Advantages and Disadvantages of Online and Classroom Learning


Devices for online learning: phone, tablet and computer

By Pat Bowden, published May 30, 2017.

Most of us are familiar with classroom learning from our schooldays but online learning is a new field. There are several differences between online and classroom or on-campus learning.

Online Learning Advantages:

  • No need to travel, saving both time and money.
  • Whenever and wherever you like: early morning, while commuting or eating, during work breaks or in the evening. At home, in coffee shops, or on the train. Take a break anytime to give your mind a short rest.
  • Online learning usually includes pre-recorded videos. Sometimes these are simple recordings of lectures with or without accompanying slides. Other courses and MOOCs are dynamic learning experiences when videos are recorded in different locations or produced with green screen technology, sound effects, music and advanced graphics. Sometimes videos include embedded questions that students have to answer before continuing the video.
  • MOOCs are self-contained. No need to buy textbooks although some MOOCs have optional texts.
  • You can speed up videos during easy parts, and slow them down to understand more difficult concepts. This facility is particularly useful if you are not a native speaker of the language, or if your instructor has an unfamiliar accent that you have difficulty understanding.
  • You can pause videos while writing notes or re-watch them as often as necessary. Many courses also provide transcripts for their videos. If an interactive transcript is provided, you can click on a relevant section of the transcript to watch that part of the video.
  • If videos or transcripts can be downloaded to your device you will then have unlimited access to them.
  • Many MOOCs provide recommended and optional reading materials and extra resources. These can include useful websites or papers freely available online.
  • You can take free MOOCs over and over again without losing money if you need more time to succeed.
  • In courses with dynamic discussion forums you can discuss issues with fellow students from all around the world.

Online Learning Disadvantages:

  • No face-to-face contact with fellow students or course staff.
  • No student facilities such as laboratories or libraries, although some MOOCs incorporate practical activities to be done at home, virtual laboratory experiments, reading lists of freely-available papers or temporary subscriptions to journals.
  • It can be hard to find answers to questions or resolve difficulties, especially when discussion forum participation is low.
  • You need effective self-motivation.

Classroom Learning Advantages:

  • You can ask questions (assuming the instructor welcomes questions).
  • You can discuss issues with fellow students.
  • There is ample opportunity for social interaction and support.
  • You have access to on-campus student facilities.

Classroom Learning Disadvantages:

  • Travel time and cost.
  • Attendance times can be restrictive or inconvenient.
  • Shy students may have trouble approaching the instructor with questions.
  • You usually have to sit through each lecture even if you already know most of the material.
  • You may be required to buy compulsory textbooks.

How to Overcome the Disadvantages of Online Learning

Because humans are social creatures who generally love company, the solitary experience of online learning can be a major hurdle for some students. It can be lonely unless you have a friend who is taking the course with you. Many courses attempt to address this by encouraging discussions in course forums which can be general discussion forums where students can introduce themselves, as well as focused discussions on particular aspects of the course. Posting your comments and thoughts to the forums can be helpful to overcome these feelings of isolation, particularly in courses that use community mentors or teaching assistants to respond to student posts.

In some courses, participation in discussions is sluggish. To stimulate some online social interaction, write plenty of comments in the student discussion forums. Fellow students are more likely to engage with you if you have comments in several threads. You may need to be patient, though, because it may take days for replies to be posted.

Do you live in a large city? You may be able to join or start up a community meetup or hangout. Always keep personal safety in mind while meeting internet acquaintances.

Another option is to create your own support network amongst your family members and friends. Even if they aren’t studying with you, you may be able to talk about your study ups and downs. Every little bit of support can help!

If you are having trouble understanding something, have you listened to the videos more than once? Have you taken a break, perhaps left it until the next day to look at the material again. Sometimes when we look at it after a break, the meaning suddenly becomes clear. Is the meaning still eluding you? You can post your questions to the course forums, but sometimes it can take hours or days for an answer. Sometimes your question simply remains unanswered, so you may need a different strategy. Have you checked all of the course resources? Many courses have lists of supplementary materials. Books or research articles may be able to be ordered through your local library. Type your question into your favourite search engine. Read the results but be aware that not all internet posts are reliable, even Wikipedia. They can be used as a starting point, though, and cross checking your research with the course materials can help sort the wheat from the chaff. Google Scholar can be a useful source of reliable research papers.

Most of the above comments about online learning refer to MOOCs. If you are enrolled in a paid online subject as part of a small class, you should have online access to course staff who can answer your individual queries in online chat form or perhaps via Skype or similar. The very nature of MOOCs means that direct interaction between instructor and individual students is virtually non-existent. The only exception is if the instructor participates in the course discussion forums.

A Final Thought

As a student, make the most of all your course resources and the flexibility of MOOCs. Use every spare moment to look at your course and keep your motivation level high.