Adding Depth to our Comparison of Face-to-Face & Online Learning

Since I’ve been involved with online learning for twenty years, I confess that I sometimes find it frustrating to engage in the persistent conversation about whether online learning is as good as face-to-face learning. Yet, it is still an important question. New people are joining the conversation who are largely unaware of the possibilities and the thousands of conversations that came before them. This conversation remains an important discussion regardless of the no-significant-difference studies because education is about more than looking at student scores in a class. There are countless psychological and social elements to learning that warrant our consideration. It is just that we’ve been having this conversation for over two decades and it is time to deepen it, to add more complexity and nuances. The answer to the question remains the same. Yes and No. Changing modes of educational delivery and interaction for learning results in gains and losses. There are affordances in various online contexts just as there are limitations. The same is true for different face-to-face contexts.

When we explore questions like this, it is critical that we consider an obvious fact. Not all face-to-face courses are alike. Not all online courses are alike. This means that a simple comparison of broad categories like face-to-face and online does not lead to a substantive answer to the question. Consider the following five factors that impact  both online and face-to-face courses.

1) Size of the Class

Look at the following image. Do these two face-to-face classes have the same affordances and limitations? They have some things in common, like the fact that the sessions are likely synchronous in nature, but there are many distinctions. Yet, people who compare face-to-face and online courses often make the argument that all face-to-face courses are somehow much more intimate and personal, or that nonverbal communication is possible with face-to-face and not online.

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2) Tools, Strategies, and Methods

Are we looking at a face-to-face seminar with lots of discussion and interaction in a small class? Are we looking at a larger lecture course? Are we looking at a course that makes use of well-planned small group projects and peer-to-peer interaction? Does the course include time for each student to conference one-on-one with the professor? There are so many ways to design learning experiences, and every one that I listed can be done in online and face-to-face courses. Online, I’ve had rich and vibrant synchronous conversations with groups using everything from Blackboard Collaboarate to Google Hangouts and Adobe Connect. They are qualitatively different from a small group seminar discussion face-to-face, but most of the comparisons between online and face-to-face are not exploring the comparison at this level of depth.

Once we start looking at the affordances of different methods and strategies between online and face-to-face, then we start to cultivate a more nuanced understanding. Look at something as simple as the asynchronous discussion boards used in many online courses. We can look at the benefits and limitations of asynchronous interaction as a way of nurturing critical thinking. We can look at the time students devote to a discussion online compared to many face-to-face facilitated strategies. We can examine the ability to have a persistent archive of entire discussions for continued review. We can look at the ability to continue a discussion over days, weeks, even months.

My point is not that one is better or worse against some universal standard. It is about understanding the complexity of designing learning experiences of all kinds.

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3) The Skill and Commitment of the Teacher

Teachers and professors are often the ones making the arguments about the benefits or limitations of online compared to face-to-face. As such, it continues to confuse me that few of these arguments give much consideration to the skill, commitment, and impact of a specific teacher. Look at the image below. Doesn’t it make a difference if we are talking about the teacher on the left or the right? The behaviors, habits, skill, creativity, care, and competence of the teacher plays an important role in the effectiveness of a learning environment, whether it is face-to-face or online.

By the way, it is usually true that we can better track and monitor teacher behaviors in an online course. That leads to a different conversation about teacher autonomy and accountability, but it is interesting to note that being able to observe, measure, and document teacher actions helps us predict and understand the rigor and quality of online and face-to-face learning experiences.

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4) Student Learning

If you browse the web for articles comparing face-to-face and online learning, you may be surprised to find a minority that take into account performance of students as part of the comparison. Are students learning as much across delivery systems? Of course, a simple answer doesn’t end the conversation because of the three factors mentioned above. More factors impact student learning than whether the course happens to be online or face-to-face. Yet, this is the time when people in the conversation are wise to look at the past and present research comparing student learning outcomes across modalities.

5) Access and Opportunity

Early literature about distance learning (dating to pre-Internet days) were full of discussions about providing education to broader and more diverse audiences. There was a vision of increasing access and opportunity through new forms of education. Yet, many of the comparisons between face-to-face and online assume that both are equally viable options for everyone. Family and life circumstances, location, travel and flex schedule requirements of work, physical and health considerations, work commitments, and dozens of other factors come into play. One question that drives the exploration of online learning is how we can increase access and opportunity to learning that benefits people and helps them reach their goals. It doesn’t take much research to discover that online learning is indeed helping people accomplish things that would have otherwise been more difficult or impossible.

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Access and opportunity are not always strong factors. There are plenty of instances where a person has the time and flexibility to choose between an online or face-to-face course. Yet, access and opportunity is a large enough part of the vision behind distance learning that it warrants a place in the discourse about online versus face-to-face.


There are differences between online and face-to-face learning, thousands of them. There are also thousands of differences between face-to-face and and other face-to-face courses. It is still just as important to explore these similarities and differences as it was when online learning was something new in the 1990s. Yet, given the fact that this is a 20-year-old conversation, it is time to deepen the discourse. What if we enriched our conversations and explorations by looking at more of the factors that I mentioned above?

6 Replies to “Adding Depth to our Comparison of Face-to-Face & Online Learning”

  1. Jonathan Rich, Ph.D.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking argument. As you point out, it is no longer sufficient to ask “which is better” but we now need to look in more depth at the various factors that contribute to effective education.

    I’d like to mention one additional advantage of distance learning – the quality of the faculty. Distance learning now makes it economically feasible for active, accomplished professionals to pass their knowledge on to students. Students can now access faculty who are actively engaged in their professions and who are geographically and culturally diverse. Full-time classroom professors often have little experience outside of their cloistered academic environment and outside of the geographic area where their school is located.

  2. Kip Pygman

    Bernard, you nailed it right on and shed light on how the conversation should shift. Thanks for sharing your reflective, insightful, and relevant perspectives.

  3. DL Director

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I too have been working in the field of distance learning for over 2o years (actually over 30 years) and you expressed my frustrations exactly and precisely identified the most important points! Since I have been working in distance education well before the advent of the internet, I particularly appreciate 5) Access and Opportunity. I think many newcomers to online learning forget that the original driving force of creating distance learning opportunities was indeed for access and opportunity, and for many students, it is not a question of what is “better” but what is “available”.

  4. LaToniya

    One of the most succinct comparisons that I have read to date. Thanks for adding topics for consideration—to make a more objective comparison.

  5. Paul Rader, Ph, D,

    A good look at the lack of substance in the “no significant difference” record. One area of interest is a lack of autonomy in some on-line teaching systems. It has been shown that a lack of autonomy has a negative interaction effect with instructor conscientiousness. We have many areas of psychology that can be used to obtain a stronger grasp on why many students do report better experiences with face-to-face classes over on-line.

  6. Birdie

    Thanks for this. Today, college classes held in large auditoriums with a stage-bound instructor are really a waste of time. Students talk to each other during class, surf the net, eat lunch, and rarely ask questions. I’d rather attend virtually, especially if the seats are sloped and there’s a chance of getting mayonnaise on the back of my head! Unless there is some form of digital back-chat, these classes don’t work well.

    The F2F/online comparison also depends on WHAT is being taught. If it’s content and not a practiced skill, the class would be better facilitated online, especially if the instructor has an old-school lecture mind-set.

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