Distance education has been an alternative to on-campus learning for three centuries. Correspondence courses grew in popularity during the 19th century, thanks to postal service improvements, but its roots go back as far as 1728, when a shorthanded teacher put out an ad in the Boston Gazette for weekly lessons sent by mail.
Conducting distance education online may be more modern, but it’s not new. Its origins go back to the late 20th century. In 1985, National Technological University began offering online courses via satellite. In 1993, the Higher Learning Commission recognized Jones International University as the first accredited university to operate exclusively online.
As internet adoption increased throughout the 1990s, key benefits of online learning emerged, centered on convenience. Since then, primarily due to technological advancements, the benefits of online learning have expanded to include time management, improved communication, critical thinking skills, technical skills, career advancement and affordable tuition.
The rise of online learning had already begun before COVID-19. In the years leading up to the pandemic, online learning was growing in popularity. However, data reveals that the pandemic pushed universities online, making it a primary driver of the current accelerated adoption of online learning.
Nearly 12 million undergraduate students were enrolled in at least one online class in 2020 vs. 6 million in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic, according to distance learning data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the research branch of the U.S. Department of Education.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, online learning had its challenges. For example, with the sudden shutdowns of whole cities, schools faced challenges in delivering a fully distance education format. However, despite the struggle of many academic institutions to cobble together online classes, the transition demonstrated the benefits of online learning and their usefulness in keeping education accessible even in crises.
Online Learning vs. Traditional Learning
In comparing online learning vs. traditional learning, the primary difference is that online learning can take place anywhere with an internet connection while traditional learning requires individuals to attend classes on-site. This doesn’t make one form better than the other, but the growth of online learning does offer new education options for individuals looking to advance their knowledge and skills to further their careers.
Some students are better suited for the online learning environment because they enjoy the independence of taking classes at times that work best for them, while still having the structure to help them succeed academically. With technological advancements, online learning provides students plenty of opportunities to engage with professors and fellow students through teleconferencing software and other communications tools.
Still, some students don’t fare well independently, and they may be better suited for the defined structure of in-person classes. Additionally, it may be necessary to perform in-person work, such as working in a laboratory, building a prototype or conducting hands-on research.
Traditional in-person learning continues to be the primary form of education, and for centuries was the only way to prepare the next generation of leaders. While some may argue that information technology has all but eliminated the need for in-person learning in some fields, the truth is that traditional learning offers many benefits, including providing a social environment for:
Working on group projects
Building relationships with fellow students
Creating professional networks
A deeper examination of online learning vs. traditional learning reveals additional differences, including the following:
One standout difference between online learning vs. traditional degree programs is that online education provides flexibility, which in our busy and fast-paced world can help students achieve better work-life balance. Traditional learning typically requires a fixed schedule, providing individuals with a daily cadence. This can help individuals with a need for structure to better manage their education, work and personal life. However, the lack of flexibility can create additional pressures, such as the time and cost of commuting to a physical classroom, and having to arrange a makeup class if they miss a class due to illness or other conflicts.
Whether a student takes a class online or in person, actively listening to lectures is important. The difference is how these lectures are delivered. Online, students can listen to a live lecture from the comfort of their homes, and some professors record these live lessons so that students watch them at their convenience, or rewatch them to review the material. In a traditional in-person setting, students have to be present in the classroom or risk missing important topics.
In both cases, students can communicate with faculty to ask questions or make comments. In online learning, students interact with faculty using video or chat features; in traditional learning, students and faculty interact face-to-face.
While internet access was important to education before the pandemic for research, class assignments and after-class communication, the pandemic made it a primary means of traditional learning. With a return to on-campus activities, internet access will continue to play an increasingly important role in traditional learning.
For online learning, however, fast and reliable internet access is a firm requirement. Without it, the technology that facilitates online learning, such as teleconferencing software and online course platforms, provide little to no value to the education process.
Group assignments are a critical component of education. They teach teamwork, collaboration, organization and planning, among other crucial skills. In traditional learning settings, interactions with other students is commonplace and can take place without having to be scheduled. At any time during a lecture, an educator can ask students to pair up into teams to work on a task together.
Peer interaction in online learning, of course, isn’t in person. In the past, online group projects typically involved scheduling a time to meet using a videoconferencing tool. However, with modern tools such as Zoom, the moderator of an online group session can create breakout rooms.
Breakout rooms mimic separating students into groups in a physical classroom. A professor can give opening instructions to the class as a whole, and then divide students into discussion groups in separate online rooms where they can work closely together before returning to the larger group to share their results.
Innovations such as web conferencing tools, online curriculum design and high-speed internet all contribute to rich online learning experiences.
Popular videoconferencing apps such as Blackboard Collaborate, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom allow students to participate in live discussions, share documents and collaborate on projects. They share many similarities, but often offer different features and capabilities.
Curriculum or instructional design software helps educators create educational content in various formats, from text and video to presentations and interactive games. Educators teaching online courses have many options to share course content and collaborate with students.
Some individuals may seek elements of traditional learning while enrolled in online classes. Some programs offer hybrid learning environments, where teachers and students share and consume course content using both online learning platforms and traditional in-person learning (during a weeklong residency, for example). In-person lessons can be supplemented by audio, video and interactive components that students can later retrieve and watch online. Also, relationships forged online during online group sessions can be strengthened when students attend in-person classes.
Online Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees
Both online and traditional degrees require students to:
Learn the class material
Complete group projects
Students pursuing either degree need to manage their work-life balance and ensure that they’re effectively internalizing course content and learning.
Key similarities exist for educators as well. In both types of degrees, educators are required to:
Design a curriculum
Ensure instructional quality
Answer questions from students
Motivate students to learn
For educators, the key is to understand what’s needed to effectively deliver course content. This requires determining which tools, platforms or formats ensure the best learning experiences possible.
The fundamental difference between online degrees vs. traditional degrees, obviously, is the method of content delivery. Professors in online courses present content over the internet to students in different locations, while in-person courses are conducted in a shared physical space.
The long-established tradition of in-person learning has made it the archetype of trustworthy education across societies for many centuries. In comparison, online learning is relatively new, which can lead people to question the legitimacy of online degrees. However, that’s changing. The stigma of online learning was more prevalent before the pandemic, but in the last two years, as almost every school shifted to remote learning, employers had no choice but to hire graduates from online programs, and the stigma has started to wear off.
The best counter to that stigma is scientific research: Advanced technologies have improved online instruction delivery to the point in which comparative data shows about the same performance between online and face-to-face learners, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Computer Science.
When comparing online learning vs. traditional learning it’s important to understand the impact of distance learning from the perspectives of students and faculty and to consider how distance learning can prepare individuals with sought-after skills and experiences. The following studies and reports cover these and other relevant topics:
For students looking for both control and accountability in their education, online learning offers convenience and structure. This freedom enables them to learn at the times that work best for them, potentially improving learning outcomes, but that freedom isn’t without challenges. Here is where online learning student advisors can help individuals who need a bit more guidance to reap the rewards of online learning. The following are some of the primary advantages of online learning:
1. Time Management
When professors record their lectures, students can improve their time management. They can plan their education around personal and professional activities. This student-centered approach of online learning offers flexibility for students to achieve better work-life balance and maintain their priorities.
2. Improved Communication
With online learning, even though students don’t interact with faculty and fellow students face-to-face, they can still improve their communication skills. Online learning provides a clear means of contact and opportunities for synchronous communication, such as online office hours or scheduled group chats, and asynchronous communication, such as email and message boards. In the modern world, business increasingly relies on online modes of communication, and students who have experience learning via videoconference, chat and email can be better equipped than their peers without this experience.
3. Critical Thinking Skills
In any learning format, students have to be able to take in and analyze information. In online learning formats, critical thinking takes place when students are evaluating sources of information for reliability and participating in group collaboration. Faculty develop a curriculum to promote inquiry-based learning, helping to trigger critical thinking skills. Focusing on group collaboration and inquiry requires students to respond to the instructor and each other, developing their analytical and communication skills.
4. Technical Skills
Online programs help students develop or enhance their technical skills while using the latest advanced digital learning tools; content management systems; and communication software, including messaging apps and videoconferencing tools. Additionally, using online resources to find information enables students to conduct research easier and faster.
5. Career Advancement
Graduate students often have limited opportunities to take time off from work to attend physical programs. Online education enables them to both work and learn. They can remain in their current position while learning new skills, improving their credentials and applying their learning on the job. Online learning also enhances career advancement opportunities for working professionals by offering them a fresh network of fellow students and faculty.
6. Affordable Tuition
Online learning is typically more affordable than traditional in-class learning. Tuition is lower and, as course content is typically fully online, students can save money by buying digital textbooks, which are often cheaper than physical ones. In addition to affordable tuition, eliminating the need to commute to a physical classroom — or relocate to a different city and pay for room and board — means considerable cost savings.
Finding Work-Life Balance
Students can take advantage of online learning to improve core competencies such as critical thinking, communication and technical skills. The collaborative tools used in online learning offer opportunities to access a wide network of peers and faculty, potentially facilitating career advancement. Also, because it’s typically more affordable to attend online classes, students can worry less about the cost of an education.
With online learning, students can open up new opportunities while continuing to work and manage their personal obligations — balancing work, family and education.