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Online learning works best when it is blended with face-to-face learning

Eileen Arney weighs up the benefits and pitfalls of online and face-to-face learning

The advantages of learning online don’t really need rehearsing. When materials are provided online (this is sometimes known as e-learning) students can access them at the times that suit them best, as long as they have internet access, and the flexibility this offers is even greater when materials are provided on a variety of platforms such smartphones and tablets as well as computers. Digital technology also makes it possible to enrich learning materials with embedded videos – these can be lectures for example or they can be visual case studies- and interactive exercises. There can be discussion forums which allow students to share views and perspectives about their learning.

For many people this is an obvious and attractive way to study and the success of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, which are freely available on the internet) is testament to the popularity of online learning. This is not to say though that online learning always works well and in many cases it does not. Most of us will have had the painful experience of working through an online learning course which is simply a book or a manual transferred onto an online environment. However, online learning can be designed to be attractive to busy time-poor learners so that they are quickly engaged with the content and motivated to keep working through it. To achieve this learning has to be carefully planned so that the progression of ideas and materials makes sense and is easy to follow – this is exactly what a teacher or lecturer would do in planning face-to-face learning. The learner also needs some variety in the pace of learning and in the types of activity being undertaken – again, just as in a face-to-face learning environment. Activities can include opportunities to discuss learning with other students and they can also include very simple exercises like interactive quizzes. Students may be given the opportunity to ‘like’ materials or ‘follow’ areas of personal interest, although these may not appeal to everyone though and probably need to be used carefully.

However well designed online learning is, many students do still enjoy personal contact with other students and their tutors and for this reason there is still considerable appeal in face-to-face study and meetings. To some extent the benefits of this direct contact can be replicated in synchronous online meetings and discussion groups (i.e. where participants are coming together at the same time online, albeit in different locations).  Remote conferencing facilities and webinars, for example, are very widely used for this purpose, but they do have drawbacks, including the fact that they often don’t include visual images of participants and this can make it hard to create a sense of community and belonging. This means there is still a place for face-to-face learning, if only at the start of course of study and to provide an opportunity to create a sense of community and the most effective way to design a learning experience may be to offer a blend of both.