Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Is online learning the future?
I have been thinking a lot about this question lately. For the last three months, I have been teaching my FS2 class online which has been an unexpected but fascinating and fun journey. My five-year-olds won’t be the only ones to graduate this Summer though - in February I completed a year of study to achieve postgraduate certification from a university in the UK, online. Having been so involved with teaching and learning online has really made me wonder what the future of online learning could look like.
Across the globe, schools are announcing their plans to offer blended learning programs starting in September. But what is blended learning? A blended learning programme is a formal educational programme which is made up partially of online content and partially of face-to-face teaching in the classroom.
Many parents are now wondering whether a blended learning program like this or even a fully online education is what they want for their child. What are the benefits of blended learning? What are the disadvantages of learning online? I decided to try to bring together as many factors, from my own experience and from research that I have done into the topic, that might help you if you’re wondering whether online learning or blended learning is right for your family.
Remote learning, distance learning, online learning and E-learning
Four terms we’re hearing lots of at the moment but what’s the difference? The four terms seem to be used interchangeably when people refer to any kind of learning that is done with the help of a digital device or an internet connection, however they do differ slightly in their exact definitions.
Remote Learning vs Distance Learning
Remote learning is just learning that can be done from any physical location. Distance learning means that students learn from somewhere that isn’t school – maybe from home or even from a different country. Almost the same, but slightly different. Distance or remote learning has been around for a while but mainly for adults and young adults. Distance learning and remote learning options for young kids are all either new, or newly popular, and were made much more available internationally due to this year’s global health crisis.
Online Learning vs E-Learning
Online learning and E-learning are slightly different because whilst they can both be done remotely or from a distance, they can (and do) also happen in schools and classrooms too. The ‘E’ in ‘E-learning’ stands for ‘Electronic’. E-learning is learning that is supported by or entirely accessed with some kind of electronic device. For example, in traditional classrooms children might use iPads or computers and teachers often use interactive whiteboards. Online learning refers to education which is made up of resources and instruction that is accessed with an internet connection. So, whereas online learning is always E-learning because you need an electronic device to access the internet, E-learning can also be offline - like using Bee-Bots or reading on an eBook reader.
Online and E-learning are not new, but after becoming a necessity during recent worldwide lockdown measures, education has really shifted its focus to digital and online learning opportunities. In this article, I will mostly refer to online learning unless the context is more specific to one of the other terms.
Online Learning vs Traditional Learning
What are the similarities between online and traditional classes?
Online, blended and traditional schooling all cover traditional learning objectives whereas blended and online learning options might also focus on promoting digital skills (6) that are increasingly being called for in workplaces. (7) More children are already being taught how to use the internet responsibly and an emphasis on safety online has been seen in parenting and education as the internet plays a bigger role in children’s lives.
Children learning online still have contact with a real-life teacher, mentor or tutor, just like in a classroom, although the role of this person can vary. Many online learning programmes still organise students into classes or tutor groups who share a teacher too. Even during my distance learning university course, I was put in a tutor group with 20 or so other students and my group had contact and support from our tutor.
What is a Flipped Classroom?
In a flipped classroom, instruction is provided online for access at home and hands-on tasks (where students apply what was learned in the lesson) are completed in class. This is just the opposite of how traditional classrooms work where tasks are completed as homework and instruction is provided in the classroom. (4)
What is the difference between online classes and face-to-face classes?
The key difference between online and face-to-face learning is that online learning is done through a digital device whereas face-to-face learning is primarily done through a teacher or instructor. Traditionally groups of children spend a certain number of hours between set timings on weekdays in their classrooms at school, where they are taught by teachers face-to-face.
Online learning removes the need for students to come together in one place at the same time because it can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. Kids don’t need to physically be at school to take part in their online learning however if it involves video calls, live streams, webinars or one-on-one meetings then they will still need to coordinate timings for these sessions. Otherwise, asynchronous learning can be accessed from anywhere at any time with the only limitation being if teachers have set hand in or due dates for assignments. This gives students the freedom to do their schooling at any time of day, any day of the week and for sessions as long or short as they want.
Traditional Learning advantages and disadvantages
Traditional Learning’s Advantages
The first thing that comes to mind is that traditional learning clearly involves more social interaction which we know is important for our children’s health. In traditional lessons, teachers can more easily model behaviours like reading and writing and speaking skills but also sociable behaviour or learning behaviours like showing kindness to others or being curious. Many kids develop influential relationships with their teachers and strong friendships with their classmates which I think would be sorely missed if education was to be done completely online. Learning together in the classroom also creates competition amongst students, because each is aware of the progress of the others, and this can be motivating for competitive kids. Then again, lots of online learning platforms allow kids to see other kids work if it is shared in a group.
Traditional face-to-face education is far better suited to learning hands-on or physical skills. Kids' ability to learn how to play football is limited if they don’t have access to a coach, a team and a field. Similarly, activities that require special tools or facilities, like pottery, for example, cannot be taught online. Practical skills are really important for kids to know - cooking, first aid and how to grow plants for example - especially if we want them to be prepared for successful lives later on.
Schools provide many vulnerable children across the world with more safety and care than they have in their lives outside of school. These kids might rely on school for their regular meals, an escape from dangerous or neglectful homes and healthy social interaction. During the school closures of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, 83% of young people with existing mental health concerns were found to have been negatively affected by the loss of routine, social connection and support that school had provided (1) and so schools offering blended programmes or online education would need to consider how more vulnerable students would be supported from a distance.
In traditional classrooms, teachers are often encouraged to provide opportunities for all learning styles - auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Some don’t believe in learning styles but I think we can all appreciate that many kids are just more interested in real-life, hands-on, tangible experiences and so would prefer a traditional classroom setting to still be a part of their school life.
Traditional Learning’s Disadvantages
The shortcomings of traditional classrooms have become more apparent after recent success in the same areas whilst teaching and learning online. In classrooms, there are always kids who dominate the class discussion and inevitably get more chances to be heard than other quieter or shyer children despite teachers’ best efforts to hear all of their students’ voices. Even with two people speaking to you at once it’s almost impossible to hear both – now imagine twenty or thirty. Platforms like Flipgrid help to balance the air time students get as they can post responses in their own time and teachers can review these individually. Imagine those same twenty or thirty people have recorded themselves or typed their messages out and sent them to you instead – now you can listen carefully to everyone and respond to each person fully.
Some argue that traditional classroom education does not prepare children for higher education and adult life as well as they could be. Too often the responsibility for kids learning is the teacher’s alone and complacent kids can be pushed along by their teachers. This leaves them unprepared for higher education where their learning is their own responsibility and careers where their work is their responsibility alone. (8)
Introverted children’s personalities are just less suited to being in a busy classroom every day. They might find school draining because of all the stimulation packed into a short school day. A blended learning program could give introverted children both the time and space that they need to recharge, mixed in with periods at school which could improve their well-being as well as how well they perform academically.
Online learning advantages and disadvantages
Disadvantages of Online learning
Whilst traditional education has been around for hundreds of years, online learning is relatively new still. This means that online learning systems and ways to provide fully digital programs of learning for children are still being developed. The incorporation of online learning into education in the near future will require training for educators on how to work with platforms and how to teach best online.
Another drawback is that children need a computer or a device with an internet connection to actually be able to get online to access their learning. In developed countries, many children already have their own personal devices, however, for those lower-income families and children in less developed countries, this is either not an option or would be a very expensive cost for families.
The next thing to remember is that not every single internet resource or platform is accessible from any kind of device. For example in my class, kids that don’t have touch screen devices at home can’t benefit from digital drawing activities or tasks where children form letters with their fingers on the screen. Compatibility issues can also limit which platforms or resources can be accessed from certain devices, with certain operating systems, or even from older versions of applications.
Younger children, who can’t read or write well enough to access online learning independently yet, need an adult’s help to connect with their education. Although kids are increasingly adept with digital devices at earlier ages than ever, very young children will always need some direction to make sure that they are connecting with and progressing through their learning. Regardless of this though, children of working parents would need childcare whilst learning at home which would be an added cost to families. This may only be balanced out if online learning school fees are dramatically lower, or, for those in government education, if child-care was provided or compensated for.
Online learning is too new to know exactly how a move to online or blended learning in primary and secondary education could impact individual children, communities, or the world.
Advantages of online learning
For today’s students working online is not just as simple as typing up an essay and copying in a few pictures to break up the text anymore. Many students doing remote learning get the freedom to choose how they respond to their assignments. Video essays, blogs and graphics, for example, are more widely accepted than ever before as modes of response to school tasks. These days students are producing their own podcasts, making feature-length films, recording songs, making websites, starting online businesses, hosting presentations, creating and marketing web content and much more.
Some kids even have the choice as to which platform they use for sharing their work, deciding which best suits them and the work they are submitting. All this student choice is great for motivation but it also allows students to practise critical thinking and decision making which are prized skills for employees in the digital age.
The internet is full of powerful learning and creative tools that students can use to collaborate with classmates in real-time. This means that kids can work on making things together at the same time even when they’re not physically in the same place! There are so many possibilities for students to plan and implement projects together online and collaborating on digital projects can promote kids’ creativity, problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Good teachers need to have the ability to provide for the unique learning needs of each child so that they develop a broad and deep understanding of topics and concepts. Basically, teachers know what children need to know, spot the gaps in kids’ knowledge and then fill them in. Adaptive learning technology is being developed that can also do this. Adaptive Learning systems automatically identify the gaps in kids’ knowledge as they interact with games or online quizzes and then takes the child through the learning content needed to fill the gap.
For example, a short computer quiz or game could be used to lead a student to use their knowledge of basic French vocabulary. The adaptive learning system might pick up on a gap in the students’ knowledge of French words for foods and then provide learning content automatically that covers this again. In the schools of the future, Adaptive Learning Systems could provide intelligent educational courses that adapt in real-time according to student’s activity, performance and interests. (2)
Whereas students in traditional classrooms have access to the resources provided - maybe textbooks or print outs - online learners have access to the entire internet’s wealth of resources and information. This comes with its disadvantages though as not all information on the internet is reliable and such a massive amount of information can be overwhelming for kids. Having said that, there is evidence that the brains of kids who have grown up with technology, or digital natives, are becoming better at sorting through and processing information on the internet. (5)
Online learning means that students can learn at their own pace, although for now this is still limited to some extent. For example, during my university distance learning course, I could spend as long or as short a time as I needed reading the course content and doing independent research for each module over a period of a few months however submission dates for the end of module assignments remained fixed for all students. I have seen self-paced learning have a huge impact on some children in my class during our distance learning though, as they have been able to work through the content and activities without being cut off by the end of the lesson or the school day. Some kids have spent more time on things they need more time to understand and others have been able to move on if they were ready to.
Most online learning is asynchronous, which means that students don’t all need to be learning at the same time. This flexibility means students can spend time on their learning when it is convenient: when Mum or Dad is free to help them with it or first thing in the morning when they are most focused, for example. If they aren’t quite understanding something then they can spend an extra day going over it before moving on and won’t have to worry about catching up with classmates. Asynchronous learning means that if kids are sick they can easily take a day off and catch up with their learning when they are feeling better.
Integrated web-tools and features make online learning platforms more child-friendly, easily accessible to non-native speakers of the language, more suited for individual learning needs and usable on various devices. Immersive reader, auto-save, cloud-based storage, browser extensions, and read-aloud features are just a few of these. Low-cost devices are even being designed specifically for children to use for home learning these days.
A move to digital could have advantages for our environment with less transport needed to and from school, less paper and textbook printing and less power for operating school buildings and facilities.
What is the future of learning?
I’m sure that anyone involved in education right now would agree that there are some parts of our exciting new world of online learning that we aren’t going to give up. Kids have flourished with their newfound power to make their own choices in their learning and teachers around the world have revelled in being able to actually hear the voices of every single one of their students for the first time. We’ve all learned and achieved so much over the past few weeks that it’s impossible not to wonder what else the technology could help us do.
As teachers continuously update their skills to keep pace with developing technology, learning will become more of a shared experience between teacher and students. Teachers will be modelling and teaching the skills kids need to be able to learn independently which will be important for those doing blended learning but also to prepare kids to grow and learn throughout their lives. I think that kids will be taught more than ever about the technology itself as well as using it as a tool for learning across the curriculum, both at school and at home. Tech will continue to adapt to younger learners needs and support focused attention with minimal distraction. This will make it more and more suited to integrate into the earliest stages of children’s education.
Of course, things won’t change immediately but online learning opens up so many possibilities for the long-term future of kids education. Will students still have a real-life teacher or tutor to guide their learning in the future? Will kids even still be put in classes? Fully online courses could potentially serve thousands of students and with no physical classrooms, there would be no need for limits on class size. Let’s face it though, school just wouldn’t be the same without kids having their own teacher and classmates. Online learning certainly has so much to add to education but the picture definitely looks a little bleak without real-life experiences and those special relationships and tight bonds between real-life people.
Fully online courses for kids will inevitably be more common now, especially in circumstances where there’s no other choice available, but I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, learning won’t be going entirely digital just yet. It’s long been understood that we learn through our relationships, but our need to stay connected through technology to keep kids’ learning going throughout the current crisis has reminded us just how important our relationships are. Online learning is without a doubt in the future of education and it will have its place in our classrooms, our school communities and our curriculums. Its place will be alongside us, and though it will continue to shape education, it will never replace us or our connections with each other.
Summary: Advantages & Disadvantages of Online Learning
Summary: Advantages & Disadvantages of Traditional Classroom Learning
All the web-content that I referred to in this article with the numbers in brackets, as well as other related items of interest, can be viewed here. 👀
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