Online Learning Environment vs. Classroom-based Learning Environment

As student demand for easier access to higher education and technological options have increased, many schools have eagerly embraced online courses as a way to meet this demand. The 2011 Survey of Online Learning for 2011 reported that over six million students (31% of  those enrolled in higher education) took at least one online course during the Fall 2010 semester. (Allen & Seaman, 2011)  Online enrollment is expanding rapidly in all disciplines, but the rate of growth has been particularly rapid in the health sciences (Allen & Seaman, 2011).

Technology has also developed exponentially with new options seemingly appearing on a weekly basis (electronic books, simulations, mobile phone applications, text messaging, podcasting, wikis, blogs).  Nurse researchers who developed methods for evaluating quality in web courses and disseminated evidence-based best practices (Billings, Connors, & Skiba, 2001) (Seiler & Billings, 2004) have provided a foundation for the best practices in online teaching and learning that Duke University School of Nursing seeks to utilize to assure the quality and high standard of our online courses.


One area of confusion about online teaching and learning has been the varied definitions for “online” education.  There appears to be some consensus with the following definitions in the literature.  (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010)

  1. Traditional face-to-face is a course with no online technology used.
  2. Web enhanced is a course that uses web-based technology to facilitate what is delivered in class in face-to-face format.
  3. Hybrid courses blend online and face-to-face delivery so that a substantial amount of content is delivered online with some face-to-face meetings.
  4. Online courses have most or all of the content delivered online with no face-to-face meetings


Although a majority of academic leaders consider learning outcomes for online education to be “as good as or better” than those for traditional face-to-face education, about one-third continue to believe that learning outcomes are better in classroom-based courses than in online courses.  Such attitudes are more common at institutions which do not offer education online. (Allen & Seaman, 2011).  So, what does the evidence show?

In 2001, Thomas Russell published a comprehensive bibliography of 355 research reports, summaries and papers that reported no significant difference (NSD) in student outcomes between courses delivered face-to-face in the classroom and distance-based courses delivered in a variety of formats including print correspondence courses, radio, television, video, and online (Russell, 2001).  These findings indicated that delivery of course content in distance-based rather than face-to-face formats neither harmed nor helped student performance.

More recently, the emphasis in comparative educational research has shifted toward deployment of innovative educational technology to improve student outcomes in distance-based education(Russell, 2010).  As a result of this trend, a number of recent publications summarized in the No Significant Difference website (a companion site to Russell’s book) report significantly better outcomes for students taking courses in technology-mediated distance-based format than for students taking the same courses in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Mixed outcomes are have also been reported from a number of recent comparative studies, such as Kirtman, (2009) and Lim, Kim, Chen, & Ryder, (2008).

A U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of post-secondary online education (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010) indicated that students in courses delivered online generally performed better than students receiving face-to-face classroom instruction, although these differences were modest. Courses that blended online and face-to-face elements tended to have better outcomes than those which were taught entirely online or entirely face-to-face.

Why Do Students Choose Online Courses?

Students who choose online education value its accessibility, convenience, and flexibility, which permits them to balance more effectively the time required for education with their other time commitments. Some students also  perceive that their educational outcomes are better in a distance learning environment (Daymont, Blau, & Campbell, 2011; Hannay & Newvine, 2006; Mancuso-Murphy, 2007).

Faculty Issues:

As in the classroom-based learning environment, the literature suggests that the best online instructional strategies should support and encourage student inquiry, broaden the learner’s experience and knowledge about the subject matter, and elicit active and critical thinking. From Boettcher and Conrad (2010), the major pedagogical differences between an online course and a traditional face-to-face classroom are:

  • The faculty function changes from lecturer to more of a coaching and mentoring role.
  • Meetings are more often asynchronous rather than synchronous.
  • Learners are required to take a more active role, assuming more responsibility for their own learning.
  • Learning resources, time, and spaces are more flexible.
  • Assessment is continuous.

Because online instructors play a different role from those in the traditional classroom faculty training and support is a critical component of quality online education (Mancuso, 2009; Orr, Williams, & Pennington, 2009; Smith, Passmore, & Faught, 2009; Varvel, Lindeman, & Stovall, 2003).  Much of the available literature provides tips and hints on sizes of groups, ways of motivating student engagement, the value and management of discussion boards, hints for structuring course design, the organization of educator roles and activities for online teaching and learning: however this is primarily anecdotal, based on experience rather than real research (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011; Smith & Curry, 2005; Suler, 2004; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 2000; White & Weight, 2000).  This lack of evidence has left online educators struggling to find evidence-based information to guide educational practice.

One potential drawback of online education is the amount of time required to teach an online course.  The development and delivery of a highly interactive online course requires a high level of involvement by faculty in order to ensure that students feel supported and that the faculty interaction, critique, and feedback is timely(Cavanaugh, 2005; Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert, & Donnelli-Sallee, 2007Parker & Howland, 2006).


Traditional face-to-face and online modes of education each have unique advantages (Jacobson, 2006; Maurino, 2006).  The emotionally supportive face-to-face environment of the classroom allows immediate feedback, and an immediate social environment, which has been viewed as essential to a quality educational experience (Meyer, 2007).  Facial expressions and body language are vital clues to the level of student understanding and engagement, and fundamental to recognizing when learning has taken place. The traditional classroom usually requires everyone to travel to a single location, and there is a fixed amount of time for interaction.  Larger class sizes may limit the opportunity for faculty-student and student-student interaction.  Private interaction between teacher and student is often severely limited in a busy classroom.  Due to diversity of background, attitude, and other factors, the ideal of Socratic small group interaction at a high level is often beyond practical attainment in many traditional classrooms.


Online courses increase the educational opportunities for students in rural areas or for those who need to work or have family responsibilities that prohibit them from attending traditional classes. The online environment also offers students the ability to collaborate with colleagues in other distant, geographic areas thus increasing opportunities for group/team work experience and social professionalism (Ainsley & Brown, 2009; Lapsley, Kulik, Moody, & Arbaugh, 2008).  An online classroom allows anyone, anywhere, anytime the opportunity to participate without pressure from limited time or fear of public speaking in front of a group.  Opportunities for students to use creative and innovative activities are also present through the use of new technology in online courses (Ironside & Valiga, 2006).

The online environment can be just as collegial and supportive as face-to-face education but in different ways.  Interactive reading, writing, and peer grading in online classes provide a level of mind-to-mind interaction that is fundamentally different from, and in many ways better than, verbal face-to-face interaction.  Online education has the potential of providing students with learning experiences representing far more preparation time than the traditional teacher can routinely provide.  When writing online for a peer audience, students are held accountable to articulate what they have perceived, by virtue of their online writing leaving a written record. The online medium is less socially distracted in that it presents an environment for more equitable sharing of ideas from both teacher and students than the time-limited, socially oriented, classroom.

There is an important role for incorporating into the online course environment the dialog and communication among students and between students and faculty which would occur naturally in face-to-face courses (Bannan-Ritland 2002; Coomey & Stephenson, 2001).  The use of pre-defined questions is a good way to force the online participation and communication between students.  However, intense faculty support and presence early in the online course is crucial to good outcomes.  Pedagogical issues and guidelines for course development have been explored by several researchers, and their writings are a good resource for faculty members new to online education.


The traditional classroom and the online classroom have very real advantages and disadvantages which require a teacher to think clearly about specific student and curriculum needs and the most effective means for presenting different types of content (Zsohar & Smith, 2008).  The main pedagogical question becomes: when does the use of the online classroom most benefit the student, and when does the traditional classroom most benefit the student?  We now have alternatives to the traditional classroom which, when used wisely, benefit students and teachers alike.  As we gain more experience, and confidence, with use of the online classroom, our expectations will become clearer. All teachers, regardless of mode of delivery, would agree our goal is to teach the love of learning, and to do the very best we can for our students.

As nurse educators, we must always keep focused on the pedagogic goals of the course or program rather than push to use more technology just because we can.  With that caution in mind, emerging technologies can create powerful learning tools giving us an ability to reach students anywhere in the world (Billings et al., 2001; Billings, Skiba, & Connors, 2005).  As with any change, we must continually assess the outcomes of technologies and the online environment in our educational practices.


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Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2011). Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011. Wellesley, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

Billings, D. M., Connors, H. R., & Skiba, D. J. (2001). Benchmarking best practices in web-based nursing courses. Advances in Nursing Science, 23(3), 41-52.

Billings, D. M., Skiba, D. J., & Connors, H. R. (2005). Best practices in Web-based courses: generational differences across undergraduate and graduate nursing students. Journal of Professional Nursing, 21(2), 126-133.

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Cavanaugh, J. (2005). Teaching online – a time comparison. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(1).

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