Deciding what’s best for you: in person, online, or hybrid-style higher education

January 27, 2021

Ana Mcginley

The rise of Internet of Things (IOT) devices has revolutionized higher education and made college degrees more attainable. This is because, in response to this technological revolution, many colleges and universities have begun to offer online and hybrid degrees to those unable to make in-person education their full-time profession. That said, these formats are not for everyone. While the outcome — the awarding of a degree — is the same, the experiences are quite different. 

When deciding whether in-person vs online learning is best for you, you need to weigh up the positives and negatives of each type of learning.

This article explains everything you need to know about online vs classroom learning. We include all the latest statistics and research so that you can compare the different program formats and decide which is best for you. 

Benefits of classroom learning vs online learning

Online learning has quickly gained prominence and emerged as a viable alternative to a classroom-based education. This has particularly been the case since the technological revolution brought high-speed internet and laptops into the homes of regular Americans.

Many educators still believe that the benefits of classroom learning make the traditional form of education superior. This is because the benefits of classroom learning vs online learning include factors such as face-to-face interactions, the creation of a community, and the improvement of organizational skills. But, with online learning constantly improving and new courses offering students greater flexibility than ever before, there’s evidence that this perceived form of wisdom is changing.

In a traditional classroom setting, in-person interactions allow a student to get direct and instant feedback to their questions from teaching staff.  

Due to the fact that all students attend the lesson together in the same setting, there’s often a sense of community created. This can also be heightened by the use of group activities as part of the learning process. 

In addition, students in a traditional classroom learn through social activities. Teachers often build a rapport with their students through both formal and informal conversations, while students get to know each other, and develop their social skills.

Learning in a classroom also improves a student’s organizational skills and ensures they remain accountable for their learning. After all, in a classroom environment, students need to be on time, prioritize their assignments and do their homework so they’re prepared for live, in-person discussions. 

 

Disadvantages of classroom learning

Although the traditional learning environment is widely regarded as excellent, there are a number of disadvantages to classroom learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of classroom-based learning has risen rapidly over the past couple of decades. 

Similarly, the pace of a student’s learning largely depends on the pace of the teacher and others in the group, meaning some students can get held up and some can be left behind.

With hundreds of degrees and programs available across the U.S., course selection can be limited by the geographic location of the student. This means students may need to travel to study a suitable course. 

Finally, the rigid nature of classroom-based learning means that it often isn’t flexible enough for some students who are looking to learn around their current form of employment. In this form of learning, if a student misses a class, they may not have the option to revisit it later.

 

Benefits of online learning

When practiced correctly, online learning can be as good, if not better, than in-person classroom learning. One of the main benefits of online learning is that online courses allow students to go at their own pace and learn in their own time.

This is particularly true if a student chooses a course that offers asynchronous learning. With asynchronous learning, the student is not engaged with the learning at the same time as the instructor and other participants, meaning there is no real-time interaction with other people. This provides the learner with the highest possible degree of flexibility over their learning, as they’re able to watch pre-recorded videos or take an on-demand exam at a time that suits them. 

For students wanting to benefit from a more social and collaborative environment, the option of synchronous learning may be preferable. In these courses, students in the virtual classroom all engage with the learning at the same time, often via a webinar. This allows interaction between participants and allows the teacher to provide real-time feedback. Synchronous learning requires a fixed schedule, so it does not offer the same level of flexibility as asynchronous learning. 

Students in online programs can also develop key educational and interpersonal skills.

Students in online programs can also develop key educational and interpersonal skills. For example, due to the independent nature of study, online students often develop strong research capabilities, critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to self-motivate. Students in the virtual classroom may also improve their technical skills and become familiar with digital learning tools, content management tools, and collaboration tools. 

 

Disadvantages of online learning

Although the majority of students benefit from the advantages mentioned above, there are also a number of disadvantages of online learning.

Many students are deterred by the use of online discussion boards, often utilized for students to communicate with one another and the teaching staff. The reasons for this include inadequate ability to engage remote students, and because teaching staff cannot immediately provide feedback or answer questions.

Similarly, lab work is not always possible with online formats, especially in science classes. Due to this, students often experience the material through online simulations. Students carry out experiments at home and upload photos of the finished product. Some professors require that students purchase lab kits that contain the materials necessary to carry out lab work from home, which is an added expense to the student.

Students with a poor internet connection will experience further online learning disadvantages if they have difficulty completing the labs due to technical difficulties. 

Furthermore, as all these processes are online, they are at the mercy of server stability. Students with a poor internet connection will experience further online learning disadvantages if they have difficulty completing the labs due to technical difficulties.

 

Online classes vs traditional classes – statistics

When comparing the effectiveness of classroom and online learning, it’s clear that the way students engage with online learning is transforming.

In 2020, it was estimated that over 1.2 billion children were out of the classroom due to the COVID19 pandemic. However, even before the pandemic took hold, the way students were learning was undoubtedly changing.

For example, as of 2019, we had already witnessed a period of adoption and growth. At this point, global education technology investments had reached $18.66 billion, and it was projected that the overall market for online education would reach $350 billion by 2025.

Similarly, in fall 2018, there were 6,932,074 students in the U.S. enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Due to this, colleges across the U.S. were forced to adapt to the trend well before the onset of the pandemic. Note that all 8 Ivy League schools adopted some form of online education before 2018. 

For the past decade, retention rates among classroom-based students have been around 61%.

A recent study also showed that graduation and retention rates for students taking at least some online courses were between 9% and 21% higher than those for classroom-based students. For the past decade, retention rates among classroom-based students have been around 61%.

The shift to entirely remote education since the onset of the pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges for education providers in the U.S. Current estimates suggest that the pandemic has caused them $183 billion in losses

With the vaccination program in the U.S. proving successful and many traditional learning providers encouraging students to return to college campuses, will the popularity of online learning courses dwindle?

According to a recent study, 63% of colleges and universities are planning to offer in-person classes, 17% are proposing a hybrid learning model, 8% are planning for online-only classes, and the rest are considering a range of scenarios or are still waiting to decide.

Expert tips to help you make the most of your online learning

The experience of learning online is vastly different to how education is enjoyed in a traditional classroom setting. As a result, the format and the processes can take some getting used to. However, as long as you make appropriate adjustments for these changes and plan accordingly, it’s still relatively simple to succeed with online learning. Here are our top 5 expert tips to help you make the most of an online learning course:

 

Create a dedicated study area

By making a designated study workspace in your home, you’ll limit distractions and avoid many of the perils associated with procrastination. Ideally, it’s best to choose an area with plenty of natural light and little background noise. If possible, try to choose somewhere away from a television, too. As an added bonus, dedicating a space like this will help you create a routine and will allow you to stay organized.

 

Familiarize yourself with technology

If you’ve not worked or studied online before, then take the time to use the technology you’ll need before your course starts. Applications like Skype, Zoom, and Canvas can all be tricky to learn and making sure you’re familiar will prevent any problems you may have with logging in or attending classes.

 

Optimize your internet

The speed of your internet will determine the quality of your video and audio. As a result, if you can, connect by cable to your router. If you need to use wi-fi instead, then it’s recommended that you try to get as near to the router as possible.

If your internet is problematic, then there’s no need to panic. As a backup, you can use your smartphone by tethering your phone’s cellular data connection to your laptop or PC. Alternatively, you can use your phone for the class. Just make sure you download the classroom software vendor’s app first.

 

Actively participate

By actively engaging with the materials and other students, you’ll take responsibility for your own learning. So, ask questions, be proactive, and speak up wherever possible.

 

Network with others

The lack of a social element is one of the biggest disadvantages of online learning. However, if you regularly post on message boards and take the time to chat to your fellow students online, you’ll be able to make friends who you can share ideas with and learn from.

Online college courses

According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 5.7 million students in the U.S. took at least one online class. This equates to more than a third of the total student population. Overall, more than two million students exclusively took distance courses or classes.

These statistics show us the rapid growth of online college courses. After all, in 2007-08, just 20% of undergraduate students took any online courses at all, and only 3.7% took online courses exclusively.

As the popularity of online college courses has expanded, so has the choice of courses available. From computer sciences to economic development and courses on understanding brain functionality, almost every possible course is available for study from a number of leading universities.

However, although hundreds of online college programs are currently available, there is a strong likelihood that at least some of these may be withdrawn from the market when students return to college campuses.

In these instances, we may see that many colleges across the U.S. decide that blended learning provides the best approach to their online college programs.

This is particularly the case when we consider the online courses that could benefit from face-to-face problem solving and tuition, such as online classes that focus on medicine, nursing, and education. In these instances, we may see that many colleges across the U.S. decide that blended learning provides the best approach to their online college programs.

Blended learning courses, known as hybrid programs, utilize both in-person and online education to facilitate student learning. Hybrid programs can be executed in the following ways:  

  • students have certain classes in-person, with the rest of the classes being online 
  • students physically attend classes during the first few weeks of the semester before switching to a predominantly online format
  • professors assign a certain number of students to be in the classroom, and the remaining students watch the stream on a digital device
  • lectures and class discussions are attended in person but assignments are completed online 
  • students attend lectures online but complete lab work components in person to foster hands-on or practical learning

Are hybrid learning courses effective? Interestingly, a study by the U.S. Department of Education determined that “hybrid courses produced better outcomes than fully face-to-face courses.” 

As a result, many people believe that this form of hybrid education provides the best of both worlds.

This is because, by combining online educational materials with traditional classroom-based teaching, blended learning offers many of the benefits of traditional teaching, while encouraging independent learning and time management. As a result, many people believe that this form of hybrid education provides the best of both worlds.

After all, with a hybrid education, the student retains the convenience and flexibility offered by remote learning, but social learning is supported because the student can directly engage with the instructor and their fellow students. In addition, for colleges, blended learning is generally less expensive to deliver.

However, it’s important to say that the hybrid format can be a challenge for both students and professors to get used to. This new format may force academic staff to reconsider their teaching approach and the learning objectives they set to ensure students are able to comprehend the material with the same ease as if they were learning purely in person. 

Which study format do students prefer, and why?

Despite there being little difference between the 3 formats regarding coursework, students appear to struggle more when classes are digitized. This change has certainly not been easy for many who wanted to have the full college experience.

A survey of more than 100 students, conducted by the University of Wisconsin, found that students clearly preferred in-person learning. In the study, the students reported increased stress levels associated with online learning, despite grading being more lenient. So, even though the stakes might not be so high, students remain be wary about the efficacy of this learning format. 

These findings were corroborated by another study, where 68% of over 3,000 respondents reported that the current emergency online classes were inferior to in-person classes. This study also found that 78% of students self-reported devoting less time to their coursework, found the online format difficult to engage with, and overall considered it to be a less enjoyable study experience.

It is natural that students have an easier time learning when they are in an environment specifically designed for that purpose.

Thus, in-person education has a significant advantage over the online format. It is natural that students have an easier time learning when they are in an environment specifically designed for that purpose. The disconnect between students naturally means life outside of the class will be limited if you are not near or on campus. College, especially if you are in undergrad, is the perfect time to get outside of your comfort zone and partake in extracurriculars that can go a long way in building your interpersonal skills. 

On an individual level though, experiences can be different. When speaking about his experience of an online master’s degree in International Security Studies at the University of Arizona, Daniel Jensen said “the application process was easy.” He also said the “cost of this online degree was significantly cheaper than what I would have paid at an in-person graduate program: $12,500 compared to around $50,000 a year.”

He also said that some of his initial skepticisms about signing up for an online degree proved unfounded because “One of my main concerns going into this program was that I would not learn valuable skills. But I did. I liked the heavy focus on writing… These classes also helped hone my ability to write more confidently about topics that I wanted to dedicate my life to.”

However, he did state that there were several drawbacks to the degree because there was a “lack of direction given by the college staff and faculty regarding graduation.” He also said that “the lack of social life within an online program was another big drawback.”

Online learning vs traditional learning – conclusions

Online education is not going to be for everyone. As social beings, it is natural for people to want to attend a college program on campus and to fully experience what this can entail. This pandemic has resulted in data showing that students can struggle with online learning. Materials may be inadequate to engage and satisfy students. Professors may not be as present as they should be. 

Despite this, there is nothing inherently bad about taking classes online. Doing so can save money while boosting the student’s marketability when it comes to entering the future workforce, or when earning a sought-after promotion at their current workplace. When making a decision about online learning vs traditional learning for your education, what matters most is doing what you believe is the best fit for you. 

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