Although we’re hearing a lot about online learning because of arguments about how to reopen schools, colleges and universities, it’s been an educational tool for decades.

Online learning allows flexibility; learning when it suits you rather than attending classes scheduled at particular times, and learning at your own pace. When information is presented online, it becomes accessible to those who might have found it difficult to attend classes in person. Online presentation also offers the chance for students to access material repeatedly if they didn’t understand anything first time around.

On the other hand, face-to-face learning also offers a number of advantages. Collaboration – sharing discoveries and debating questions – is easier, and students are more likely to establish interpersonal relationships and hone their social skills. Teachers can tell more quickly whether students are engaged with the material and whether they understand it.

Both approaches, when presented well, appear to be equally effective. Karen McCutcheon and colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast found this even applies to some practical teaching. In a review of 19 studies, they found online teaching of clinical skills to nursing students was no less effective than traditional face-to-face approaches.

One of the most important factors in learning is motivation: whether students want to engage with the material. Manuela Paechter and Brigitte Maier at the University of Graz found that when students wanted to learn how to pace themselves and maintain self-motivation, they preferred an online approach. When it was important to apply knowledge in practical situations and/or when shared understanding of material was required, they preferred face-to-face presentation.

Perhaps the most helpful findings were collected by Sidney Castel at the National University in San Diego and Chad McGuire at the University of Massachusetts. They asked more than 4,000 students, both graduates and undergraduates, what they want most from their course of study. Their top priorities, whatever the mode of delivery, include relevant and engaging course material, teachers who are able to connect with and motivate students, and a mixture of approaches when delivering course content; especially methods that encourage student-instructor and student-student interaction.

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