My site gets visited by a large number of students or potential students (one of the most active posts is ‘Recommended graduate programs in e-learning‘.)

I have therefore offered Olivia Coleman, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities, a guest post about the pros and cons of online and classroom learning, aimed mainly at potential online students. Many thanks, Olivia!

How Online Learning Compares with the Classroom

There is no question about the fact that online education is rapidly gaining popularity across North America. Many students are enrolling in online programs as a means to pursue an education while also holding down other responsibilities, like a full-time job or family care. One market research study predicts that by 2014, the majority of students in the USA will be taking courses fully online rather than on campus (Ambient Insight Research, 2009). Still, the student population at traditional brick-and-mortar universities currently is still far greater than that of online institutions. Numerous employers (and students) see online degrees as being less credible than those earned at campus universities. With education now at the forefront of news and politics, it is more important than ever to determine how online learning compares with the classroom, especially since both sides have their strong and weak points.

In order to size up how online learning compares with the classroom, it is important to consider where the two options differ. One big difference is the fact that online classes can be done anytime and anywhere whereas campus classes must be taken on a schedule. However, it is not quite true that online learning has no schedule. There are usually deadlines for assignments, for instance. Nevertheless there is usually more flexibility in scheduling than in face-to-face classes. This convenience factor is something that many online institutions flaunt as a means to sell the idea of taking Internet courses. After all, it is certainly more convenient to take your classes whenever you desire rather than adhering to a strict class schedule, which campus-based programs demand. Yet, some students need the structure of a schedule and a classroom in order to succeed, especially those who are fresh out of high school and are thereby more used to schooling as a routine. Students who go from the regime of high school to the flexibility of online courses may find themselves procrastinating to the point of falling behind, after which it is far too difficult to catch up. For those who need a schooling routine, a classroom education may be better. Yet, for working adults who have been out of school for years and are used to tackling things in a timely manner, an online education could be a better option due to its flexibility of time and place.

The quality of education is another thing that must be examined in order to size up how online education compares with traditional education. Advocates of traditional campus education often cite the importance of having one-on-one interaction with professors and classmates, something which online education undeniably lacks. While online education does allow students to connect with their instructors and classmates through e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, and message boards, this is still not the same as face-to-face interaction. Students taking their courses online are in a much more disconnected and distant learning environment, as their fellow classmates could actually be several states away. But how important is sitting in a physical classroom with all of your peers? Surprisingly, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education last year (Means et al., 2009), it is not that important.

The study found that students in an online learning format actually tended to outperform students learning in a classroom environment. When pitting two sets of students studying the same subject against each other, with one set in a strict online learning environment and the other in a strict classroom environment, researchers found that the students learning their materials online earned higher grades and displayed an overall greater understanding of the course materials. This is significant, as it proves that online learning is not only effective, but it could also be more efficient than classroom learning.

Still, this research does not automatically mean that all classroom courses should be abandoned for online courses because the study found that online education was not actually the most effective way of learning. Beating out both classroom and online learning was hybrid learning, or utilizing both online and campus learning as a means to gain an education. Students who did this earned the highest marks and also showed the greatest levels of course material comprehension. The main reason for this is that when studying online, students spent more time ‘on task’ – in other words they studied harder. This is important, because it is a mistake to see online learning as an easy option.

But for those who are just looking to pick one or the other, it is a good idea to look at why both methods are so vouched for and debated. A traditional education in a brick-and-mortar institution is exactly that: traditional. The method of obtaining a higher education by reporting to classes several times a week and sitting in a classroom to listen to lectures has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, some of the universities still in operation claiming to be “Canada’s oldest university” are more than 200 years old. For example, the University of New Brunswick in New Brunswick was established in 1785, and the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia was established not long after in 1789. With such a long history of college education being dispensed this way, it is not surprising that online education is often met with suspicion. After all, the time-tested brick-and-mortar method of education has proven to be useful and effective, whereas obtaining a degree online is relatively new and uncharted. (However, the University of New Brunswick, like many traditional universities and colleges today, also offers online programs as well).

It is also important to note that online education is built on the practice of distance education, which has been around for nearly 100 years. The earliest forms of distance education were conducted through letters before it changed into two-way radio education. But it was only recently that online education took off due to major advances in computer and Internet technology. Therefore, it can be argued that online education is just another step in the evolutionary progress of distance education, the practice of which is also time-tested.

In the end, research shows that online learning typically trumps classroom learning, possibly due to the fact that students can take their time learning on the Internet rather than sticking to the clock in a classroom. Yet, the effectiveness of different modes of education will depend heavily on the student and his or her commitment and studying habits. A student who cannot keep up with online course work will not perform better than a classroom student who does, and the reverse is also true. If you are trying to decide between the two methods, consider which is a better fit for your lifestyle: the traditional, more rigid but time-tested campus education, or the modern, flexible, but more uncharted online education.


Ambient Insight Research (2009) US Self-paced e-Learning Market Monroe WA: Ambient Insight Research

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education (


This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, .

I will be adding my own post shortly for potential students, on choosing an online institution.

If you have anything you’d like to add, or disagree with, regarding Olivia’s post, please use the comment facility and/or send her an e-mail: olivia.coleman33


  1. Thanks for this post Olivia. I am a teacher of secondary school students proposing an online component of my VCE Environmental Science course for 2011. It is interesting to note that the research supports a blended learning environment and that online students can outperform students from the traditional classroom. The students that are interested in the course have found out about my online subject independently of their schools and are very keen to study this topic. Their motivation and initiative is a great start to achieving good results.
    Have you any other advice for teachers of online courses to keep their students on track and motivated?

  2. Hi Tony
    This topic has been thrashed to bits in the last 20 years…what is new?? There does seem that increasingly, researchers are re-inventing the wheel—it may be useful that they read the research on these topics before launching into writing. Forgive my scepticism!!!

    Regards, Lalita
    Dr Lalita Rajasingham BA(MELB) MA (CAMB) PhD, AFNZIM
    Associate Professor (Communications Studies)
    School of Information Management
    Room 215 Easterfield Building
    Victoria University of Wellington
    PO Box 600
    New Zealand

  3. RE: Britt Gow — A blended model of online and traditional classroom-based education has by far been shown to be the most effective, so I think your proposal of an online component to your Environmental Studies course is well-founded. My advice for teachers to keep their students on track and focused is to treat the online portion of the class as seriously as the classroom part of the class. Regular communication is essentially, since teachers cannot monitor the students as easily as they can in the classroom. Communication will also remind students to keep up with the online portion of their class. If you are doing a blended model, you can even bring classroom lessons onto the online platform, or vice versa. This means perhaps you could further discuss assignments and lectures given online in the classroom, or explore the topics discussed in the classroom in greater detail online. You may also regularly post fun and informational videos relevant to the topics being learned online to keep things interesting (as well as to take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of computer-based learning!).

    RE: Dr. Lalita Rajasingham — I understand your frustration over how this particular topic has been “thrashed to bits.” However, I do believe that this is something that is as relevant now as it was when the first research on online vs. classroom education was conducted. Online learning is continually changing, and as more people begin to take notice of its possibilities and enroll in online classes, it is imperative that new research is done to ensure that it is still a viable option for obtaining an education. And, as someone who has experience in both online and offline education as well as a healthy dose of curiosity about higher education in general, you can be assured that I have indeed read the research I cited before “launching into writing.”

  4. Thank you from the article above I am conducting action research in South Africa towards my PhD on ‘ online learning and teaching public schools’. I am looking for literature on the related subjects.

  5. This is a very insightful article. Virtual Learning environments (VLEs) is basically self-learning. A blended approach that utilizes Open, Distance & Electronic learning would yield better outcomes.
    There’s no big difference between conventional teaching & learning methods to online technologies. The initial cost of implementing a VLE is what puts of institutions that may desire to put up one. Online learning should be embraced as it is cheaper in the long-term. Furthermore, this mode allows learners to continue working as they up-skill themselves.


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