Key differences between classroom and online learning

Online learning is famously flexible. When we think of learning online, it’s usually the asynchronous activities such as presentations and quizzes that spring to mind first. There is another important element to online learning, though, and that’s the live, synchronous element.

Live learning increases engagement by adding a human element. It is especially beneficial for learners who are not so self-sufficient or who are used to the traditional ‘teacher and class’ model of education. Live online lessons are particularly important in any course as it gives the learners the chance to receive feedback on elements of their learning which are impossible to measure in a self-marking quiz.

In some ways, live online lessons are similar to traditional face-to-face classes — a teacher can present information and interact with a group of people in real time — in other ways, there are some important differences. Let’s take some time to explore them.

The first essential difference is in classroom management. In a physical classroom, the teacher is free to move the learners around, grouping them in different ways and laying out the class in a way that will make the activities run smoothly. Most online classes use conferencing software which can make breakout groups and different arrangements of learners possible in the classroom. However, in reality, the most effective way to conduct online lessons is often for the teacher or presenter to manage the group as a whole. Because of this, online classes work best when they are kept to a smaller number of people. For courses that have no teacher interaction, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), class size is virtually unlimited.

Another difference is in the use of back channels. Back channels are particularly popular in educational situations, such as lectures, where the audience are expected to sit and listen for a longer period of time. In the past lecturers often banned mobile phones from the lecture theater, but nowadays progressive lecturers might even set up a twitter hashtag as a back channel for the audience. Online classrooms usually have a text function built in which can act as a back channel for the audience to make sure they are engaged. For this reason, it’s common to have both a presenter and host in lecture-style online lessons.

In online classes, lack of visual feedback is a common challenge for teachers. When presenting directly to an audience in the same room, we are able to adapt our delivery depending on visual feedback from the audience. A room full of bored faces is a sure sign to a presenter or teacher that they need to introduce a more interesting activity or adapt their delivery to engage the audience more. In the online classroom, a more astute presenter will make full use of the tools available to get similar feedback. Regular questions to the audience which they can respond to with voting tools are a useful way to check that the attendees are engaged in a live online session.

The anonymity of not being physically present in a classroom can also be a benefit to learners attending online sessions. Learners who feel afraid to speak or raise their own issues in a physical classroom may often feel braver when they know they can’t be seen by other members of the class. Likewise, learners with a physical disability which limits their participation in traditional classroom activities are at no disadvantage in a virtual classroom where all participants are equal.

To sum up, while there are differences between physical and online learning, in the hands of a well-trained teacher, both delivery methods can be used to achieve the same goals. Which one you choose depends on the logistics of delivering your training as much as the subject matter being taught. However, in an more and more globalized workplace, live online lessons are becoming an increasingly obvious choice for any professional development program.

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