Pros and cons of online courses

Reda SadkiWriting

“Please, I need someone to enlighten me on the pros and cons of online courses for active learning and professional development.”

There is quite a bit of contextual information missing to decode what is really being asked. We only know that it is an individual professional from an anglophone country in Africa. Still, I can think of at least three ways to answer this question.

Answer #1. Wrong question.

This is the wrong question. Pros and cons depend on the quality of the pedagogy, the teaching and facilitation team, the resources, technologies used, context, learning and learner objectives… everything except the medium.

Review a course against criteria like the above, not as an abstract consideration. Define your own goals. What are you hoping to achieve?

What is the relationship between perceived quality and cost?

The residential experience is still perceived as the gold standard for education. And it tends to be the most expensive.

To what extent are your choices driven by an economic imperative?

Are you considering an online course because you cannot afford a residential experience or it is otherwise not feasible (lack of time, inability to travel)? Are you assuming that lower cost signifies lower quality? What kind of credential will have value that you are willing to pay for? Will potential employers recognize this credential?

Answer #2. The research says digital is better.

Years ago, Bill Cope pointed me to the two most comprehensive meta-analyses (here and here) comparing online, blended, and face-to-face learning outcomes. One way to summarize these studies? Since 1992, people who learn online get slightly better learning outcomes than those who learn face-to-face, after leveling for all other differences. Furthermore, there appeared to be no benefit from blended learning, except for the fact that people tend to spend more time learning because they do more work, tending to repeat practice online with practice face-to-face.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that.

People fear losing per diem (receiving cash for attendance), the ability to create new relationships and see people they know and work with remotely, travel and other perks, time away from work… that is usually where resistance to digital learning comes from. There is also a lot of really bad, ineffective digital learning that is very damaging, replicating the worst of face-to-face methods and practice.

Learning outcomes are often just one goal being sought through training. (Conventional instructional design sees this as a problem. In fact, it is an amazing opportunity for those of us who are interested in education as a philosophy for change.)

Access to opportunities, professional network development, credentials of value, and many other goals may actually be more valued by learners than the knowledge acquired. Knowledge acquisition is likely to be the least valuable part of learning beyond the basics.

Adapted from: Staton, M.P., 2013. Unbundling Higher Education, A Doubly Updated Framework.

Answer #3. It’s all digital, now.

The key consideration is the rate of change of the digital transformation that is sweeping across our societies. This has enabled new ways to work and learn remotely. For example, coaches and mentors will hold Skype calls without even realizing that they have gone “digital” and are now practicing digital learning. They may in fact still be adamant about their skepticism that it is possible “learn online” and remain attached to sharing physical space to practice their craft, oblivious to their own dependence on technology and the way it benefits them.

The change is profound. Technology is embedded not only in our every day work but in the fabric of our lives and cultures.  

Almost a decade ago, Nathan Jurgenson coined the term digital dualism, “the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct.”

“But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.

Of course, digital learning is imperfect. It remains horribly clunky, ironically difficult to use, and mired with the legacy of transmissive lectures, an obsession with summative assessment, and a foggy nebula of evidence. Yet that it beside the point. Why? It is very early days and what matters is the accelerating pace of change: everything in digital learning is changing all the time, with new tools, platforms, processes constantly improving.

With face-to-face training, the rate of change is, to put it politely, slow. Face-to-face is a wonderful medium. Sharing physical space is our most familiar gateway to intimacy. It is an “always-on” experience, rendering isolation from other humans painful in some instances and a relief in others. However, the use of physical space for learning has finite limits, as some of the basic constraints of physical space are immutable. For example, simultaneous dialogue in which everyone has a voice is difficult to achieve in a physical space. (It’s called ‘everyone’s yelling at each other’ in a room and the chat box in a digital space.) It works best in formats that are low volume due to high cost, and the most effective formats are difficult if not impossible to scale.

The possibilities with digital seem endless by comparison — despite the current clunkiness, limitations, and frustrations that face-to-face trainers may feel because they lose the familiarity of experience that they are used to, digital means are enabling new ways of doing new things. And that is what we need because it is obvious that the conventional means we have been using are failing to deliver the outcomes we need.

What does this answer mean to the potential purchaser of education? If digital is the new default, quality and value in education are in flux, more than they have been for centuries. There are new factors to consider in the complex equation of when and how to invest in one’s professional development. The medium is just one consideration, but may not be a matter of choice.

Image: International fruit combo. Personal collection.