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June 4, 2020

Ask the Expert: Online learning vs. classroom learning

Christine Greenhow, associate professor of educational technology in the College of Education, 2018 Recipient of MSU’s Teacher-Scholar Award,  answers questions about online and classroom learning.  

Q: What are the advantages of online learning, compared to in-person classroom learning? 

A: Online learning can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning. Research has shown that students in online learning performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction, but it has to be done right. The best online learning combines elements where students go at their own pace, on their own time, and are set up to think deeply and critically about subject matter combined with elements where students go online at the same time and interact with other students, their teacher and content.

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: Teachers need to distill their key goals and leverage technology features to meet them. Used well — online chat, discussion forums, replayable video lessons, online meetings, etc. offer tremendous opportunities to make students more engaged (and accountable) compared to time-strapped classrooms where students hide and few hands shoot up.

The downside is that this stuff takes work; we know from research that pedagogy matters. Educators can’t just scan the textbook, record the lesson, put them online and expect the same or better learning. 

Q: Are there social, developmental or other pros or cons of virtual education?

A: A challenge we are facing is inadequate access to the technology and social infrastructure needed for virtual education.  In the same way our country invested in our physical infrastructure, such as the interstate highway system, this pandemic has highlighted the need for a similar investment in our technology infrastructure and, beyond that, research suggests the social and instructional supports needed for all students to successfully learn with technology. Students without reliable, fast internet, suitable devices for schoolwork or people around them to help are spotlighted in the shift to virtual education. 

Q: Since online learning is continuing this school year, how do you think K-12 education is impacted?

A: Since online learning — or a hybrid online/in-person model — continues, this new normal may prove better than the old. Having raced to close gaps to virtual teaching and learning in Spring 2020, K-12 education will likely seek to continue the expanded technology infrastructure, flexibility and virtual learning benefits to improve education long-term. For learners unable to attend school in physical classrooms for various reasons, the pandemic-initiated move to virtual learning could be a welcome and permanent improvement.

Q: Are there benefits or drawbacks of online learning that are specific to university settings?

A: Having taught and studied in-person and online courses since 2012, I see benefits of online and hybrid learning specific to university settings. Working professionals, international students and others can get the high-quality education needed for career advancement despite geographic and other constraints. Offering degree programs in two modes, as we do at Michigan State, means that online students can learn alongside on-campus students, bringing a diversity of experiences to classrooms from which everyone benefits. The future of university education is giving learners choices, which todays’ technologies make possible.

By: Christine Greenhow

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