formal education. With the above-stated goals, America has developed a system of public (and private) education, which at this time is available to all people, from preschool-aged children to seniors.

Although America’s public education system is imperfect in many ways, it has existed for over a century as an example of systematized education for all. One might suggest that all countries would benefit from mandating formal education for all citizens from youth until at least physical maturity. The potential benefits (both social and intellectual) of public education make it an essential feature of a responsible society.

Surely an educated, well-socialized society is preferable to one whose inhabitants are intellectually ignorant and inexperienced in relating to human beings different from themselves. Choosing the second option above would only increase the likelihood of greater human error, hatred, fear, and destructiveness. Education is not only about gaining intellectual power; it helps human beings to be the best people we possibly can be on every level, to learn from our historical mistakes, and to understand (and thus relate constructively to) the larger world around us. Assuming then that education for all is a priority, what is the better method of learning, in ground schools or online? As an experienced teacher both online and in the traditional classroom, one who loves teaching students online and is grateful for the many deep experiences I've had in the online classroom, and having also taken both online and ground classes as a student, let me share some thoughts on this topic.

From You Tube: About the Profound Educational Ideas of John Dewey

Successful Online Education Requires Excellent Management of One's Resources

Does Your Desk Look Like This?
Does Your Desk Look Like This? | Source

Have You Taken an Online Class?

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Organization, Interpersonal, Reading, and Writing Skills Are Needed for Online Classes

Online education is very different from education in a traditional classroom setting. One main difference is the supreme importance of independent individual responsibility and organization to the online student. Of course, students in a traditional classroom also need to be organized and manage their resources well. Students who ignore or misplace their class requirements and materials and who fail to complete assignments and attend class regularly will have trouble succeeding in any type of class, online or traditional.

However, online students must take much more independent responsibility than students in ground classes if they are to achieve the same level of learning. Online students must manage the given information, which is often extensive and for the most part, is written. They must keep their materials clearly organized, ideally in separate online folders for each class and for each assignment. They must access the class calendar and make sure to understand and meet every posted deadline. They must attend online class by regularly posting quality contributions to the class’s collaborative discussions as well as posting their individual assignments—quite a contrast to the traditional classroom, where students attend class but are often allowed to remain silent during class meetings all semester, although arguably, contributing to the discussion is just as important in a ground class as online.

The student who depends on his/her teacher to clarify the assignments, deadlines, and the overall material can easily fall behind in an online class unless that student makes a strong effort to interact personally with the online teacher, by email or even phone or Skype. One might say that is equally true for the ground class. However, in ground schools, many students manage to “catch up” despite incomplete focus and participation by going to their teachers outside of class and working together in person. This strategy is much harder to implement online, where missing one or two classes or assignments can make a big difference in one’s understanding and one’s grade. The online student needs to be focused, pro-active, and personally responsible for his/her learning from day one; a lesser effort will result in confusion and frustration and is much harder to remedy when the student him/herself must backtrack and review the material independently.

For the organized, motivated, mature student who knows the value of seeking help when needed from his/her instructor and for an independent learner of any age who reads and writes competently, online class is likely to be less difficult than for a young person who is used to direct, in-person guidance and support and for those students who dislike or struggle with reading and writing.

There's Something Magical about Reading Real Books in a Beautiful University Library

Dartmouth College campus 2007-11-06 Baker Memorial Library 07 - Tower Room
Dartmouth College campus 2007-11-06 Baker Memorial Library 07 - Tower Room | Source

The Engaged Student Learns More Easily

Engagement with the class, the instructor, and the material are essential building blocks for student learning. However, it is often difficult for online students to make a strong connection to the teacher and the class. When learning online, although one can call or email one’s instructor for guidance, although online classes often feature discussions and chat rooms, although instructors generally post extensive personal guidance, and although the course materials are usually easily accessible, students nonetheless often feel cut off from the instructor, the course material, and the rest of the class.

It can be difficult for students to understand written material (for a variety of reasons, including cultural and language barriers and poor reading skills), and all too often, students do not take the initiative to seek clarification. They try to figure out what is required of them, but often feel lost and confused. At this point, it is often hard for the online student to reach out to his/her instructor for clarification, and even if the student takes that step, it can be hard for him/her to understand the teacher and the material when in-person contact with the teacher is missing. Many students learn more easily with the in-person support of a teacher’s voice, facial expressions, body language, and more. Online guidance and feedback can seem impersonal and cold and can be easily misinterpreted, especially if a student is not comfortable with reading and writing.

Regular, whole class meetings in the physical classroom; one-on-one, in-person collaborations between students and their teachers; and in-person interaction between students inside and outside the classroom offer extensive opportunities for asking questions and getting help with understanding and completing one’s lessons. Listening to a live, in-class discussion, as well as live lectures, where one can hear the voices of one’s instructor and classmates and see their body language and facial expressions, as well as interact in-person in real time, are prime situations for learning. The sensory quality of in-person experience is much greater than that achieved online or through any presently available media--and perhaps that will always be the case, no matter how advanced technology becomes. Certainly most current online classrooms, despite collaborative written discussions and use of group audio/video sessions, have very far to go before they can approach the advantage of real live meetings, of working together in person.

Below, in this Hub, readers will find links to interesting innovations including the TED-Ed series, Tech2Learn at Edutopia , and even Ricci Adams' excellent online music theory site (which the author used to great advantage). It is conceivable that human beings could someday make magnificent and powerful learning experiences using non-traditional and technological methods, such as Star Trek 's holodecks (see video link, below) the norm. The most advanced online or non-traditional methods of education may well supplement the in-person educational experience; however, learning directly, in person and using one's physical senses, provides the most powerful learning experience.

When creating learning experiences alternative to the traditional classroom, let us hope that in addition to considering the potential savings online education offers, we remember the crucial purpose of education: to help all individuals fully develop mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, to be the best possible people they can be. Let us not short ourselves in this process, when thoughtful investment can help us create a better world.

Remember the Holodeck? Here Is a clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation, via You Tube

Online Teaching versus the Traditional Classroom: Which Is Better?

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    • healingsword profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Wehrman 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi Suzettenaples,

      I appreciate your comments and positive feedback! I think you're right that giving higher achieving students suggestions and methods for independent, further study will make a difference in their engagement and growth. Teaching classes with mixed levels makes that absolutely necessary. Computers are a good way for those students to learn on their own, but so might be reading books and other print media, writing, photography, service projects, and many other methods of learning. Tutoring those who are struggling is another way the high achievers can find meaning and satisfaction, while helping the slower students learn. Helping their fellow students improves the high learners' integration into the social network, too.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      This is quite a thought provoking hub. I am a retired teacher and I think the educational approach needs to be determined for each student. On the whole, I believe interaction with peers and teachers is important as a learning process also. Students must learn how to engage with one another and how to navigate the learning system. I agree, on site at a school, university and library is much needed. Sometimes, students, especially those of high ability get frustrated waiting for the other students to catch on. In this case, I think individual learning with a computer is necessary. In the technological future, I think we are going to have to balance 'face time' in schools with individual learning with computers and the internet. This is a very thoughtful article and very well presented.

    • healingsword profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Wehrman 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi Austinhealy,

      Thanks for reading and commenting :-). The world is constantly changing; that's for sure. When you think about it, there were many, many years of human society previous to the invention of the printing press, and even prior to written language. Nonetheless, people communicated and taught/learned from each other, though speech, signs, movement, song, etc. Books are not the only way to transmit knowledge.

      The Internet has opened vast stores of knowledge to anyone who can access it and read, which is incredible. It does seem possible that education will become mostly online in the future. Of course, those of us who grew up reading books will miss them.

      Despite the strong points of online education, I am not sure it will ever satisfy humans completely, however. Learning by doing and learning through live interaction with another human being seem the best methods, to me.

      That said, I appreciate the Internet and all the online opportunities I have so much; that includes HubPages! It includes my two online teaching jobs! It includes the many poems I've published in online journals, as well. Heck, it even includes Facebook :-).

      So, there are two sides to this issue, for me: there is the ideal and there is appreciating what we have now, what technology can do for humanity while things are still not ideal. For me, an ideal world would use very little technology--maybe none. But that is another Hub :-).

    • austinhealy profile image

      Bernard J. Toulgoat 

      5 years ago from Treasure Coast, Florida

      I do agree with you that education is vital to any society and should be a high priority at all times. There is no doubt in my mind than learning through the internet is the future. Maybe it would be cheaper, but it could be also very efficient if organised properly. Try to visualize a world with no more school campuses, no more school buses on the streets etc. It is somewhat scary in a way, but in the name of efficiency it will probably happen some day. In the same vein, public libraries will also most likely be made redundant. Snif, snif...

    • healingsword profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Wehrman 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi TheDoItllGuy, You are right, it can be very hard to find sufficient work right now, and things might remain hard for a long time (let's hope not!). I do advise taking out as few loans as possible for that reason. You might consider going to school part-time and working as much as possible now, which might make it possible to take fewer or no loans. You would still finish your degree, even if it took a little longer. Perhaps you can meet with a counselor in your school's financial aid department to discuss that possibility and your overall situation? Have you met with your school's career counselor, as well? Then, too, many graduates end up taking work in fields other than their degree, which can mean staying afloat financially. I wish you good luck! Remember, education is more than a job ticket. Network, learn, read, explore, make friends, perhaps try internships, and treasure the experience.

    • TheDoItAllGuy profile image


      5 years ago

      I agree with you as I often worry about my future upon graduating from college, with regards to paying back my loans and getting a job in my specific area of study. I feel as if this will be no easy task because like you stated times are tough right now.

    • healingsword profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Wehrman 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi TheDoItAllGuy,

      Thanks for reading my Hub and commenting. I am sorry about your friends' struggles and wish them better luck in the future.

      Unfortunately, students from both ground and online schools often struggle after graduation, both in business and in other areas of life. Life is not easy, and earning one's degree doesn't always mean one has learned how to live successfully. Additionally, times are quite hard for most of us right now. As an online teacher, as well as a traditional teacher, I like to think that the serious student can learn well in an online environment. Especially some subjects, like writing, are well suited for online work.

      Thanks again for your comments!

    • TheDoItAllGuy profile image


      5 years ago

      I feel as if in class room learning is better just from seeing my friends that took cyber schooling classes hit hard times while the ones in the class-room environment did just fine. Awesome article! Thanks.

    • healingsword profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Wehrman 

      5 years ago from California

      Hi kat_thurston, Thanks for reading and for your comment. I think you are right on topic, at least partially. Your own experience as an online student sounds great. Perhaps that is, at least to some extent, because you were mature, motivated, organized, and a good reader/writer?

      The care and personal attention you can give your children directly when homeschooling them is one of the valuable features of traditional education; your voice and physical presence help them focus, inspire them, and guide them. However, homeschooling versus school outside of the home is not the focus of this Hub, as you stated. It is certainly another controversial and important topic, though. Perhaps when you homeschool your children, you combine online with in-person activities?

    • kat_thurston profile image


      5 years ago

      I might be off the subject but this is the first year I am homeschooling my kids and they seem to be doing a lot better so far and more interested in learning. I finished my degree online and found it much easier I found myself mover through my courses and classes a lot faster


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