To face the class, or to face the screen?

Sarah Webb considers the pros and cons of online and face-to-face learning.

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For many university students enrolled in online classes, spending the morning on a discussion forum chatting about last night’s assigned reading with classmates they’ve never met while in the comfort of their pyjamas has become the norm.

There is no significant difference in the quality of education students receive in well-designed online courses versus face-to-face. However, being aware of the differences in learning methods, class structure and study required can help you decide which academic environment best fits your learning style.

So, to make the choice easier for students, I’ve taken it upon myself to identify the pros and cons of both online and face-to-face learning…

Traditionally, students undergoing tertiary studies see their tutors a few times a week and are given explicit direction about course readers and assignments during that time. In the online classroom, students are expected to be self-directed learners, soaking up information like a sponge, within required timeframes.

Many of those who work or have families have found the online environment to be beneficial due to the flexibility this method provides. With no commute to university and no set meeting times, they’re free to continue other responsibilities while getting a word-class education.

Undergraduate UoN student Nick Smit says, “Online [learning] is cool because it enables you to take classes not otherwise available face-to-face”.

In a face-to-face environment, students are expected to arrive having done the assigned reading and ready to discuss it during the specific class period. (I, for one, am guilty of NOT doing this.) In online classes, discussion takes place in forums or on message boards, where students are required to respond to reading assignments and to interact with one another. The discussion can also occur over a number of days, as different people join the conversation in their own time.

A major advantage of online classes is that the playing field is leveled, so everyone gets a chance to participate without the intimidation often induced in face-to-face classes. Online discussion forums also leave a record of responses that can be viewed by the tutor for marking, unlike the impermanence of class discussion.

However, some UoN students say they feel the drawback of online learning is not being able to work as closely with tutors on an individual basis. While some thrive in an independent learning environment, others feel “there is no personal interaction,” UoN student Jessica Rouse said.

Undergraduate student Siobhan Kelly said she finds it hard to get motivated when it’s just her and a computer screen. While a sense of community can still be forged through online discussion, the class dynamic will be different due to the lack of interpersonal contact and the common physical context of a lecture theatre or tutorial room.

“It will be so much easier to meet people and work together in person,” Nick Smit said.

However, there is another option for those students still unsure. A recent study by the University of Technology Sydney suggests that blended classes (both online and face-to-face) offer the best of both worlds – providing an interpersonal experience that’s both flexible and accessible.

Ideally, blended classes allow students to gain communication skills across multiple platforms, but while it combines the best qualities of online and face-to-face learning, it also has the disadvantages of the two. For example, handling the dual environment may pose additional challenges and technological issues for students, and troubleshooting can remain a hurdle.

Despite recent growth within Australian universities, the infrastructure to support online, hybrid and face-to-face classes at all UoN campuses still remains nascent. Classes in all formats have distinct pros and cons, however the real mission for students is not just weighing your options, but making sure your choice is beneficial to your needs and lifestyle. If it were myself choosing, I’d go for the dual environment. What it really comes down to is asking yourself ‘would you rather face the class, or face the screen?’

Image: Tulane Public Relations

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