With ever-changing landscapes and new global challenges, educators and learners around the world have had to adapt. In this new era, connecting with friends and family had to happen over WhatsApp, FaceTime, or Zoom, and so education has followed suit.
There’s no denying that digital learning is a valuable asset – and online education certainly has its merits. But, when the world returns to normal, will it still come out on top? Or can nothing really beat meeting face-to-face and learning in a classroom? Let’s explore the research.
Online learning makes education accessible
The emergence of online learning has ‘disrupted’ the education system. Schooling has traditionally happened in person, which has had limitations for individuals unable to attend. So, the most obvious benefit of offering learning opportunities online is that you open education up to many more people.
Digital education facilities have enabled many learners to gain qualifications and even retrain for new careers at any stage in their life, by offering online learning courses that can be taken over a long period of time. This opens up formal education for those who can’t leave full-time employment or other commitments to attend university, allowing them to study and achieve at home and at convenient times.
Scientists looking at the effectiveness of distance learning found that in some studies, distance education students performed slightly better in exams and grades than traditional classroom students, but that overall the average performance outcomes weren’t that different. This research also recognized an important opportunity for foreign language students. Interacting with native speakers is a proven method for achieving language competency, and online platforms can connect students easily with native-speakers in another country.
In classrooms (virtual or physical), technology offers teachers novel ways to explain things. Technology has also amplified the role of gamification, also known as play-based learning, in online education. Gamification is often seen in the use of language-learning apps, which enable the user to learn the lexicon of their chosen studied language through a series of virtual contests which have instant rewards. The obvious benefit of these apps is the potential for individuals to learn at their own comfort and pace.
But digital it has its limitations too
Delivering online learning requires different approaches and skills to delivering lessons in a physical classroom. Particularly this year, traditional classroom teachers have had to adapt and learn themselves, in order to teach students online. This could well have slowed down the progress of education, particularly as students also had to adjust to learning online.
For online or remote learning to work effectively, the content of the course being delivered has an impact on the student’s progress, and the content has to be of a very high standard, tailored to the online learning environment. Much like a successful physical class will have taken a great deal of preparation and an understanding of in-person teaching theory and best practice, the same is required of digital education.
Interactivity is key in a learning environment. A key barrier to learning, identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a teachers’ ability to connect with students and identify their needs. This can be harder to achieve without time spent in the physical classroom, particularly if online learning is delivered to a large class rather than in small tutored groups or one-on-one environments.
Plus, where students don’t have access to technology or are learning at the mercy of a poor internet connection, issues connecting to live video conferencing can leave them at a disadvantage. Digital skills are also not distributed evenly among students, and not all learners will have the required knowledge or understanding to get the most out of virtual education. If teachers don’t have the skills or time to support this skill development, students may get left behind.
In-person classes also have some drawbacks
Where students live and their socio-economic background can be a barrier to accessing education. With in-person class sizes capped to the capacity of the school and many schools only taking students who live locally, exclusively offering teaching in person will exclude some groups of individuals from learning. This is particularly true where education is not made freely available.
Though it has been the traditional way of learning for decades, some students’ learning style does not suit that of a full classroom. Many find speaking out in front of their peers intimidating and this limits their interaction and opportunity for valuable feedback. These students may find it easier to participate in class discussions when activities are hosted digitally.
But face-to-face learning wins out in the end
In the classroom, a teacher’s value extends beyond the class being delivered. To get the best out of their students, a teacher’s role is also to motivate, encourage and supervise – the latter being particularly difficult to do through video conferencing software. Technology can even be brought into the classroom as an effective supplement to in-person classes. For example, including animations, video content and game-based learning allows students to experience several of the benefits of online learning tools, and is more effective than online learning used exclusively.
Interactivity, personalization and effective communication are key ingredients for successful learning. You can’t beat the classroom as an environment for providing valuable feedback. Research has identified two-way dialogue as one of the most effective ways of communicating, and it is particularly important in education. This is learning with plenty of back-and-forths; education built on questions and answers – easiest achieved when in the same room. In a classroom, it has the potential even to go beyond teacher-pupil dialogue, with student-to-student and group learning interactions.
But particularly when learning a language, students often achieve the best results when learning in person – not just in a classroom, but also when living in the country whose language they’re embracing. Learning during a study abroad program or working in another country accelerates the rate of language learning and improves a learner’s language proficiency.
Culture is an important and enjoyable part of language learning; language and culture are tightly entwined and understanding the culture helps you to understand the roots of the language as well as its use on a deeper level. It changes the motivation of language learning to connection instead of learning for a purely functional purpose such as for career success. It’s even been shown to deepen a student’s sense of ‘self’. And the best way to connect with the culture of the language and those who speak it, is to learn whilst embedded in amongst native speakers.