Comparing the effectiveness of eLearning against its in-person peer poses a challenge.

On one hand, the rapid growth of Internet technologies has seen a corresponding growth in online education.

A 2015 survey by Babson Survey Research Group found that online students grew by nearly 4% over the previous year. This was the 13th consecutive year to record continual growth in students embracing online education.

On the other hand, that same study concluded that only about 30% of faculty accepted the “…value and legitimacy of online education.”  And there lies the dichotomy!

Which Education Format Works Better?

When we measure the effectiveness of education, we have to take multiple variables into account.

The most obvious impact is: “Are students learning?” If so, are they remembering what they learn? If they are, are they also able to apply what they’re retaining? And if not, where does the process have a flaw?

We can also consider factors like student retention, student satisfaction, and the long-term impact and quality of the work produced by graduates from each education format.

Through multiple surveys, polls, analytical and observational studies, independent researchers have attempted to answer the question: “Which is more effective – online or in-person?” The conclusion? Unsurprisingly, there are proponents and opponents to both approaches, at both the instructor and the student level.

For instance, research from the Johnson & Wales University concluded that: “… students rather to be in a traditional class than in on-line class[es].”

Meanwhile, the same question was explored in great depth by researchers at the California State University in San Bernardino, and they concluded that online was the way to go: “This result is in agreement with previous findings that the online environment is less intimidating and may encourage student participation.”

Proponents of the online approach also point to the following benefits:

  • Flexibility – This allows students to study when, where, and in the manner they prefer
  • Responsiveness – Online content can quickly be updated, revised and made more up-to-date
  • Variety – Content can be delivered via richly integrated multimedia (video, simulations, gaming, etc.)
  • Dissemination – Lessons can reach well beyond the confines of a classroom, campus, or training center
  • Accessibility – Materials can be easily customized to suit the special needs of each student

As for in-person education, its proponents cite upsides like:

  • Social Interactions – Communication is fostered and enhanced through in-person learning
  • Support – Instructors, lecturers, and mentors are often more available on-site
  • Personal Coaching – Instructors establish “personal connections” with students during in-person sessions, and can therefore offer greater individualized coaching and support
  • Structure – In-person learning enforces real-time discipline and structure into learning, which is essential for learners struggling with time management or self-learning abilities

In the end, the “right” answer to “which format is most effective” might well be: “well, that depends.”

This is because the effectiveness of a course can be helped or hindered by a learner’s (or an instructor’s) perception of the experience.

If learners feel more at ease learning from afar – and if they excel at self-directed learning and time management – they can thrive online, while students who are predisposed to a more interpersonal way of learning – or who prefer tangible, tactile learning aids – may do better in a classroom setting.

So the more relevant question may be: what are your students’ preferred learning preferences?

Efficacy Re-Enforced

Technology and lifestyle trends clearly indicate that online learning is the way of the future, all around the world.

Educators and students alike must come to terms with this “new normal” of eLearning, whether it’s used as a supplement to in-person classes or as a complete replacement. Instructional designers must continue to improve the efficiency and quality of the digital learning experience for those who currently shun it. They can accomplish this by:

  • structuring courses with more group participation
  • facilitating more student / instructor one-on-one “face time”
  • adding blended learning to the mix
  • making it easy to contact a “real person” for those who need troubleshooting or tech help

Applying these techniques can provide students the best learning experiences within both formats.

Your question then might not be “which approach is more effective,” but “what combination of online and in-person instruction can make learning more effective for which student types, and in which situations?”

Image: The European Space Agency at work on rover technology, which is literally the intersection of “in-person” and “remote” learning in real time.