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Online Learning vs Classroom Learning: The 5 Biggest Differences

Comparing online and classroom learning: exploring dynamics, digital literacy, instructor roles, and the unique benefits of each method

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By Debra Kidder

online learning vs classroom learning

When the global pandemic hit back in 2020, school districts and colleges across the United States turned to online learning to continue educating students.  Teachers quickly found major differences in curriculum delivery for online learning vs. classroom learning. 

Online learning does not mean simply putting all materials online and allowing students to access and them and turn them in; online learners take responsibility for their education, work at times best for them, and master digital literacy skills.

Differences also include giving the students the opportunity to work together across the miles, while understanding that the educator is now, more than ever, a passenger on his journey, and the learner is behind the wheel.

These distinctions sometimes resulted in frustration by classroom teachers, who were forced to teach online programs due to the public health crisis. Students have also experienced their share of challenges with virtual learning.

Most teachers asked themselves the seemingly simple questions: what are the most important differences between online learning vs classroom learning?  And how can teachers overcome these differences and make online learning an exceptional experience for both educators and students?

As someone with over 20 years in education, here is what I think teachers and educational leaders need to know when navigating the pros and cons of online learning compared to in-person, physical classroom learning.

Online Learning vs. Classroom Learning: Quick Answer

  • Online Learning: Digital platforms, self-paced, requires digital literacy, offers global interactions, and emphasizes ‘netiquette’.
  • Classroom Learning: Real-time interactions, structured schedules, face-to-face feedback, and relies on physical presence.
  • Instructor Role: Evolving in both settings; from a traditional lecturer to a guide or facilitator.
  • Key Takeaway: Both methods have unique benefits; the best choice depends on individual needs and contexts.

Asynchronous vs Synchronous

Classroom learning in person is always (with rare exception) synchronous–meaning, it happens in real-time, with both the teachers and students participating together.

While online learning is oftentimes held live as well, using virtual conference platforms like WebinarJam and Zoom, some online learning is also done on-demand or asynchronously as opposed to always being on a fixed learning schedule.

Asynchronous learning happens online, utilizing pre-recorded teacher-created video and audio lessons, along with carefully curated collections of reading passages, message boards, assignments, and assessments like online quizzes.

Where physical classroom teachers have a plan book, either paper or on-screen, a teacher desk, and physical materials in a brick-and-mortar classroom filled with students, online teachers have an LMS (learning management system) populated with all the materials and instruction for students to use when they log into class.  Students may do so in their own time while still adhering to posted due dates.  This allows the classroom community to grow beyond the local community; students can meet and exchange ideas across the country and the world.

Asynchronous learning in online programs also allows students to complete work at the time of day that is best for them.  Early risers and night owls alike can log in, complete activities and assessments at their own pace, and submit work when they are at peak performance.

Feedback and Formative Assessment Has a New Role

One thing I have seen is that when students are learning online, they miss out on the incidental contact they enjoy in traditional classroom learning.  Teachers often connect with students in quiet, informal moments when they are face-to-face.

When learning online, teachers need to program these moments deliberately into their lessons.  This is where formative assessments and feedback gain importance.

Formative assessment occurs when a teacher checks in with students when a unit of study is in progress.  Often, this keeps students on track and clears up any misunderstandings before students move forward in a lesson.

Feedback happens when, in a more casual way, teachers comment on student work.  This is less of a grading circumstance and more of a communication opportunity.

Both formative assessments and feedback are important to student success.

In online learning, because the face-to-face aspect is missing, students need those moments built into their online spaces.  Teachers can facilitate this by emailing their students on a regular basis, setting up a message board for questions and concerns in their online space, and creating interim due dates on long-term projects to allow for formative feedback.

Digital Literacy and ‘Netiquette’ Required

Digital literacy refers to a student’s ability to locate information online and communicate mastery through typing and other media.

Creativity, collaboration, the ability to find and select appropriate material, and cultural understanding all combine in digital literacy.  This is a 21st-century skill online educators need to teach so students can be successful.

When considering online learning versus classroom learning, this is a stark contrast.

Students in a classroom normally have a textbook, notebook, and sometimes a laptop for note-taking.  While some school districts do offer 1:1 device programs, these usually supplement other teaching materials.  When a student learns online, the device is the doorway to the rest of the teaching materials.

Netiquette is the acceptable way of communicating on the Internet.  Because in-person interactions are removed from the digital classroom, exchanging information in text is extremely important in online learning.

In short, manners matter when you’re learning in online classes.

Online learners need to learn appropriate ways to communicate clearly and kindly on screen.  The absence of tone and facial expressions can have a great effect on how a message is received.

Physical classroom teachers do not rely as heavily on netiquette; while some have incorporated parts of the Internet into their curriculum, online teachers cannot deliver quality education without netiquette.  Using message boards, submitting all work in text form or other written media, and communicating largely in emails elevates the importance of using netiquette.

Bringing Together Diverse Communities

Because online learning allows the classroom to extend beyond geographic borders, online students from all over the world can gather to learn.

The benefits from this new ‘borderless education’ are incalculable.

Unlike a traditional community classroom, students in an online program can come from vastly different communities, speak many languages, and offer many perspectives to solve problems.  Students can learn from other students’ diverse experiences when in a virtual classroom setting.

Older online learners receive the benefits of global networking, and can cite international experiences and collaboration on college and job applications.

Instructor Role

The teacher’s role has been changing in education for over a decade.

In the 1980s and 1990s, educators were the experts, lecturing in the front of the room, handing out worksheets to check for understanding.

Throughout my teaching career, teachers began to learn that ‘flipping the classroom,’ or placing the responsibility for learning onto the students, resulted in higher student achievement.  The teacher’s role morphed into the ‘guide on the side.’

At around the same time, the Internet was on the rise.

These concepts complement each other: the online teacher presents the information, then directs the learners to explore, process, and look to outside sources to explore related ideas and concepts.  The online learner takes the responsibility to log on, follow directions, and complete and submit assignments.  The teacher then makes him or herself available to answer questions, give feedback, and create and collect the formative assessments.

A Final Word on Online Learning vs Classroom Learning

When people think of online learning vs classroom learning, they think one must be better than the other, but that’s not the case.

There are fantastic educators in both online education and traditional classroom settings.

Online teachers who create engaging digital environments with media, open communication, and set high student expectations create a successful educational opportunity for their students just like their traditional, in-classroom counterparts.

How do you think online learning compares to in-person classes? Which do you prefer, a virtual environment or the classic physical classrooms? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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