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Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face? Where It Shines and Doesn’t

“I am so confident that online education is an equity issue. And what I mean by that is there is a group of people that can’t be there… So if we can provide high-quality online education to those people, we’ve done something wonderful. We’re really leveling the playing field when it comes to accessibility.”

Dr. Grant Linsell, Dean of Arts and Cultural Programs and the Dean of Distance Education at Rio Hondo College

When the pandemic began in the United States in March of 2020, one of the biggest and most immediate changes was the shift from in-person learning to distance education. According to the US Census, 93 percent of households with school-aged children experience some form of distance learning because of Covid-19. College campus across the county sent their students home for Spring Break, then swiftly made plans to move classes online.

At the time. Dr. Grant Linsell was working as the Dean of Arts and Cultural Programs at Rio Hondo College in Los Angeles County. “In the space of three days, we went from having about 350 courses with an online footprint to 1,487 courses,” he remembers.

Mikaela Doherty was a graduate student at Southern Oregon University when the pandemic altered her plans for her degree: “My program was a master’s in outdoor adventure and expedition leadership. We had coordinated and developed this whole term called spring immersion in which we would have taken the undergraduate students out on five- to ten-day excursions. We had spent three months planning each trip, including budgets, travel gear, everything that we needed. And then three weeks before spring term, we got the news that it wasn’t going to happen,” she shares.

Distance learning is not new, with correspondence courses being around since the 1800s. However, they became more prevalent and went online with the technical revolution in the 1990s. Covid-19 simply accelerated a process already in motion.

“I think what the pandemic has done for us is it forced instructors and administrators to offer everything online. Even things that we were recalcitrant against having online in the past. And, to a lot of people’s surprise, some things that they knew for sure wouldn’t work well online actually kind of do,” says Dr. Linsell.

So is online learning as good as face-to-face? Continue reading to learn from an expert in the field and a graduate student who has experienced it first hand.

Meet the Experts

Mikaela Dohertye

Mikaela Doherty

Mikaela Doherty holds a master’s of interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in non-profit management and outdoor leadership from Southern Oregon University. Her thesis was on barriers and opportunities in recreation and how the current outdoor recreation culture must shift to be equitable, accessible, and inclusive for everyone.

Doherty’s bachelor’s in psychology is also from Southern Oregon. She is a passionate outdoorswoman and has a certificate in wilderness first response from the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Grant Linsell

Grant Linsell, PhD

Dr. Grant Linsell is the dean of arts and cultural programs and the dean of distance education at Rio Hondo College in Los Angeles County. He holds a doctorate in wind ensemble conducting from Arizona State University and music degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Michigan.

Dr. Linsell is a sought-after presenter, conductor, and clarinetist, with his main research foci being online teaching and learning, music education, and the music of Igor Stravinsky.

The Benefits of Online Learning

It is undeniable there are some real benefits to online learning.

“I am so confident that online education is an equity issue,” says Dr. Linsell. “And what I mean by that is there is a group of people that can’t be there. And they can’t be there for a lot of reasons. Maybe they can’t be there because they’re caretakers. Maybe they can’t be there because they have a disability that impacts their mobility. Maybe they can’t be there because they have a disability that doesn’t allow them to interface with a roomful of people in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Maybe they need assistive technologies to learn that aren’t compatible with a normal classroom experience. Maybe they just need more time. So if we can provide high-quality online education to those people, we’ve done something wonderful. We’re really leveling the playing field when it comes to accessibility.

For Ms. Doherty, who ended up switching out of her master’s in outdoor adventure and expedition leadership for one in interdisciplinary studies that could be completed more easily online, she also saw some benefits to online learning: “The main benefit was that I could pick and choose my schedule. There were set deadlines, but other than that, it was pretty fluid. I determined when I went to school. I was working like five jobs at the time and trying to make ends meet that way. I could just log on and do my work anytime. It was nice to not have to be present for a scheduled class time,” she shares.

Dr. Linsell agrees that scheduling flexibility is a major advantage of distance-based education: “Online learning also solves time issues, and it makes it so that class is much more flexible for a lot of these students. Folks are finding that there is a large group of students who are doing better in an online modality than they are in person. And it’s not a majority, but it’s way more than anybody thought,” he says.

Another benefit to online learning is that it can help with classroom overcrowding: “More online learning could solve space problems. We’re operating on a campus right now that was originally constructed for about 5,000 students, and we now have 18,000 students,” says Dr. Linsell.

What Subjects Are Best for Online Learning?

“If we can find disciplines where we’re after knowledge acquisition and practice of skills that are observable online, then we do really well,” says Dr. Linsell. “So, an example is writing. We can teach writing extraordinarily well online because the experience of a student writing, revising, getting feedback, revising, etc., is very similar in person to what it is in an online experience.”

Dr. Linsell continues, “We have a lot of courses that we colloquially refer to as ‘flipped pedagogy,’ where you do your schoolwork at home and then your homework at school in a lab. We just pushed through a whole bunch of auto tech classes, where students will do the lecture materials on their own time online, And then when they come into the lab, they’re just in the lab working on cars and working with the instructors.”

Online learning also works particularly well for non-traditional students who have specific time constraints: “One of the things that we noticed is that students that are enrolled in online asynchronous courses, in other words, they can just log on and do the work when they need to, are skewing older, and they’re skewing later in their career. So those people are taking advantage of these classes because they work a full-time job, or maybe they don’t have a schedule that allows them to go to class when it’s scheduled,” says Dr. Linsell.

The Challenges of Online Learning

As with any learning methodology, online learning has its struggles and limitations.

The lack of structure from asynchronous courses was a struggle for Ms. Doherty: “I’m much more of a social learner. And I personally don’t have great time management. I would leave things to the last minute and didn’t have a teacher or somebody that I felt accountable to other than just myself. There was no real connection with any of the other students. I was literally reading a book and writing questions and submitting them and not even getting that much feedback from instructors,” she says.

Dr. Linsell has also found this to be true in the numerous online classes he has taught and supervised: “There are these systems that we as humans have developed evolutionarily, to work as a society, and they don’t work at a distance,” he says.

Because of this, teaching online can be extremely exhausting for both students and teachers. “When we’re in the room together and my limbic system is talking to yours, there are things that can work. When we don’t have that insight, it can be really hard. If we can find a way in emotionally and if we can meet students where they are online, then we can do well,” says Dr. Linsell.

He then adds, “You can earn emotional and interpersonal capital in a room full of people. But you can only spend it online. The instructors that I oversee that are the most successful are the ones who have found a way to humanize the experience and make people feel like they’re part of ‘a thing.’ Regardless of what the subject is, if your students feel like they’re part of something, then they do it really well and success rates start to approach those of in-person learning.”

However, there are some types of teaching that will likely never do well online. While Ms. Doherty and her cohort managed to teach their spring immersion course, it never approximated the experience of taking multiple five- to ten-day trips in the wilderness: “Within two weeks, we had to plan a whole curriculum of online learning for skills that are taught hands-on in the field. How do you teach someone how to paddle properly? How do you teach this from a screen?” she says.

Dr. Linsell, a music educator first and foremost, has found that music teaching can be extremely difficult online: “If things need to happen in time like if there is a temporal component to the instruction, it doesn’t work very well. My discipline doesn’t work well in an online modality because one of the most important things that we deal with is this concept of rhythmic entrainment. We don’t have systems with a small enough latency that I could play a clarinet duet with someone and have it sound good,” he says.

The Verdict: Do Students Learn Better Online or in a Classroom?

The truth is that it depends.

Ms. Doherty, for example, understands the benefits of online learning, but it just wasn’t for her. “I definitely don’t want to say no to online learning because I feel it is necessary and advantageous to people who are working mothers or fathers and need the time to bust out assignments after they get off work at night. Or if someone wants to go to a school that is halfway across the country but can’t feasibly move there. But it’s no more online learning for me,” she shares.

Dr. Linsell, as an administrator, knows that online education has come a long way in approximating the quality of face-to-face learning. “When online education first started as a thing, the success rates were 12 to 14 points lower than in-person instruction. More students were failing than in-person classes. But as we’ve kind of journeyed through learning how to teach online, those success rates are converging. We can look at some of the biggest data sets that we have, which in my case is the California Community Colleges system. We have 2.4 million students on 115 campuses and we can see that over the years, those two numbers have been coming together. Currently, on our campus, online instruction and face-to-face instruction are only one or two percentage points different as far as success goes,” he shares.

“If students have access to a computer, high-quality high-speed internet, and, most importantly, to a place where they can learn, then the success rates between in-person and online are approaching each other,” says Dr. Linsell. “When I say success, I’m speaking of a metric that we use in administration that literally just means passing.”

In closing, Dr. Linsell notes that supporting teachers and professors through the transition to online instruction is essential to the success of distance-based learning: “Teachers have to be good at teaching online for it to work. They have to be deeply invested in learning the pedagogy. They have to spend time to become comfortable in that modality and learn the best practices. And if they aren’t part of an institution that values that time, if they’re not part of an institution that provides adequate professional development resources, it’s just another thing that we asked teachers to do for free,” he says.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.