Education head to head - online learning versus traditional
Fiona Harvey, Head of Digital Education at University College of Estate Management (UCEM), discusses how digital compares to face-to-face learning
Posted by Alex Diggins | July 13, 2018 | Higher education
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Technology for education is ever-evolving. In particular, online education has seen tremendous growth in the last decade and student enrolment onto such classes continues to grow. More universities are engaged in the development of online courses than ever before, with around 120 universities offering some kind of online programme.

These online enrolments are partly being driven by the growing number of students who are seeking flexible formats for programmes to support career placement, advancement, and transition - as well as to pursue advanced studies. Supported online learning provides students with the flexibility to balance their study commitments around their work, location, family, lifestyle and special needs.

But how does it compare to traditional teaching, what other advantages are there?

The benefits of online learning

There are many various benefits to supported online education, beyond the overall flexibility such as:

  •  Institutions offering online or distance learning models allow students to study where, when and how they want to, without interrupting their careers or ongoing commitments. But it also means they can study from anywhere in the world, while travelling or working aboard. At UCEM, we have students studying with us from over 100 countries and 29.3% our new starters over the last 4 years are international.
  •  This flexibility to study from anywhere provides potential students with a far wider choice of institutions, and therefore, courses and programmes.
  •  Students can also earn whilst they learn – thereby reducing student loan debt – and partnering their study against work experience. It’s a highly cost-effective option compared with traditional universities.
  •  Vocational learning, which is often online/distance, can provide cutting-edge industry knowledge, exposure to leading companies and networking opportunities with practising professionals.

There’s far more accessibility for students with disabilities. For example, there’s no need to leave any required support function in order to attend a campus. And assistive technologies, such as online/virtual/digital learning environments support all students and allow them to go at their own pace.

  •   Being an online student provides opportunities to develop digital skills – a skillset which is become increasingly important in today’s workplace.
  •  There is a wealth of alternative learning methods available online – that aren’t always available in traditional environments. For instance, students can have regular discussions with peers and academics alike outside of the 9-5, keep a real-time track of their own timetable, and don’t have to travel long distances to make their lecture or use the library.

The potential challenges of online learning 

Whilst there are many benefits, as discussed above, to supported online education, negative comparisons are often made to learning in a traditional university environment. 

  •  Online learning requires students to be more self-motivated and organised in their study. Although, while some students may struggle with this angle, these are highly regarded skills when it comes to employability. More and more, employers are recognising the advantages of hiring students who have studied online, as they can often be more skilled, disciplined and committed than their peers who have completed classroom-based courses.

Certain learners and subjects may still need an element of personal interactions, demonstrations and face-to-face workshops. Whilst our students at UCEM don’t get face-to-face interactions we provide a lot of support through our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). This includes direct tutor contact, access to online material supporting the programme being studied, discussion forums with tutors and peers, an e-library giving access to a wealth of subject-specific and credible information to support students throughout their studies, and direct contact with other students.

With the mountain of debt facing today’s students and with the increasing emphasis on employability outcomes, it’s time to highlight the alternatives

Tutors also hold webinars for students, which replicate lectures you would traditionally attend in a classroom. Students can type into a chat box to ask questions which the tutor will answer during the webinar. Webinars are organised into timeslots, which will benefit the majority of students on a particular module/programme and are always recorded so you can catch up in your own time at your leisure.

The future of education, evolving 

While there are advantages to both online and more traditional learning methods, it’s clear online education is here to stay and it’s ever evolving. I predict that more and more we’ll see a blended learning approach as more institutions embrace the digital learning environment and adapt to the changing market. 

And with the mountain of debt facing today’s students and with the increasing emphasis on employability outcomes, it’s time to highlight the alternatives; ones that can offer the chance to leave education ahead of peers who went down the traditional university route, both financially and experience-wise. 

This is especially true when considering the increasing use of emerging technologies. Augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are now being used in innovative ways in education to give students authentic experiences they would never have in a classroom environment alone - and changing assessment approaches to demonstrate students’ real-life skills rather than writing for three hours in an exam.

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