Distance learning seems to be something recent. It isn't. In fact, it goes back almost 300 years to 1728, when Caleb Phillips gave a course on private correspondence via mail in Boston, USA. Since that time, much has changed and distance learning has taken a flight—especially online and propelled by technological developments and the corona crisis.
At the same time though, traditional face-to-face education is still very much alive and the preferred option at many schools and universities across the globe. Apparently, both online and face-to-face learning have their place and added value. This means a comparison of which of the two is most effective isn't very useful. Both can be effective, but in different situations, for different reasons and for different types of learners.
Based on my own teaching experience and on observations by others, I've compiled a list of benefits of both. That will follow below. But let me start with sharing a recent experience, giving some—obviously anecdotal and biased—evidence of the benefits of online learning. A personal experience: my MBA course on strategy
For about 20 years I teach strategy in traditional face-to-face classroom settings. Initially to larger groups of undergraduate and graduate students, and over the past 10 years mostly in small group executive MBA programs.
Due to corona I had the opportunity to give my executive MBA strategy classes that I normally give face-to-face, online. Using a combination of the Better as Strategy platform and its courses and Zoom sessions, we did the entire course at a distance, online. After the initial hick-ups, it worked surprisingly well. Of course, informal interaction was more difficult and the 3,5 hours that a typical executive MBA class often lasts were exhausting for everyone. But the combination of platform and sessions had benefits over the traditional form as well, the most important ones being:
- More and better structure: in a face-to-face class, lecturers can talk their way out of everything. Online, though, you need to structure everything very clearly, especially in self-paced courses.
- Availability of materials: a face-to-face class stops when time is up. Online, though, materials stay available so that students can learn at any time—during classes, but also afterwards when they need it.
- Using tools and websites: in face-to-face classes, discussion takes place face-to-face. You immediately notice it when people watch their screens instead of you. Online, though, you watch at the screen anyway, making it more natural to look things up, use tools, etc.
- Equal or better results: based on very limited experience, but when I compare the results of this year's class compared to earlier years, results are at least as good and even slightly better than before. This could be because of the quality of students, but in the assignments and final paper, I also observed better and more structured use of strategy tools and methods, suggesting that the previous three points indeed work.
So, all in all, this biased and personal example shows that online learning has drawbacks but can also have significant benefits compared to traditional face-to-face learning. What others say: pros of online and face-to-face learning
There are numerous articles around about the advantages and disadvantages of online learning compared to face-to-face learning. Given that my purpose is not to conclude which one is better, I summarize only the advantages of both. Advantages of face-to-face learning:
Advantages of online learning:
- Interaction is easier, better and smoother, especially informal
- More possibilities to motivate students and give them a heads up
- Easier to watch weaker students and help them out
- More explicit peer pressure to participate and perform
- Easier to get to know each other and develop relationships
- Materials are available when students want to access them
- More flexibility for students for when and how to learn
- Mostly more affordable than traditional education
- No commute and classroom needed, can be done from home
- More choice and easier to access with just a few clicks
Both forms of learning have their advantages. This means there will remain a place for both. What we can conclude from the above, though, is that online learning is especially suitable for motivated, capable learners who want to continuously become better and take the lead in their own life-long learning journey.