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Distance Learning vs. The Traditional Classroom


Many courses are now available as distance courses that are offered as online programs; while many people have enrolled into these programs either as first time students or as continuing scholars, questions still linger over whether an academic qualification acquired through distance learning carries the same weight as the one offered through traditional face-to-face lectures or lessons.

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This is particularly by employers who are faced with a choice between qualifications acquired through the two mechanisms during recruitment. Some studies have suggested that there are instances where distance learning results in a better retention of the knowledge than the same course taken through actual lessons (Schardt, Garrison, & Kochi, 2002).

While such studies have shown instances where distance learning has had better results than traditional classroom encounters, the biggest impediment that lies in the way of the expansion and complete acceptance of the former as a legitimate way of acquiring academic qualification is the perception. Many people have yet to accept that there can be a proper substitute to sitting in class and learning (Thomas et al. 2005).

Pros and Cons of Distance and Classroom Learning

No single education system is perfect; various aspects of each system favor some people and act as stumbling blocks to others. As such, while a certain aspect may be considered as a gain for one person, it will be viewed negatively by another in the same system. These aspects play a crucial role in determining how one chooses one system over the other as the preferred mode of learning.

Distance Learning

This involves a method of pedagogy whereby the student is not physically present. As such, the teacher and the student will have adopted a certain method of transferring academic material between them; these include printed material or electronic media either posted physically or through the internet. Additionally, the two parties might communicate via technology that allows real-time interaction such as video conferencing. Distance learning may be the exclusive mode of learning; however, it can also be formatted into a hybrid system whereby during some instance, the student is required to be physically present.

Advantages of distance learning

Since the student does not need to be present to receive the coursework material, the barrier of distance is broken between the tutor and the student. For example, with a basic internet connection, one can receive very large amounts of information sufficient enough to be properly qualified in the field of study.

In addition to this, distance learning has allowed the efficient transfer of information from the teacher to the student; and has allowed the incorporation of technology into traditional subjects. As such, the student has a bigger range of information source in form of the internet (for online distance studies).

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Distance learning has been shown to have higher levels of retention than an equivalent course taken through the traditional class sessions; this difference was attributed to several factors. One of these factors is the amount of time that the student has to reflect and internalize the construct of the course as opposed to being drilled about it in class. The other factor is the increased amount of time that a distance scholar spends actually seeking for the relevant course. Finally, since the students feels that they have played a significant part in the learning process, they are more likely to ‘own’ the knowledge thus retain it better (Schardt, Garrison, & Kochi, 2002).

Disadvantages of distance learning

As mentioned before, no single education system is perfect; and distance learning has its respective disadvantages. One of this is the limitations to the disciplines that can be taught by distance learning; some of the disciplines are either too complex or practical to allow no contact between the tutor and the student. As such, distance learning is usually limited to course that do not need such.

Distance learning also suffers the problem of skepticism; since it is a relatively novel method of acquiring academic qualifications, there still are some lingering doubts over the legitimacy of such qualifications. As such, a scholar is not guaranteed of universal acceptance. In addition to this, and also due to novelty, there are no universal guidelines on how to achieve desired teaching outcomes in distance learning; online learning is particularly affected by this issues.

Classroom Learning

Advantages of classroom learning

Classroom learning is interactive; as such, a student can raise a query as soon as it forms; and can get an immediate answer. While communication between student and teacher is possible in distance learning, it is usually impeded by time and space barriers. However, technological advances are progressively breaking these barriers.

The classroom also has the advantage of interaction; the players in a classroom, that is the teacher and the student, can easily enrich each other by exchanging ideas and challenging and arguing with each other. At the end of the day, the student develops mentally for this interaction.

Disadvantages of a classroom

In a classroom, it is easier for a student to be left out of the progress; the tutor, swayed by the sentiments of the majority, may, inadvertently, ignore the less vocal student. In distance learning, the tutor usually has personal communication with the scholar. Additionally, due to hierarchical sorting of the classroom population, the more vocal students will no doubt receive more attention for the tutors than the less vocal ones. As such, the tutor may fail to detect a student who is lagging behind in the coursework.

Classroom Versus Distance

Both of the systems have their pros and cons; while some of these are much easier to solve, others arise due to the innate structure of the system; and thus will never be solved.

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Comparisons have been made between distance and classroom learning in various set-ups; one study concluded that there’s no significant difference between the two systems (Buckley, 2003). However, a difference has been seen in systems that have attempted to incorporate aspects of both systems resulting in a hybrid system; students in this systems showed better performance than their counterparts in both purely classroom and distance (online) systems of learning (Buckley, 2003).


Distance learning has its challenges as its tries to carve a niche for itself in the education sector; some of these challenges are short-lived as innovations elsewhere have been incorporated into this system to make it more efficient; such include development of systems for video conferencing allowing direct communication between the tutor and the student.

The biggest challenge, however, that stands in the way of expansion of distance learning is the perception; the society still has to fully accept that learning does not necessarily have to take place within the confines of the classroom.

Work Cited

Buckley, K. M. “Evaluation of classroom-based, Web-enhanced, and Web-based distance learning nutrition courses for undergraduate nursing.” Journal of Nursing Education 42 (2003) 367-370.

Schardt, C. M., Garrison, J., & Kochi, J. K. “Distance education or classroom instruction for continuing education: who retains more knowledge?” Journal of the Medical Library Association 90 (2002) 455-457.

Thomas H. F., R.J. Simmons, G. Jin, A.A. Almeda, and A.A. Mannos. “Comparison of Student Outcomes for a Classroom-based vs. an Internet-based Construction Safety Course.” Journal of SH&E Research Vol. 2 (2005) Num. 1.

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