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.