Online learning is not a solution for all educational problems

Those of us who have been fighting to get online learning accepted over the last 20-25 years have argued strongly the merits of online learning. We have argued that not only can it increase access, especially for older, working and lifelong learners, but it can also teach as well, and under certain circumstances, even better than face-to-face teaching. Covid-19 in particular showed the value of online learning, allowing students to continue their learning, even during a pandemic.

The limits of online learning

However, Covid-19 also taught us that online learning has its limits. When there was no access to face-to-face learning, we found that online learning was not able to help certain students. We also found that there are important aspects of face-to-face or campus based learning that cannot easily be replaced by online learning. Let’s look at some of these limitations.

1. Access

Until the lockdowns brought about by Covid-19 came along, we had always seen online learning as expanding access. Many potential learners simply cannot access a campus or school on a regular basis, but online learning opens up an alternative pathway for their learning.

However, when there is no access to a campus or a school, we find that a move to online learning can also restrict access, particularly for the following:

  • students without adequate access to the Internet, either because it is not available locally or because there is insufficient bandwidth for applications such as synchronous video streaming (Zoom, etc.)
  • learners who live in a location where there is adequate Internet coverage, but who lack or cannot afford suitable equipment such as computers or a mobile phone
  • those who do not have an adequate place to study at home
  • those with physical or mental disabilities, such as the visually impaired or learners with ADHD, who require professional in-person supervision or support to learn effectively.

I estimate that when schools and post-secondary campuses are closed, 20%-25% of Canadians will have severe difficulties accessing online learning. The CRTC estimates that 15% of Canadians have less than 10Mbs/s access, to which must be added those students or families who cannot afford multiple devices or have physical and mental disabilities that limit their use of devices. In many other countries, the proportion of the population who cannot access online learning will be much higher. Lack of access is strongly associated with poverty or low incomes.

Much can be done to alleviate the lack of access, such as loaning equipment, local centres with good Internet access such as libraries or even cafes with wi-fi, special support for students with disabilities, and the use of universal design for learning principles in the design of online learning, but access remains a challenge when there is no alternative but online learning.

2. The importance of in-person socialisation in education

Research into how students responded to online learning during Covid-19 clearly indicated that there is more to school and post-secondary education than just instruction. Particularly students coming straight from high school want and possibly need the social, sporting and cultural aspects of the campus as much as the instructional side. For many students, their motivation to learn dropped considerably during Covid-19 when these ‘extra-curricular’ activities were not available to them.

3. The needs of young children

The school (k-12) system suffered much more than the post-secondary system from the move to online learning. There were many reasons for this, such as the relative lack of experience of school boards and teachers in online learning prior to Covid-19, compared to institutions and instructors in the post-secondary system, the lack of technical and instructional support for school teachers moving to online learning, confusion in messaging and the role of parents, and poor administrative decision-making about how online learning should be delivered to school children, but nevertheless the move to online learning also highlighted some major difficulties with online learning itself.

Put simply, the younger the child, the less appropriate is online learning. This comes down to similar factors as for post-secondary students, but in a much greater order of magnitude for children under about 12. The need for social learning and personal development in a carefully managed school environment requires the presence of skilled and trained adults. The ability to mix with children of diverse social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds is an essential step for ensuring not only well adjusted children but also for social cohesion. Schools provide so much more than mere instruction, as important as that is.

This is not to say that online learning has no place in the education of young children, but it is an inadequate substitute for school.

4. Some topics/subjects are difficult to teach online

This has always been a criticism of online learning. Students need hands-on experience in using equipment and access to physical labs in vocational, science and engineering education. This has been increasingly addressed by the use of home experiment kits, remote labs, simulations and more recently virtual reality, but these are expensive and difficult solutions, only partially meeting the needs for hands-on learning.

However, during Covid-19, we also saw that other subject areas also have strong needs for in-person teaching and learning, such as counselling, language teaching, and social work. Although online learning can play a valuable role in these areas, and can provide some practice through online discussion forums and synchronous online meetings through Zoom, etc., it cannot completely substitute for the in-person experience.

5. Learners (and instructors) are different

During Covid-19, some students (and instructors) took to online learning like ducks to water; others hated it. This was partly due to differences in learning design, but even in well-designed online courses, there will be students who intensely dislike this mode of learning.

Some of this resistance can be overcome by careful design, extra attention by an instructor, or gradually adding online study to face-to-face learning so learners become more able to manage online. Independent learning is a skill that can be taught. Nevertheless some students have personality characteristics that lean towards or against this kind of learning, and this needs to be understood and respected.

No teaching context is perfect. However, it is important that online educators and enthusiasts recognise the limitations of online learning. We need to be humble, while at the same time striving to overcome the limitations.

The limits of face-to-face teaching

At the same time face-to-face teachers and instructors need to be much more aware of many of the limitations of face-to-face teaching. Much of the problem with emergency remote learning was not so much the ineffectiveness of online learning, but the poor quality and ineffectiveness of the lectures that were merely moved online. Hidden in a face-to-face lecture theatre with 200 students physically present, the limitations became much more obvious when students were online – they just switched off their cameras instead of daydreaming in class.

Also, face-to-face teaching excludes many learners who cannot access the campus. This market of learners for whom campus-based teaching is difficult or unattainable will increase over time, as jobs change, and new technologies arrive. Those 25 years and over with kids and jobs will need to continue to learn, and the inflexibility of campus-based teaching will limit their access.

Furthermore, online learning will increasingly enable the kind of digital learning that will be essential and can’t be learned in a large, in-person lecture class.

Accepting the value of both online and face-to-face teaching

We need to not only accept that both online learning and face-to-face teaching have equal value, but also to strive to understand what each does best. This will vary by subject matter, by types of students, and by instructors’ training and experience. We all have a lot to learn.

Both face-to-face teaching and online learning have an important role to play in the future. We should stop pretending that one is much superior to the other; in other words we all need a little more humility.


  1. Hopefully, covid taught us that online and face-to-face are two modalities that offer different circumstances, opportunities, and learning affordances. It’s not either-or, but how to combine them. In some situations, we may not be able to choose when to use online or face to face, but external factors might force us, thus educators need to be agile to utilise both modalities.


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