Digital Reading | June 15, 2021

Can Online Learning Be as Effective as Traditional Education?


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Every day, more and more cities are preparing for full reopenings following the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. This means that schools, parents and students are now faced with the tough decision of staying remote or returning to the classroom. 

Over the past year, online learning has become the new norm for most students – for better or for worse. Some students have thrived with the newfound flexibility of being remote while others have struggled with the isolation. 

Whatever their experience has been, online learning is here to stay. And here are our thoughts.

The new norm: Online learning

For many of us, “online learning” was a phrase we thought very differently about six months ago. Sure, we had seen some colleges pioneer the availability of online degree programs, but for the vast majority of universities in-person classes were essential. What’s more, online learning very likely wasn’t something we would ever associate with young children in primary schools. Now, with so many of us or our loved ones affected by continued school closures, questions about the effectiveness of virtual education have suddenly become much more relevant. Thankfully, scholars and education professionals have been researching this topic for years, and have some interesting insights. We’ve put together some of the highlights for you or anyone you know who might be wondering – can online learning actually replace traditional education?

What is it that makes in-person education so difficult to replicate?

As any teacher will tell you, there’s so much more going on in a classroom than just students copying down what the teacher says or writes on the whiteboard. Take something as simple as having students work on an assignment. Imagine a teacher wants to have their students collaborate on a worksheet. The teacher splits them into groups of three, and the students talk together and share ideas as they try to puzzle out the problems. The teacher walks around, checking on each group, answering questions and giving a little direction here and there if necessary. After twenty minutes, the teacher asks for a volunteer from each group to come to the front of the room and present to the class.

In just one, quick assignment in a classroom, so much is going on. Education experts have used the term “interpersonal interaction” to encompass all of these little, sometimes seemingly insignificant conversations and exchanges that take place throughout the day in a classroom. Students are surrounded by other people who are there for the same purpose. They talk with each other, and work toward a common goal. They engage with the teacher. A lot is said, but even more is also conveyed through body language – a stern glance from the teacher makes a student reconsider throwing that paper airplane, or a student’s lost gaze into space suggests to the teacher that this one might need a little help with the assignment. 

Turning to online learning, we might be tempted to just give up on some of these interactions. After all, it makes sense to just focus on the student interacting with the content, right? Actually, research has found that all of these forms of interpersonal interaction significantly affect student learning, performance, and satisfaction in online learning. Interpersonal interaction in online environments has been associated with increased perceived learning, higher levels of student satisfaction with the course, higher levels of faculty satisfaction with the course, and improved student academic achievement.

How much of this can online learning provide?

We now know that, if we want to make online learning as effective as traditional education, we have to find ways to allow for the wide variety of interpersonal interactions, like the ones that take place in a classroom. Of course, the question becomes, how do we do it?

Quality matters much more than quantity

Conversations that are sparked so easily in physical classrooms often prove much more challenging to create in an online environment. One common solution is the discussion board. Often, student engagement is measured quantitatively, by the number of posts. Students are required to post, say, five times over the course of the week, perhaps in response to specific prompts about the material. 

While well-intentioned, this tactic can backfire. According to researchers, when opportunities for interaction increase in quantity, this does not necessarily correspond to increased quality of interaction in the course. One type of interaction may be far more valuable to students than another. 

To try and better understand which forms of interaction are most valuable, some experts have proposed a framework called “purposeful interpersonal interaction,” or PII. Rather than counting the number of posts a student makes on a discussion board as a measure of effectiveness, the idea is to view interpersonal interactions through a much more qualitative lens. 

When thinking about interpersonal interactions in the online learning context, instructional interactions probably come to mind first. The teacher talks to students about the learning material or clarifies a concept. However, this is only one of three types of interaction that are connected to key student outcomes like perceived learning, satisfaction, and academic achievement. Students also benefit from purposeful social interaction and supportive interaction. All of these interactions are important to creating a sense of social presence, even though students cannot be physically present with each other. With this in mind, we can turn our focus to new, creative methods to foster the same quality of interaction that students would ordinarily get in person.

Building social presence through interactive technologies 

To create high quality interactions in an online learning environment, we need the right technology. However, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all platform. The key element is that whatever technology is utilized allows students to interact meaningfully with another as well as with the instructor. 

The global pandemic and resulting school closures have accelerated the spread of these technologies. Some of the most effective tools are the same apps or platforms that you may be using to communicate with colleagues at work. Education experts have found that interactive communication and collaboration technologies such as Microsoft Teams and Slack can improve students’ satisfaction with online learning, while bolstering a sense of social presence. These tools allow students to work together on projects and to share ideas with each other and receive feedback. They also provide an avenue for students to build relationships in an organic way. 

Another report on higher education demonstrated that students also feel greater connection with their instructors in online courses when they use interactive technologies in a consistent and meaningful way. Of course, for these online learning tools to be effective, teachers and instructors must be properly equipped to incorporate the technology into their lessons. Unfortunately, the same report also discovered that few online courses actually used technology to its fullest potential.

Numerous studies have found that instructors frequently face pressure to improve the quality of online courses, yet simply are not aware of strategies to promote interaction. In other cases, instructors whose entire experience is from in-person teaching are being demanded to suddenly turn their courses online without any pedagogical or technical support. While these studies were conducted long before the mass school closures we’re seeing now, the problem is even more relevant today. If we want our students to succeed with online learning, we need to give our teachers the support and resources to make it happen. 

What advantages might online learning have?

We’ve been talking a lot about how online learning might be able to replicate the most important qualities of a traditional education. While these are necessary to consider, there are also several key aspects of online learning that might make it a better alternative to in-person education in certain situations.

Perhaps most obviously, online learning can improve access to education for students grappling with geographic or time restrictions. Provided that they have Internet, students in more remote areas can regularly receive instruction even if travelling to a school or campus would be impractical. Additionally, many online courses offer what is called an asynchronous model. This means that students can engage with the learning material at the time that is most convenient for them. This aspect makes many online classes a strong option for young people who may be juggling other commitments like working a job during the day. Whatever the reason, with online learning students can have more flexibility to learn the material at their own pace.

The opportunity to learn online also offers a vastly wider array of subjects than may be available to students at their local schools. In fact, some schools have even chosen to utilize online learning opportunities in order to provide students with courses that the schools themselves do not offer. 

Finally, online learning has allowed for classes on a scale that would be a logistical nightmare in person. We even have a special name for them: Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs. One of the best parts? These courses are a small fraction of the cost of in-person classes, or even completely free, and do not have to turn anyone away. With these courses, people across the world can participate in a course that interests them and fosters intellectual growth at their own pace. At the same time, these types of courses are not without their own drawbacks, and may not provide the same level of personal interaction as smaller courses.

Why it matters

Online learning is not going away. Undoubtedly, this fall will see an unparalleled spike in online classes due to continued school closures. Still, research into online learning over the last decade has shown us that this type of learning is no longer a trend, but rather a key player in the educational sphere. Even after schools are back to normal, there will be many students for whom online learning is their best option. 

We know that it is possible to create the purposeful interpersonal interaction that makes traditional education so worthwhile online. On top of that, there are certain advantages and opportunities that online learning offers which in-person education cannot. For now, the best thing we can do is continue improving how online classes function, and thinking creatively about how to make the experience the most effective that it can be for students. When it comes to online education, there’s a lot we’re all still learning.

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