Face-To-Face vs Distance Learning

Online learning — a brief history 

Comparisons between face-to-face and distance learning have become a subject of imposing size in recent years, especially after the strike of the Covid pandemic. 

Online learning might have spiked in popularity relatively recently, but the phenomenon is almost as old as the Internet, with the conception of the first entirely web-based university, the Jones International University, dating back as early as 1993 — not to mention US universities’ attempts at using digital and web-based tools earlier. 

The idea of learning remotely is even older, dating as far back as the 19th century, with the University of London pioneering correspondence-based classes.

The entire market of online learning was forecasted to achieve a mind-boggling sum of 350 billion dollars by 2025. With a forecast made before the pandemic, it’s an easy guess that the numbers have multiplied even more. 

With its history going so deep, it’s only natural that distance learning courses extend beyond the higher education institutions, spanning over a plethora of subjects and models of teaching. From language classes to carpentry courses, a majority of clients’ needs are covered.

Face-to-face vs Distance Learning

Covid era’s forced distance learning

When the pandemic arose, almost every educational institution was forced to retreat online, with varying degrees of success in adaptation and teaching results. This global disruption has placed a major spotlight on online services — specifically distance learning, promoting it as a viable alternative, and most of all, a worthwhile supplement to its face-to-face counterpart.

What do studies show? — 2 takeaways from the hard data 

Many studies have researched the differences between face-to-face and remote learning, with few exciting results. The majority of them did not find any data in favor of either of the options, with numbers swaying rather to the side of the traditional method. The majority of studies are not perfect however, as their standard of measurement is based solely on students’ subjective and emotionally-driven responses. Regardless, for those interested, the responses themselves often provide information compelling enough.

The most noteworthy results of these studies can be found in dialogue-based learning exercises. The modalities of this teaching method change considerably when compared to, for example, teacher-led lectures. The content and its reception, though, remain largely the same as when it is delivered in a classroom setting.

1. Dialogue-based learning exercises

As expected, the advantages of attending an online course of any kind, lie firstly in the technical. Every student will point out that the ability to archive an entire discussion, or lecture, makes it significantly easier to review the material introduced in the past. 

The discussion may be held in a quaint chat room or a more hectic live conference. In both scenarios, students can review given references on the fly, which makes the whole learning process a lot more effective. With the extra addition of conference software not allowing to talk simultaneously, remembering who said what becomes a lot easier.

2. Impact on soft skills

The most blatant innovation lies in the flow of the conversation itself. The physical aspects of conversations are significantly toned down, thus, allowing the gap between extroverted and introverted students to be partially bridged.

Extroverted students

Extroverted students often complain about the inability to use body language, which is one of the peculiarities of the digital world. Without hiding their disappointment, they say that conversations become less passionate and emotional. There is far less space to raise your voice or interrupt your opponent in a talking head mode.

What is even more interesting is, students found it easier to disagree on more sensitive or controversial topics when in an online environment. An extra difficulty in reading the opponent’s emotions, and a certain degree of anonymity made it easier to stand strong with a selected argument. Another noteworthy fact is that in an online course, students who were a part of minority groups were found to be more comfortable arguing on the more sensitive topics.

Introverted students

During online courses, introverted students stand a much bigger chance to shine, as they are faced with a little more democratic setting. Contrary to in-person classes, there is not much need to fight for the spotlight. And since the use of body language is almost entirely unavailable, extroverts have fewer tools to stress their opinions. This makes all students participate in a more equal measure.

Students’ personal opinions

Variations mentioned above may prove to be significant for some students, and yet, a great majority of them still preferred face-to-face class interactions. With most human contact happening outside the web, this seems like a natural outcome. 

On the other hand, a slightly smaller group of students were completely indifferent to the form in which classes took place. This fact may take us to the popular argument that we should choose the form of the classes on an individual basis.

Can we decide which method is better?

This question is fairly easy to answer theoretically. We truly cannot. The database of face-to-face vs online studies is called “No significant difference” for a reason. 

On the other hand, it should be noted that the data shares issues with most of today’s educational systems. Namely, it focuses more on scores than on direct learning outcomes for every student. It thus supports the above argument: it is better to make an opinion based on individual criteria than on statistics.

Subjective data — Online and in-person teaching compared

Since we already established that deciding between online education and face-to-face learning using numbers alone is somewhat counter-productive, let’s discuss some pros and cons coming from real-life scenarios. This way, it turns out that we have far more significant differences to work with than first expected.

We will begin by talking about online education first. Since we naturally treat face-to-face courses as a default, by broaching distance learning first, the comparison should become easier to follow.

Pros and cons of online courses

(+) More accessibility

  1. For starters, online learning is with no doubt the more flexible, if not the only flexible, of the two. Online courses are frequently conducted in an asynchronous manner, which means classes are completed through the material provided remotely, and participants can access it whenever they want. Online students no longer have to attend class at a specific time and place. All they need is a computer with internet access. Furthermore, they can communicate with professors and fellow students via e-mail or another similar medium whenever required.
  1. Online courses are a perfect option for anyone too busy to appear at every in-person class. This also includes people who cannot afford to sustain themselves at a university in a foreign place or country. This way, the physical access to the top universities worldwide is no longer a constraint, and the only concern of prospective students would be to achieve good enough grades.
  1. Other than freeing up admittance to schools to those who cannot provide for themselves outside their home, online learning saves a great measure of time and money for everyone else. Since classes take place entirely online, there is no need to commute to university. This gives students more time to spend on a part-time or full-time job, on their hobbies, on other meaningful activities, family life, and perhaps on studying more and better.
  1. On another note, students who typically struggle in a traditional class environment, such as those with attention deficit, potential sensory overload, or even social anxiety, may finally grasp an opportunity to accommodate their learning environment to their needs. This can include controlling their surroundings to reduce sensory distractions, taking breaks whenever needed, scheduling their day according to their preferences, and even being allowed to move around, fidget or multitask while listening to or reading course materials. As a result, these often dismissed or undervalued students may finally be able to live up to their academic potential and thrive more than they would with regular in-person classes. An increase in their performance could be (and in some cases has already been) observed, especially among those who were previously attending classes in large groups of over 30 students.

(-) Less self-discipline

However, most positives have a flip side here, because the advantages largely depend on individual needs.

  1. The biggest problem is that the greater the freedom, the better the learning supervision required. With complete control over their learning time, online students have to adjust their schedules accordingly. They also have to muster up the motivation all by themselves. More mature students should have an easy time rewriting their schedules to the demands of online learning, but it’s hard to expect the same amount of discipline from a freshman accepted right after high school, let alone a high schooler or middle schooler.
  1. Home is not exactly the most befitting environment for learning. Very few dwellings have a space devoted specifically to this end, which might negatively impact student performance. We usually find it hard to focus in an area dedicated mostly to rest or entertainment, just on a subconscious level. And home offers a staggering amount of distractions. From pets to family members, all are there to stop online students from working as thoroughly as they need.
  1. Space is not the only distraction here. The technology often used in traditional, student to instructor, courses, also exist in a completely different context at home. Similar to study space, most of our tools are not used for studying only. Computers and related devices, both being the basis of online learning, are frequently used to various ends, often including both work and entertainment. By adding a third function to the table, it’s easy to make our online learning experience a messy one. Not only do we have to skim through the variety of accounts and extra gigabytes amassed on our disc space, but we are faced with yet another distraction. Concentrating on learning while getting a stream of notifications from social media or video games is a task for the strongest of personalities.

(-) The technology is not available to everyone

Although we typically take it for granted, not everyone has access to the basic computing programs required for distance learning. Some households do not have the equipment necessary for students to partake in an online course. This applies especially to primary education. Therefore, online teaching also has a real potential to deepen social inequality.

(+) More room to breathe

On the flip side, for those who need more time to grasp a certain concept or a difficult part of the course, online classes provide a powerful alternative. With course materials being at hand, reviewing becomes a walk in a park — especially in contrast to traditional face-to-face courses, where lots of significant information may pass us by (and even more so if we are not that good at taking notes). The notes are also organized for us, thus no need to bother with keeping a tidy notebook.

You can also take a break from studying at any moment. With lectures provided as video and audio content, it is easy to pause and come back anytime. The distinction is the same as going to the cinema versus having a DVD player. 

Setting up lectures in an online environment comes with other perks. For example, if your professor stutters a little too much, you can easily speed him up, just like your regular Internet podcast. Moreover, if a lecture comes with a multimedia presentation, you can access and review it on any occasion. No need to ask anyone for giving you access to course materials.

(+) More convenient feedback and deadlines

Almost every student remembers having to commute from one side of the city to another, finally arriving to give in a late paper. Only to find a teacher absent.

Asynchronous courses present an interesting solution to the problem. Technically speaking, the teacher is always available for online learners. To give in a finished work or ask for a comment, all we have to do is to write an e-mail and attach a file. The quality of contact can be further enhanced by providing extra teaching material. For example, videos, or links to certain sites. Receiving frequent and meaningful feedback was never this easy. 

Some might say, this form of contact is less reliable, as the answering time is never certain. But the same thing is true for face-to-face interaction. As in the commuting example, reliability lies more in human error in general, rather than in the form of communication itself. A derelict person is as likely to miss an e-mail as much as missing an appointment.

Online learning also makes it easier to keep up with deadlines. The online course is often supported by software perfectly fit for the job. No need to remember the upcoming writing assignment, when it’s already neatly registered on your device.

4 advantages of face-to-face courses

1. Socializing

The greatest advantage of in-person learning, which can completely overshadow online teaching, is plain human contact. Socializing is one of the most important parts of education. One cannot go on living in a society without the proper social skills. And what better company to gain them than equals with the same interests and goals?

In the context of a university, the connections a student can make are as critical for securing a future as gaining a degree. Having friends is not only a basic factor for mental health, it can also give a variety of other opportunities and benefits. For example, finding a new job or having someone trustworthy to share a room with.

The technology may make it easier for the introverted, but having diverse communication skills is still an advantage transcending any other kind of field. You just cannot have enough of it; it is useful both for Sunday morning small talk and job interviews.

2. Motivation

As stated above, most pros of a classroom setting lie in the social. The same goes for supporting student achievement. Online students may overall have it more convenient than their face-to-face counterparts, but with a shortcoming of a less personal studying process. It is a lot easier to keep track of your progress when reviewing it with someone who knows you on a personal level. 

Other than receiving more vivid feedback, we also get the opportunity to have our course slightly adjusted to our individual needs. A teacher who knows our strong and weak sides will know how to introduce course challenges accordingly.

3. Physicality

Just as with online debates, students will act differently during face-to-face classes of any kind. For example, despite statistics telling us otherwise, lectures still follow a different course of action as online lessons. The online instruction may be fast, but still, not as fast as communication between people gathered in the same room. Every question gets an immediate answer, whether from a fellow attendee or the teacher herself. Comprehension of the material flows a lot more smoothly.

This aspect applies to more practical classes too. Most practical classes create situations unpredictable for a coursebook. Learning a programming language in an IT class is one example. Having such classes conducted in a face-to-face manner cuts all the possible inconveniences short, as students will not be stuck with a problem for too long. Imagine the same situation having to wait hours for an e-mail response.

Classes happening in a physical setting benefit the most from switching to face-to-face learning. Being able to point directly to an error makes the classes run incomparably more fluidly. This way, students receive far more meaningful feedback in a shorter amount of time.

It might be stating the obvious, but many practical classes objectively give better results when conducted in a setting specifically designed for them. The pandemic might have taught us that a small rented room can indeed become a photographer’s studio space. But the quality of the studio often leaves something to be desired.

Frankly speaking, hosting a class without the necessary facilities and equipment can sometimes become impossible. This applies especially to job learning courses. Preparing a tiny flat to conduct chemistry experiments or housing a welding practice space is both a far too costly and absurdly dangerous endeavor.

4. Impressive CVs

Although both face-to-face and online learning appear to be on a relatively even footing, diplomas acquired through physical courses look decidedly more impressive on a resume. A common argument is that online courses are just less demanding and easier to cheat on, though this is mostly prejudiced. With many universities establishing online courses long ago, they had enough time to secure exam sessions in terms of reliability.

Yet, sometimes it’s the online courses that get an upper hand here, albeit mostly the paid ones. Many companies offer classes in partnership with corporations recognized worldwide. A diploma from a face-to-face course may look better on the CV. However, if we compare a degree from a small, unheard-of university with a certificate given by a giant IT corporation, it’s an easy bet which one will catch the eye of an employer. 

The future of online learning

It must be stressed that most of the methods discussed above are slowly becoming a little anachronistic. Online education gradually separates from face-to-face classes in terms of methods used, focusing on assets and perks unique to the digital world.

Many universities are in the process of expanding their teaching catalog through video and audio content. They use complex programs to ease the work for both students and teachers. These innovations include AI-improved timetable programs and software facilitating the studying process itself. 

Advancements expand beyond the software itself. For example, in 2017, Oxford University introduced students to a first-of-a-kind virtual classroom. The classroom is stationed in a real-life room with a lecturer followed by a camera. The students then appear on HD screens, which creates a hyperreal lecture room situation, allowing for the most direct interaction possible via virtual means.

This is obviously just the tip of an iceberg, with top universities and private schools improving online course offers as we speak.


In-person vs online teaching — Wrapping up 

Most studies that addressed the subject will say otherwise, but there are significant differences between face-to-face and online learning. The differences are mostly subjective, but it doesn’t make them any less weighty.

Both of the methods share very specific traits and characteristics, and neither of them should be excluded when preparing a school or training curriculum. The “pros and cons” comparison between the two is mostly impractical, as these complement each other very well. What one method lacks the other supplements.

Time will tell whether one of them proves to be more practical. Online learning tools are becoming more and more advanced, and we can already see the hints of a threat of traditional courses being replaced.
For the time being, all the arguments seem to point to the blended learning method, at least in the context of higher education. We should thus treat the online environment as an extension of the classic in-person formula whenever possible, whilst staying in touch with technological advancements.

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