How does learning online differ from face-to-face?

With the cost of a college education projected to continue skyrocketing, online education has established itself as a viable alternative to the traditional post-secondary education experience – without the hefty price tag. As it continues to grow more prominent in the world of education, though, many are beginning to question its effectiveness, while struggling to separate the facts from the misconceptions.

There exist debates across every facet of the system, whether it be in regards to efficacy or ease of use. That being said, the most controversial factor at play is online learning’s defining characteristic: the lack of a strict classroom structure.

“Online learning forces you to take charge of your own education and take on the responsibility to complete your work without having that teacher constantly nagging you,” said Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University.

While most would agree with Oakley’s claim, it can can also be a cause for concern. A study from the Babson Survey Research Group showed the number of academic leaders who cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students has increased from 80 percent in 2007 to 88.8 percent in 2012.

“When students are learning online, you can’t proctor anything,” said Jonathan Rees, Professor of History at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “They could be checking Facebook when they’re supposed to be working, and the fact that the instructor won’t be able to monitor this and keep them on track is a huge drawback.”

Online learning and face-to-face learning also have a number of differences in how the students will interact with the interface of learning during their course experience, namely the social aspect.

While face-to-face learning provides an invaluable experience in giving students direct interaction with their teacher and peers, online learning has the ability to connect a huge number of people from all across the world to gather countless approaches to problems, which  creates a more wholesome and comprehensive learning experience, Oakley said.

Despite its ability to connect people, Rees remains steadfast in his belief that online learning mostly facilitates the ability of already distraction-prone students to give in to outside influences. Rees also believes the social aspect created through online learning isn’t relevant in comparison to the relationship that a student and teacher can establish in person.

“I hope that everybody recognizes that education is a process that requires direct interaction between the student and instructor, something that online learning doesn’t make possible,” Rees said. “Students should be upset about this, because the quality of their learning suffers directly.”

Oakley disagrees, believing that students are hurt when their teachers are less-than-inspiring or capable—a problem that she feels is more common than many like to believe. She sees online learning as the ailment to such an issue, as it can provide students the ability to be taught by great teachers, regardless of  their socioeconomic background.

In spite of the debate, there seems to be a general consensus among Rees and Oakley that online learning has the ability to accomplish much despite what present results may indicate.

“I believe that online learning certainly has a lot of potential,” Rees said. “The problem is that it tends to be very poorly executed, and the students are the ones who are hurt as a result.”

For online learning to be executed well, the curriculum being taught must be both thorough and engrossing for the student, being designed to optimize the maximum learning for the student, said Candy Lee, Professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

Regardless of its contested ability to effectively teach students, it’s evident that online learning is here to stay. According to the study, “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011,” over 6.1 million students took at least one online class during fall 2010.

This growth has occurred partially because of the rapid advancements being made in the technology sector alongside the increasingly widespread accessibility to devices like smartphones, tablets  and laptops as well as an emphasis on lifelong learning, said Lee.

However, Oakley, Rees and Lee all agree that while online learning will continue to grow, face-to-face learning won’t be going away anytime soon.

Some generally smaller institutions may be more vulnerable to being replaced by online education than others, but secondary and post-secondary education in the US, as a whole, remains a very strong sector, said Adam Van Arsdale, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wellesley College.

“There seems to be a persistent demand from a large percentage of students at community colleges who like, and need, a personal connection with instructors in order to succeed,” said Rob Twardock, Professor of Engineering at the College of Lake County. “Students like the flexibility of online courses, but need high quality online courses or perhaps online content blended with face-to-face interaction to succeed.”