Face-to-face vs. online learning—what's best for your student?

two students on bench with laptops

I just covered this fact on a previous blog post: every student can learn, it’s just that everyone learns differently. 

So, then, you probably can guess my answer to the question of which is better...face-to-face learning (taking place in person) or online learning (self-led courses) for your child? 

Yep, you got it—they both have their pros and cons, and the one that is perfect for your son or daughter depends entirely on them and their unique situation. 

So, blog over? 

No! That’s not to say there aren’t differences between face-to-face and online learning to discuss. 

While kids are “forced” to engage in face-to-face learning through their everyday schooling, if they want to learn something that isn’t as available in school, like coding, they’ll need to explore alternative means, either face-to-face in something non-school like a coding summer camp, or in the capacity of an online course where they are teaching themselves using the provided materials. 

So, what I want to do is break down the differences between the two, more clearly showing where these learning approaches differ, but also how they can actually work together to create a well-balanced experience.

Why is this question being asked, anyway?

The question of face-to-face or online learning is a relevant topic for many parents out there because, let’s face it, many of you who have kids don’t have experience with learning online.

Meaning, most of us grew up with face-to-face learning in a traditional classroom, and that was it. There wasn’t the option to learn anything online. (More choices, more problems, right?)

So, this question of face-to-face vs. online learning is a new challenge, and one that is picking up more and more steam every day.

In terms of approach, I'll be presenting the pros and cons via a point/counterpoint structure (as I did when discussing the positive and negative effects of YouTube).

Before that, though, a few important clarifications to note:

-Face-to-face learning can take many forms, as can online learning. 

-For the purpose of this post, face-to-face learning means a live, two-way interaction. 

-Online learning, then, will mean anything that doesn’t include a live instructor.

-So, online learning here is where a student sits down and learns through a self-paced system completely on their own. There might be content delivered through video, but it’s a one-way interaction. 

-And with that definition, face-to-face learning can actually take place online (a FaceTime tutoring session, or live instructor leading an online classroom or individual where there is two-way interaction) but isn’t categorized as online learning in this context.

Cool? 

Here goes it. 

Face-to-face vs. online learning

Face-to-face learning requires planning and schedules to align; online learning doesn’t. 

No matter if it’s school, tutoring, or summer camp, a face-to-face learning experience can’t happen without proper planning. Meaning, you need to enroll your student in school, and there needs to be a teacher hired to teach. 

Same goes for the booking of a tutoring session or that of a summer camp—it’s tough for face-to-face learning to happen at a moment’s notice or when inspiration strikes. 

With online learning, though, a student can hop on to their computer or mobile device at a moment’s notice. If they are curious about a particular subject, they can watch a free YouTube video or purchase a Udemy course, etc. 

But, isn’t the commitment that’s required of face-to-face learning what makes it so valuable?

A planned experience encourages commitment. 

For instance, think about a party you plan at your home versus the experience of having friends drop by casually. With a planned party, you go to great lengths to ensure guests will be entertained and fed. You open your doors at a certain time, and you have guests who feel obligated to stay and visit for a certain time, etc. There is a structure that everyone recognizes. 

But on the other hand, when friends drop in or are even just invited over to hang out, there is less prep. Sure you might pick up the house a bit, but probably won’t do much more than that. When guests show up, they could just be staying for 30 minutes or less. There are no formal expectations or commitments.

So, even though a face-to-face learning experience is less spontaneous, you at least know the “teacher” has a plan to teach, and those doing the learning are expecting to learn—and know they’re expected to learn for the agreed upon time window, whether it’s a 45-minute class, an hour-long tutoring session, or a weeklong summer program.  

Such commitment also more or less “forces” advancement through structured leveling up. A student in school knows that if they attend class and do decent enough to pass, they’ll move up to the next grade. In a tutoring session or academic summer camp, it might be the feedback from instructors that signals, “OK, your kid is ready to move on to the next concept.“

The best online learning options incorporate this properly-paced progression into their platforms to ensure advancement is based on student performance. 

Thus, face-to-face learning leads to someone else determining your child’s success. Online learners have more control of their advancement. 

Running off of the point above, face-to-face learning usually requires another individual - a teacher, instructor, professor, tutor, etc. - to give the “green light” for student advancement. Students must also typically pass through some type of system or process in order to move forward.

Online learning is less formal in that regard, so the argument could be made that it is a faster method of material consumption and skill-building.  

But, isn’t it human nature to think we know more than we actually do?

Yes, that happens a lot; we tend to operate under the feeling that we are the best at a particular activity. The only time that probably subsides is when we have kids, and then we immediately think our son or daughter is the absolute best at whatever they’re doing. 

My point is, with any online learning assessment, students can potentially trick themselves into thinking they’re ready to move on.

And, if your child is coming to you the parent for feedback, are you a proficient coder? Probably not. Not to mention that, to the point above, you’re going to want to believe your student is a genius even if they aren’t, and is ready to advance even if they shouldn't. 

So, is it really all that bad to rely on someone else, in many cases an expert, to tell you whether or not your child has actually grasped an understanding of a concept? Probably not. 

Face-to-face learning typically takes place in a group setting, but with online learning, the only distraction is yourself. 

Did you have a class clown when you were in school? (If you can’t think of anyone, maybe it was you!). Anyway, it’s an appropriate name for that individual who was constantly performing for the class, oftentimes disrupting what would otherwise be a valuable learning experience. 

Unfortunately, it’s a risk in the face-to-face learning environment. Perhaps not a class clown, but just distractions from other people in general. 

In addition, if a child is in a classroom or group with other individuals, it might be more difficult for them to receive personalized attention, leading everyone to “learn the same” and follow the same path. 

With online learning, you don’t have distractions of other people. Students can sit down and focus on what’s in front of them, and won’t be thrown off track by Wally's wisecracks or Nathan's noises. 

With this group setting though...aren’t there benefits to learning with others? And can’t students be their own biggest distraction with online learning?

Of course, learning alongside other like-minded individuals offers many benefits, from learning how to collaborate to being able to discuss and solve challenges.

Beyond the actual learning experience, students are also building relationships with their peers when in a group setting, and there is no telling just how deep those relationships can run in the future. 

To the point of personalized instruction, while many face-to-face learning experiences are taking place with groups of students, some do offer plenty of personalized instruction, like that which is offered via specialized summer programs or tutoring. 

Last, online learners aren't completely shielded from distraction, either. Sitting down on their own at the computer or with a mobile device offers its own set of potential diversions as well. 

So, what’s the consensus?

If you boil down the good things about online learning, you'll get the following:

  • Online learning gives the learner more control over when they can learn
  • Online learning allows learners to progress at their own pace
  • Online learning doesn’t subject learners to distractions from others

But playing devil’s advocate:

  • Online learning requires less commitment, and thus might mean less buy-in
  • Online learning might lead learners to falsely think they are ready to progress
  • Online learning comes with plenty of distractions 

Which leads us all the way back around to the question at hand. 

Face-to-face learning offers many benefits, obviously. The traditional education system has stood the test of time, and other experiences like educational summer camps are flourishing. 

With online learning, it’s a great option, but it does wonders to incorporate some of the strengths offered by face-to-face learning into the online environment. Doing so transforms the online learning experience from a child simply sitting in front of a computer reading prompts to one where they still have the freedom to learn from home and on their schedule, but are also taught and led by a live, in-person expert. 

At iD Tech, we’ve spent 20+ years refining and perfecting the summer camp learning experience, and have witnessed firsthand - through 450,000+ students - the impact face-to-face interactions can have.

But in doing so, we also saw the need online coding courses, and for students to have “immediate” access to a variety of STEM topics because of the fact that these are subjects rarely taught in school. 

So, we blended the two, offering what we call Online Private Lessons, where kids and teens can prep for summer courses, continue learning afterwards, or simply dive into new topics anytime. The kicker is, these aren’t self-led courses. Instead, they’re one-on-one remote instructional sessions where students learn face to face, online, from the comfort of home. 

Whichever learning atmosphere you feel is best for your child, we hope you go full throttle! Check out our summer tech courses, or get started with our Online Private Lessons today. 

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!

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