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Online Learning vs Classroom Learning

Recently, millions have turned to online learning out of necessity. But is online learning a better experience, or worse? Take a look at the pros and cons of online learning vs classroom learning for students.

Dr Chris Adamson - 01 March, 2021 · 14 min read

The world felt very different in 2020, and in 2021 we still aren’t quite back to normal yet. 

One area that has perhaps felt the biggest impact of all from the COVID-19 pandemic is education. Schools and universities in many countries have been forced temporarily to close their doors. For over 1.2 billion students around the world, online learning has provided a safe way to continue with their education.

With most students now looking to return to the classroom over the coming year, many are considering whether traditional schooling is as advantageous as the online methods they’re currently undertaking, and vice versa.

Online learning vs classroom learning: it’s a difficult debate to have. Both yield so many advantages over the other, and it’s no wonder students struggle selecting courses in a highly opportunistic world.

In this article, we’re going to be taking a look at the different styles of online learning, explore the strengths and advantages of online learning vs classroom learning, and encourage you to think about how each method may impact your own learning. Ultimately, you’re probably here because you’re looking to decide on a new learning opportunity - and we want to help you make a decision that’s right for you.

How does online learning compare to classroom learning?

When it comes to looking at the benefits of online learning vs classroom learning, one of the biggest considerations is the ease between the two learning methods. Can students easily take the skills, knowledge, and learning styles they have become familiar with in school and move to a virtual learning method with ease? 

The best online teaching finds a way to make as smooth a transition as possible from the physical classroom to the virtual one, but does this mean that as soon as the pandemic is over we should all expect to go through a similar transition straight back to classroom teaching? 

It would be a mistake to think that online learning can only ever be a second-best alternative to classroom teaching. Online learning has been made far more popular by the restrictions of the pandemic, but it isn’t new and it has its own strengths and advantages. It’s safe to say that even as things get back to “normal”, online learning won’t be going anywhere, and will continue to play an important role in a balanced education.

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Is online learning better?

Online learning can come in various forms. Here at Melio, for example, we offer both short courses, known as Academic Programmes as well as one-on-one Tutorials. In the Academic Programmes you are part of a class of students from around the world and the course combines live webinars, online activities and project work, and live tutorials to provide feedback on your work.

In Tutorials, you have a series of personalised, individual sessions with an expert tutor who can guide you through topics that are of special interest to you and provide in-depth feedback on your ideas and projects.

So are these options better than classroom learning? Well, there are certainly significant benefits that come from choosing to study online.

You can work at your own pace

The best online learning incorporates some form of independent, offline study, as guided by the instructions and advice of a great tutor.

By focusing on independent work rather than solely on participation in classroom activities, online learning provides an excellent opportunity for students who wish to work at their own pace and delve into certain topics in more detail.

As an international online course provider, we have found that this can be particularly beneficial for students who are learning in a second language.

Online learning offers fewer distractions than the classroom

Even the calmest of classrooms can be full of distractions. But with online learning you have the chance to create your own distraction-free learning environment.

In a quiet room with a comfortable chair (and maybe some noise-cancelling headphones), many students find that they are far less likely to be bothered by distractions, making it easier to concentrate on their tutor,  projects, or activity.

Of course, this does mean you need to be resilient and hide your phone away - or else you could find yourself more distracted than at school!

Distance learning is free from geographical constraints

Classroom teaching requires you, your classmates, and your tutor all to be in the same place at the same time every day. Online learning minimises these kinds of constraints.

Studying with Melio, your tutor can be in Oxford or Cambridge whilst you are in New York and your fellow students are in Shanghai, London, or Mumbai. There are some major advantages to this. Firstly, it means that you can learn from the comfort of your home without having to travel anywhere. Secondly, it means you can choose any tutor or course without having to think about the visa requirements, border closures, or quarantine measures that could hinder your learning with them.

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Free from time constraints

Do you need to do your lessons in the evening after school or college? Can you only do them on weekends? What if you also have a holiday job that you need to work around?

Most online learning is much more flexible than traditional school timetables, meaning you can keep up with all your usual commitments and still find time to take classes and do your work at times that suit you.

You can connect with international student groups

When you aren’t limited by geographical or time constraints and people in all parts of the world and all time zones can join the programme, you have a wonderful opportunity to learn in a truly multicultural environment and make connections with students from all over the world.

They’ll offer extraordinary insights into your subject which have been guided by their understanding of the subject in their culture - it’s a great way to expand your global perspective and network with other passionate students. 

Online education offers unrestricted opportunities

With so many online learning opportunities out there, it can be difficult to narrow down your options and select the best online courses. However, with this variety comes a whole world of opportunity; online learning opens up the possibility of truly varied and blended teaching and learning styles. 

Whether you prefer independent learning, group work, class discussion, or personal and individual attention from your tutor, all of these are possible options to choose from for online learning, and you can find a combination that provides the perfect balance for you.

Online learning can be a more affordable option

To take part in online learning you really just need a compatible device, a reliable internet connection, and an enthusiasm for your chosen subject. This can make an online course far more affordable than an in-person, classroom-based course - which may have added costs for travel, accommodation, or food.

'Risk-free' learning by studying online

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect so many people around the world, personal safety is as important as it ever has been.

Where online learning holds its biggest advantages right now is that it can allow you to enjoy all the same benefits of classroom learning without ever leaving the safety, security, and comfort of your own home.

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Is classroom learning better?

So we’ve explored a series of advantages that can be found in online learning, but does that mean that there is no place for classroom learning in the education of the future? Not at all. When it comes to online learning vs classroom learning, there are lots of advantages of traditional in-person learning which online learning falls short of.

In fact, as restrictions on travel and education continue to ease, many students will be looking forward to returning to classroom-based teaching - which is entirely understandable given its own significant strengths.

Classroom teaching is far more interactive

Advances in technology have made online learning a smooth and natural experience, but one of the key strengths of in-person classroom learning is the ease of direct interaction between you and your tutor. 

When in a physical classroom setting, it’s easy to ask your questions and for your tutor to answer directly and immediately; to redirect your question to the rest of the class for an open discussion; or, to turn the teaching around and encourage you to decide on your own answer. All of this natural interaction is effortless in a physical classroom. 

Meanwhile, online, you need to wait to be invited to ask questions, or hope for the perfect opportunity - something which can be hard to do online. Without seeing your work in front of them, it can also be difficult for tutors to understand where you may be struggling - making the process of resolving queries longer. 

Classroom teaching allows for human connections

The best tutors are able to “read” their students and use this intuitive emotional intelligence to guide the lessons around the ability and mood of the group. 

It might be that you do not sound confident when answering a question; you might look dispirited if you are finding the topic difficult to understand; you might even be bubbling with enthusiasm because every detail of the subject is clicking into place in your brain at once.

Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions can be just as important as your words in helping the tutor recognise how you are getting on with the course, and classroom-based learning is the perfect environment for this kind of mutual understanding.

It’s very easy to hide behind a screen online, and therefore making it very easy for tutors to miss vital clues. Studying all together in one place allows them to pick up on any body language clues which are difficult to judge on-screen.

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Classrooms allow for practical learning

Some types of teaching are particularly suited to being carried out in person, as opposed to a remote environment. This may be because there are physical resources that are vital to the learning process; a geography student, for example, can learn a great deal about rock formation by handling and inspecting samples of the different kinds of rock, and a medical student may benefit greatly from being able to use anatomical models in their learning. 

However, it can also be important for the students themselves to produce physical work. An architecture student, for example, may work on a project to create a model bridge, and it’s no surprise that students of any of the science subjects will benefit their own research by conducting experiments in the classroom.

Spatial learning is an important attribute of classroom learning

Sometimes, the physical space in which teaching happens can be vital to helping students understand and interpret content, especially in creative subjects where there isn’t always an obvious answer.

For example, in an English Literature class, the interpretation of a poem may rely on it being read aloud to an audience. Similarly, the reading of a play may require an understanding of its physical performance - both of which are very difficult to conduct over an online class.

In such circumstances,  a tutor teaching in a classroom would make special use of the learning space. Students can participate in an interactive, live learning experience, and use their own interpretations to contribute to the class’ wider understanding.

Classrooms offer more social interaction

After a year with unprecedented challenges, social interactions have never been more sought after by students. Many are desperate to reconnect with friends and enjoy the easy social atmosphere that comes with learning together as a class. 

For years, we have known that one major advantage of classroom learning is that you are physically present with your fellow students. This makes it far easier to establish social connections and make friends - especially if you’re attending an international summer course and joining together from all different areas of the world. 

With the central role of peer discussion in effective modern teaching techniques, a social and friendly class group can have a really positive impact on learning. Not only will you pick up on new ideas by collaborating with others, but the situation interactions between you and your peers can make it much easier to retain information, especially for those more difficult topics and subjects.

In-person teaching also comes with extra-curricular benefits

Studying on an in-person course often provides students with the opportunity to experience life and learning in a new city or country. A shared cultural experience in a new setting with a diverse group of international fellow students is of enormous benefit to a rounded education and to students’ personal development.

Unlike online learning where you’ll log off at the end of your session and go about your usual daily routine, being in a physical learning environment allows students to continue to bond with one another, participating in exciting extracurricular activities and other opportunities for socialisation.

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Online learning vs classroom learning: How do I know which one is best for me?

As you can see from the features discussed, both online and classroom learning have their own specific strengths and advantages. 

Online learning allows students to access the highest quality of expert teaching without having to get past geographical constraints like travel costs, visas, or quarantine restrictions. Meanwhile, classroom learning provides students with the opportunity to access personal attention and individual face-to-face teaching. 

Unfortunately, there is no single answer for which one is better, but each student may be more suited to learning in one environment or the other. The best thing to do, therefore, is to have a serious think about your own circumstances and your own learning needs - what is it you want to get out of your learning experience?

Let’s start with practical considerations. 

Do you need a flexible schedule? Are you worried about traveling to an in-person classroom-based course? Do you want to study alongside your main school or university course? 

And let’s think about your learning style. 

Are you personally driven by a strong ability for self-motivation? Do you like a combination of teaching styles, with independent project work, online activities, and webinars all featured? 

If you answered yes to most or all of these questions then distance learning with an online course provider like Melio could be perfect for you.

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You may, though, have other priorities. Do you primarily value being face-to-face with a tutor? Do you value the social interaction that comes with learning alongside a consistent group of like-minded classmates? If yes, then classroom learning may suit you better. 

Remember, whether you think you are better suited to online or classroom learning, you should also think about the different kinds of online or classroom learning that are available. If you would prefer an online course but your priority is to have personalised and individual attention from a tutor, a series of one-on-one online tutorials would be the best option. 

If you would prefer classroom teaching and are especially interested in the cultural adventure of studying in a new city or country with a diverse cohort of international students, an in-person residential academic course may be a perfect fit for you.

Of course, the best of both worlds is also possible. You may want to consider taking online courses in different subjects and then selecting an in-person course when you know which subject you are interested in pursuing further. Alternatively, you may take an in-person course and then choose to continue studying it through in-depth one-on-one tutorials online with a specialised tutor when you return home.

After reading through all the considerations above, you probably have a gut feeling about which method of learning best suits you - and that’s a perfectly valid reason to choose one option over the other. The truth is, there are so many options available to you out there, it’s almost impossible to make the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision. 

As long as you’ve taken the time to research the course material and feel excited by the prospect of studying on a particular programme, you’ll be well on your way to making the best decision possible. 

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Discover our online learning opportunities

One thing that is for certain: for the best educational experience, you should be studying with the best tutors possible - those who are true experts in their subject and can tailor the content around your specific learning needs.

Here at Melio, we work with the top tutors in the British education system - many of whom have studied or taught at the world-renowned universities of Oxford and Cambridge. 

We’re committed to delivering the best online learning experience possible, hence why we keep our online course groups small, and place personalised teaching at the heart of everything we do. Nothing is more impactful than students connecting with a highly passionate and empathic tutor - who can tweak classes to make them more tailored to your wants and needs.

If you want to find out more about Melio or the online learning opportunities we have available, contact our admissions team who will be delighted to help you.

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