Elearning, Distance Education, Not Equivalent to Full Time Study

Elearning and Distance Education DIFFERENT from Face To Face Full Time Studies

Even though almost everybody can understand that:

  • a conversation on the phone is not the same as a conversation face to face
  • watching a sport on television is not the same as being there in person
  • watching people have sex is not the same as actually having it

many people believe that e-learning is the same as learning in a live group, and distance education or online learning is the same as full time study.

It’s pretty weird. When I suggest that online learning is DIFFERENT from classroom learning, I’m always challenged even if I make absolutely NO allusion to whether one is better or worse.

It is always the attendees and graduates of the online or distance programs that get defensive and deny what even basic common sense says. They are different.

But Are They Different Enough To Matter?

No doubt those with degrees from online programs would say no, but they don’t even grasp different does not mean better/worse.

But they are different enough to affect learning. That’s not to say that one person will better learn facts from one program or another. It is however, reasonable to assume that if the process and experience of learning is different, then the learning has qualitative differences.

As Marshall McLuhan suggested, the medium affects the message.

Using an analogy, if the only contact you’ve had with hockey is by watching on TV, your understanding of the game WILL be different than someone who has seen many games live in person and on television. What you learn about hockey is different. Television does not provide the same learning experience, even if the same game is watched.

Let me give you one example that exemplifies how the process of learning affects the learning, by using language learning.

An immersive environment is one where the learner is “immersed” in the language/learning environment. If it’s French immersion, that’s what is spoken all the time. It’s a powerful way of learning a language quickly and to help people become close to natural speakers in the second language. If you compare someone who learned a language in an immersive environment with someone who took courses once or twice a week, even if you equalize for total time spent, the results are completely different. One speaks like a natural speaker, and the other doesn’t.

The WAY one learns affects the learning and sometimes in ways that are hard to measure.

The same is true of education. Different media do not result in the same results. For example, in a full time study program it’s possible to be literally immersed in a field of study, and in fact, that is often what happens at good graduate schools. You go to classes, you set up study groups, you discuss the field over beer, you socialize with the professors, and on and on, provided it’s a small high quality program.

You will never get this type of immersion in distance, part time, or online study. As a result your learning is different.In fact, it will probably be inferior but you may not notice, because it’s likely you are taking online courses as a means to advance your career. You aren’t as interested in learning for learning’s sake.

The additional good news is that at the undergraduate level, it probably doesn’t make a substantial difference whether you take things online, via elearning, or in classes, simply because the quality of undergraduate education generally tends to be somewhat low in many fields — in fact in the fields where it’s likely you can take online version. The demands of the profession you strive for are probably lower than, let’s say a surgeon, lawyer, engineer (where online courses may be hard to find).

Where the difference lies is in higher education — graduate level work, where face to face programs can involve personal mentoring, strong interpersonal relationships between student and professors, and less of an emphasis on getting a job. There the experiences are hugely different.

Again, if your desire is to complete a program for career advancement, you’ll probably want the easiest path and that won’t be in a demanding, 24hr. a day immersion type graduate program.


I can understand that people will disagree with what is “better”, and I suppose we’ll never resolve that question without proper data, but the one thing that I do not believe a rational person can deny is that:

Different process of experience and learning will yield different learning results.

If you don’t believe me, GO to a hockey game live — even a minor league game if you’ve never been, and tell me that you understood how fast and violent the game was just by watching on TV. Maybe I’ll buy you a beer.

PS. Now the next question is whether employers trust alternative degrees as much as they do traditional ones. Stay tuned. Or comment. Always comment.

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