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Why Online Learning is Effective

Online learning has been proven to improve student’s retention of information. But why is this? We explore why online learning is effective.

Lisa McCarthy - 15 March, 2021 · 15 min read

Educators have argued for several years now that online learning can help you retain information and learn more.

But why is this? 

With the help of my laptop over the last few months, I’ve fallen in love with the act of learning all over again. Found myself enjoying—and remembering—more than I ever did in the classroom or lecture hall.

Students who say have told us here at Melio that studying online has helped them “find a new passion for learning” or “learned more in the 10 hours of tutorials than...over a whole semester in school” suggest it's more than just the advantage of being in the comfort of your own home.

To explore why online learning is important for students today, we’ll take a look at the benefits of online learning, explore the positive effects supported by research, and see how neuroscience can explain why online learning is effective at tuning into the way your brain works.

Advantages of online learning

Recently, online learning has received a lot of stick. In a year that’s brought about unprecedented challenges, the effectiveness of online learning has been questioned - especially by students and teachers who may have not launched into it with the best resources or preparations.

And when you’re stuck doing no more than watching recorded lectures in video form, that might be true. However if it’s done well, the positive effects of online education can far outweigh those in a physical classroom.

Online material can either be synchronous (same time, different places) for example live webinars; or asynchronous (different time, different places) like pre-recorded video or individual tasks. We’ll consider both types of delivery as we explore the advantages of online learning in this article.

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Everyone’s included

One of the central reasons as to why online learning is effective is that it brings you together with like-minded students you may never have met in person. And even though you may not physically be together, you’re still connected in a way which unites you all in every online learning session.

Being physically alone doesn’t mean it’s an isolating experience. In fact, researchers Sarah Dyer and Lisa Harris found that “community building and collaboration can be supported by both synchronous and asynchronous activities”. When exploring why online learning was effective for their class, they found that students who struggled with in-person teaching for a variety of reasons faced less problems online because there were fewer barriers to them attending, allowing that engaging social support to guide them through. 

Well-designed synchronous activities give more opportunities for making human connections than in a traditional classroom. For example, our Academic Programmes include support webinars where you have the opportunity to discuss the course and your learning beyond the academic content. As a slightly more informal discussion forum, it’s a chance to get to know your classmates better without taking away from valuable time with your tutor. There’s also no need to worry about what to say because your teaching assistant is there to prompt conversation. 

With no geographic constraints either, this means there’s a more diverse pool of voices to hear from. Take one of our recent online Law courses for example. Students living in Romania, UAE and Singapore were able to study with an Oxford-educated tutor based in Greece and a teaching assistant from the UK - an international learning opportunity that would not have been possible in-person this year.

International learning experiences - whether online or in-person on an international learning programme - allows everyone to bring a unique, valuable perspective. This enriches discussions and lets you learn from each other in a way that is rarely possible with other students from similar backgrounds at school as you.

 

It’s more flexible

As Robert Ubell says in his Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning “online learning will take its place alongside a range of options—an educational smorgasbord—from which the student will be able to pick exactly the right course at the right time and place”.

With asynchronous learning, you can choose exactly when, where and how to work. Personally I’m a fan of being at my desk with a cup of tea after lunch. But if curling up with the cat works for you, that’s fine too. Even when there are live webinars scheduled you can choose a start date to suit you.

As long as you’ve got a dedicated workspace and you’re in the right frame of mind, joining your classes from home is simply more practical. No need to worry about getting there ahead of time - you’re not going to be stuck somewhere you can’t see the board. It doesn’t even matter if you’re 5 minutes late than the time you set yourself - with asynchronous learning you’re studying pre-prepared materials, which can be consumed at your own pace. And you set the benchmark for your learning.

When time is of the essence for so many of today's learners, it’s clear why online learning is effective for so many students.

Access experts from around the world

If you’ve got an internet connection and you’re willing to learn, you can do it online. And travel fees, time, and study visas will be a thing of the past.

At its best, online learning makes really good teaching open to more people by connecting them with some of the top tutors in the world. There might not be an expert in your particular interest nearby, but you can explore it online with a tutor no matter where you are. The best tutor for you could literally be on the other side of the world but you can still work together.

This is especially valuable in one-to-one online Tutorials when they can tailor the material right down to your individual needs and interests. In this respect, one of the greatest advantages of online learning is the ability to gain truly personalised teaching, which is unrivalled to anything you’ve experienced before.

 

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Positive effects of online education

Aside from just connecting you with a quality, international learning experience with ease, digital educations have actually been seen to have better long term effects, including an increased retention rate of information. 

Activities that ask you to retrieve information are a great way of helping you remember new knowledge and consolidate what you already know. This has been suggested by many education specialists, including Dr. Alice Latimier’s research which shows that practising accessing information improves your learning outcomes and is even more effective when you’re given feedback. There are lots of ways this can happen with digital tools, such as through instantly marked multiple choice questions that show you where you might have gone wrong and one-on-one discussions based with a tutor during live webinars.

It’s also much easier to look back at feedback you’ve received online to help improve for next time. Everything is stored in one easy to access platform, and there’s no need to flick through old textbooks and ring-binders for previous tutor notes. 

But these long-term positive effects of online education go beyond just subject knowledge. Thinking about how you’re thinking and learning how you learn are integral to online courses - with your input to the course impacting how successful you will be at the end. This skill process of taking responsibility and accountability for your own education is known as metacognition. Using this approach, studies show you can make around seven months’ extra progress.

As long as you’re motivated and engaged in your sessions (more on how to do that later) your personal development during the course duration is another one of the positive effects of online education.

Further to this, online activities offer many opportunities to practice metacognition and self-directed learning. Working through asynchronous course material allows you to practice self-motivation, time management and reflection in a safe environment with clear goals to work towards. It’s a great stepping stone to owning your learning and becoming more independent, without feeling as though you’re alone. 

But don’t worry though, if you’re not ready to go it alone and need further assistance with helping you become a more autonomous learner, our Academic Programmes also have a teaching assistant to help you along the way; they’ll prompt you to think more about your process of learning and how you can use it to grow beyond your online course.

To summarise, when you take in more, see your progress, and understand where to go next, the positive effects of online education are insurmountable - you’ll be opening yourself to a whole world of opportunity to learn more than you may have ever considered before.

As one of our previous students acknowledged during one of our online courses: “Learning is the most important thing in the world to me, and with this course I have learned something invaluable: I really don't know anything! It's so wonderful! I am so excited for everything I have yet to learn!”

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Why these positive effects of online education may occur

As educational neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones explains, learning is the combination of three processes in your brain:

  1. Engagement

  2. Building new knowledge

  3. Consolidation

Although this is a relatively new research field, initial studies have shown that it’s already clear why online learning is important; how it can affect these processes and work with your brain to improve your knowledge and understanding.

Let’s delve a little further into what this research teaches us about why online learning is effective for today's students.

Engagement

Engagement as a process is about being ready to receive new information. The front of your brain is important for reasoning and learning, but it doesn’t act alone. It’s actually closely connected to the parts of your brain mostly responsible for emotions.

Novelty, learning together, and feeling rewarded lead to positive emotions which drive your curiosity and help you learn better. In a traditional classroom you’re a passive listener who’s not truly challenged. The online classroom asks you to be more active, either by actively completing tasks or engaging in discussion. It ignites your curiosity.

Lack of motivation could be a barrier online, but when you feel like you own your learning journey, it’s easier to participate. Instead of reluctantly answering questions, you’ll ask questions and really listen to the answers because they’ll help you get where you want to be. On the other hand, it’s believed that personality type, cultural backgrounds, and other prejudged perceptions are less of a barrier because everyone’s interested in different perspectives. The whole class gets to hear from a wider range of voices.

If you’re in a situation that makes you anxious, your brain finds it harder to process information. Negative emotions have been shown to reduce your brain’s ability to think and learn because you find it harder to engage. Anxiety in particular reduces the chunks of information your working memory can handle. Brain freeze happens when there’s too much information to process—you’ve reached your cognitive load. Your ability to work with new information is limited. The layout of a physical classroom or lecture hall with the tutor at the front can be intimidating. We might feel anxious at the idea of raising a hand in front of our peers, so we choose not to ask questions or participate.

In an online environment you’re all occupying the same space and there’s less distinction between tutor and student. This flatter hierarchy in a more intimate setting encourages you to share ideas without feeling anxious. It’s liberating to work alongside people that you don’t know personally because the consequences of being wrong (which is an important part of learning) feel lower. Online, there are ways to ask questions without feeling pressure to speak up during class, such as through live chat messaging.

To put it simply, learning affects your emotions, and your emotions affect learning. In this essence, there are many advantages of online learning; an online classroom can be rewarding and allow positive emotions to flourish, while reducing the chance that negative emotions will lead to overload.

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Building new knowledge

Building new knowledge is the process of taking individual pieces of information and storing it in your brain so that you can access it later. For something new to make sense, it’s widely believed that you have to link it with what you already know.

You can think of building knowledge as being like getting to know a new city. At first, you only know major landmarks and the areas around them. It’s easy to get lost when you rush around without taking it in. But when you slowly wander from one landmark to the next, taking in the sights along the way, it’s much easier to find your way around.

Often, a concept which seems too hard has just been taught too fast for your brain to form these connections which allow you to remember them later. Online courses can be carefully structured to make sure that each piece of information builds on what’s already been covered. For example, you may attend a live webinar that teaches you that material, which is then followed up with asynchronous material, where you can take the time to make sure you understand each concept fully before attending your next learning session.

Going back to the city analogy, it’s also no good only ever looking at each landmark from one direction. Not only do you miss some of the interesting bits, but you also can’t find it if you approach from somewhere else. To really get to know a place you might read about it, do a guided tour, have a delicious lunch while you admire the view. The more senses involved, the more connections your brain makes to help you access what you know. Expand your mind. 

There’s also a commonly held belief that different people learn best using different learning styles—usually visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. It turns out that’s a neuromyth. Even though you may feel like you prefer one style over another, our brains respond best when dealing with the same concepts in different ways. Whether it’s videos, reading, taking notes, completing mini tests, discussions or project work, online learning offers this variety.

At the right pace and with different ways of accessing information, what seems too hard in the classroom can be easy to achieve online. As we start to learn more about the brain and the different ways it needs to learn information, online learning can adapt quickly - it’s not based on curriculums or getting classes of 30 students to adapt. It’s current, flexible, and constantly evolving to help improve information retention. And this is a key reason why online learning is effective.

Consolidation

Consolidation is the process of bringing together information you know and storing it long-term. If you’ve ever thought you’ve learned something but can’t remember it later, that’s because your brain hasn’t had the chance to store this knowledge in a more permanent, useful way that’s easy to access. 

Good practice is more than repetition. You need to apply it in different ways, use it in different contexts and be able to express it in different forms. Online learning lets you access the same information again and again, in lots of different ways through videos, reading, active tasks, project work and more. It offers repetition of information in new and innovative ways, rather than simply learning through textbooks or lecture slides. Often, you can also test yourself with instant feedback so you can be confident that it’s working.

Getting things wrong is a big part of this, and as long as you revisit the material it’s often when the best learning happens. As any quizzer will tell you, it’s usually the questions you get wrong the first time that stick in your mind. Practice is more valuable when you know where you’re going wrong. 

But on top of a variety of digital learning tools, feedback is also important when you’re revisiting information, with tutors able to understand and monitor your personal and academic progress. Using a digital platform is a less time-consuming way of making sure that you get personalised feedback at the right time so that you can use it to improve. 

At Melio, this means hearing from your tutor with written feedback after each tutorial and completing project work in stages instead of just finding out how well you’ve done at the end. You tutor will focus on being kind, specific and helpful so that next time you know what to aim for. This may seem daunting at first, but in an environment where it’s okay to be wrong it’s something our students learn to embrace. When asked about what the advantages of online learning were with Melio in this way, one of our students commented; “feedback really showed where I can improve, and it boosted my confidence.”

Practice doesn’t just make perfect, it’s not possible to learn in depth without it.

 

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What this means for your learning

A great course works with your brain to engage you, build knowledge and consolidate your understanding. Online learning at its best is as good as the traditional classroom, with the added benefits of greater flexibility and participation. It develops the skills you need to become independent and able to learn more effectively.

All you really need for effective learning is high quality teaching, no matter how or when it happens. If you’ve had a disappointing experience with learning, either online or in the classroom, you’ll know this doesn’t happen every time.

A great first step to being a true independent learner is understanding which courses will work with your brain to support the process of learning. Remember to look out for material that hooks you. Explanations that build on your knowledge. Independent work with feedback that drives you forward.

And subject experts who understand when you don’t.

 

Study online with Melio Education 

Discover unrivalled online learning with Melio Education, developed with expert educators to help you become a more independent, more motivated learner. Combining asynchronous learning with synchronous live sessions, our tutors work hard to personalise learning around your interests and learning needs, allowing you to make the greatest advances during your time with us.

Available to students aged 13 and over, you can choose from one-on-one Tutorials and small group Academic Programmes, choosing the study options that are most effective for you.

To find out more about our online learning platform and the options available, please contact our admissions team

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