Online vs In-Class: Are We Asking the Wrong Question?


Alex Nikotina

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As online classes (and online education in general) have become more popular, people are asking the question: how effective is online learning in comparison to in-class learning? There have been various discussions on the topic, highlighting the benefits and drawbacks for each of the educational delivery methods; however, is it possible that we are simply asking the wrong question?

Online vs In-Class?

Each of the instructional methods offers a unique combination of benefits to students. Online courses offer more flexibility and are ideal for people with a busy schedule, while  in-class education traditionally has a more structured class schedule. The discussion on face-to-face interaction is a key point in this argument. In a physical classroom, students have a chance to express their ideas vocally in class through in-person interactions (although the prevalence of live digital classrooms mean that this distinction is becoming blurry). Some students may feel shy or intimidated in front of their peers compared to the online environment, and then again, some distance education students may feel bewildered by the technology involved in the online world.

The most noted advantages for each method have been identified:



Convenience and flexibility

”Security” of a longer-standing format.

The individual is the focus

More ”real” face-to-face interaction

Global reach: anytime, anyplace conversations

“College experience”: on-campus clubs and extracurricular activities

Teaches self-motivation and self-discipline

Hands-on training for some professions (Nursing or Home Inspection)


On the other hand, it is fair to suggest that both instructional formats have the potential to offer effective learning tools for individuals. Means, Toyama, Murphy et. al. (2009) suggest the performance of online vs in-class students, including differences in grades and learning advantages, is dependent not so much on the delivery method, but more so on the course content, structure and instructor. Moreover, with existing educational tools and technological advances, it is easy to communicate with and engage students in various learning activities, both in-class and online, with the same level of efficiency.

Making the Best of Online and In-Class Education    

Choosing between online or in-class education has long shifted from “which one is better” to “which one works better for me”. Considerations include the individual’s schedule, internet access, and/or organizational skills. Online education may be a preference for busy professionals and those looking after a family; the in-class format can benefit those who prefer face-to-face interaction and can commit to a set schedule. The online option works better for students who are looking to build their credentials while continuing to work; in-class is preferable for those looking for the “college experience”.

Aside from personal preferences, it is also necessary to look at the way education is delivered. There are a few key factors that make a big difference in whether the learning experience, online or face-to-face, is successful for the student.

  1.    Appropriate Tools

There are multiple tools that are available that allow educators to make learning memorable and interactive. Creating presentation slides helps to organize the lesson and highlight the main points of the class and bringing video into the classroom can create a transition from one topic to another. Collaboration tools are readily available in the world of online teaching to get over the hurdle of interaction.

Online portals hosting class materials and announcements are just as important for in-class students as they are for online classrooms. They keep students updated on what is coming up, key assignments dates, and reduce the need for textbooks or paper handouts. Ideally, these online portals are easy to use and can also prompt interaction with students outside of the classroom.

  1.    Active Learning

The trend of instructors delivering unidirectional lectures to students is disappearing. Nowadays, collaboration and interaction with students is more important, both for online and in-class formats. Asking questions and taking part in team exercises may seem easier in-class, but in larger classrooms or lecture halls, the professor has an uphill struggle to keep the class engaged. Tactics to increase student involvement in-class include assigning group projects or scheduling tutorials.

The danger of one-way communication also exists in the online environment, especially with courses structured with limited or no face-to-face interaction. Therefore it is important to utilize educational tools to encourage communication: discussion groups, live webinars, collaboration software and social learning methods. All of these tools create more quality interaction between the students and the professor, and they can encourage students to take the initiative in their approach to learning.

  1.    Account for Diversity

In the modern classroom, both in-class and online, diversity has become the norm, be that diversity in cultural backgrounds, views or learning strategies. It is important to accommodate for the needs of all students to ensure that they are getting the most from the class. One of the key factors is incorporating students’ cultural and personal background into the learning experience, which can be done through discussions and debates.

Another key is to include different learning mediums to accommodate for different learning styles. Some people learn better through writing, some through reading and listening and some through the visual clues. Both online and in-class education should include different learning mediums and tools to benefit the students.

  1.     Foster Self-Discipline

A successful education equips students with the skills and knowledge to make them efficient and effective individuals after the completion of their education. Of course, giving students access to appropriate information and teaching them theoretical concepts is very important, but the goal is to teach them practical application. The best way, in either format, to encourage students to apply their knowledge is to give them a certain amount of freedom and flexibility in their learning, and give them room to exercise their organizational skills.

Online students may have an advantage here since the nature of their class format typically relies greater on their self-discipline. Their learning activities (set readings, recorded videos, assignments) typically happen outside of the classroom setting, which teaches them to set their own deadlines, work on self-motivation and collaborate with their group across the country and sometimes internationally.

However the in-class environment can also offer opportunities for self-directed learning through scheduled group projects and presentations, or by the preparation and encouragement of discussions and debates among classmates.


Online and in-class education are both proven methods to develop learning and increase one’s knowledge. Each education method has their own specific advantages disadvantage but one is not better than the other. The better question is whether professors and instructional designers are best using the available tools to maximize the potential and learning outcomes of each method.



Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2009). “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” US Department of Education. Retrieved from


About the Author:

AlexNikotinaAlex Nikotina, an Online Marketing Assistant at Ashton College, loves digging deeper into the real stories and trends in education. Originally from Russia, Alex loves to travel and experience new countries, having previously spent time in Japan before moving to Canada.

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