Education is arguably one of the most important facets of society and for that reason people are willing to spend their life savings, or even go into debt to further their education.

In fact, “The in-state public college budget for the 2016–2017 academic year averaged $24,610. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $49,320.” Pair that with the fact that an estimated 20.5 million students attended a US college in the fall of 2016 and you can see just how serious people are about getting an education.

But in recent years there has been a shift in how people are viewing educations - in the past it was cut and dry. You either had a nifty diploma hanging in the wall of your office or you didn’t. Now, though, people are acquiring their educations in a multitude of ways - taking the traditional route and attending a 4-year university, forgoing college and getting on the job training, or, more recently, pursuing an online education.

The EdTech industry has been booming. And it makes sense - a lot of people don’t have the time (or money) to spend at a four year university where they’ll be forced to take classes that aren’t relevant to them and still have to job hunt after graduation (with a new sense of urgency coming from the debt they likely incurred in school.)

With online courses and EdTech, people are able to really take control of their education. They can take classes between working at their day job and get trained in the exact skills they need to succeed without having to invest time into anything else.

In that realm, online education is clearly superior to traditional teaching, but a lot of people worry whether or not it’s as effective. It’s a legitimate concern given how new the online education industry is, especially compared to the American Higher Education System, where the first college was established in 1636.

From our research, online education is just as effective as in-person classrooms, and depending on the goals of the students can be the best option.

How do online courses work?

Online courses contain all of the same information that an in-person class would, the only difference is that all instruction takes place via the internet. The instructors have a lot of control over the online course experience, but a sample scenario would look like this:

An instructor would open their online course for enrollment and students would sign up. This instructor has opted to “drip” their content, meaning that each week their students would get a set amount of lecture material for the duration of the course. There are interactive comment pages, quizzes, and even a Facebook group where the students can go to connect and find support. Every Tuesday the instructor goes live for an hour hosting a Q&A so students can get their most pressing questions answered.

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The online structure parallels that of a classroom, but takes the physical requirement out of education making the class more accessible for everyone. When teaching a physical class you may be able to reach a handful of people - in some cases a few hundred, in rarer cases a few thousands. When you’re teaching an online class, though, your lessons can reach anyone anywhere in the world.

Is the education any good?

With that said, people are always going to be skeptical of change and looking towards online education being the future people feel apprehensive. Switching things up from the tried and true method of physical classrooms and courses means we need to readjust and redefine what exactly education is.

And most importantly? We need to make sure that we aren’t losing out on the quality of the course. Many people argue that EdTech champions the educator, but really it champions the education. Chalk it up to bias, but after taking a look at both in person education and online education - online education comes up the clear winner.

But, this isn’t just something we’re making up. Professionals working on academia think so too.

In 2015, over 70% of academic leaders surveyed by the Babson Survey Research Group expressed that the learning outcomes of online education are as good or better than face-to-face education. [click to tweet this fact!]

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(Image from the 2015 Online Report Card by the Babson Survey Research Group)

Yet, it isn’t all about the academics’ perception. How do the outcomes of online learning compare to traditional face-to-face education?

According to a report by the US Department of Education, “learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction.” Look around any college lecture hall and you’re going to see a third of students on Facebook, the other third texting, and a fraction of the final third actually paying attention. 

It’s a sad reality, but when you put someone in a classroom at a designated time every week they are going to have 100 other places they’d rather be and a dozen people they’d rather see and those “better options” are where their minds are going to be wandering to.

In online education, the students largely have control over when they’re going to listen to their lecture material. Instead of taking them out of the action midday, they have the option to listen to the material before bed when all other distractions have been eliminated. When online students are engaging with your content it’s because they want to be there and they are actively learning as opposed to traditional classrooms where they are there because they have to be every week at the same time.

So what it comes down to is the fact that the quality of the material remains the same, but with students who are more focused and engaged the education they are actually getting is superior. When they are able to attend class and learn the materials on their own terms students can center their entire focus on teh course.

Are online students left unattended or unsupported?

Another common worry is that students aren’t going to get the same attention that they would in a physical classroom. Especially when you consider that online courses can accommodate significantly more students which in theory might spread the instructor fairly thin.

According to research, though, the exact opposite is true. The National Survey of Student Engagement found, “Course management and interactive technologies were positively related to student engagement, self-reported learning outcomes, and deep approaches to learning. Course management technology was most strongly related to student-faculty interaction and self-reported gains in personal and social development.”

The online classroom gives instructors more time to truly interact and engage with their students. In a classroom setting they are put on the spot when a student has a question, in edtech they are able to take their time in their interactions ensuring that each exchange is a positive one.  

Furthermore, in an online setting if a student asks a question on a public forum and the instructor answers everyone in the course can see the exchange and refer back to the Q&A eliminating the threat of a dozen students asking the same question giving the instructor more time to focus on more pressing questions.

How about the class pacing?

One of the fatal flaws of traditional classrooms is that professors will oftentimes hold questions for the end of the period, and if you’ve missed a critical piece of information or got lost midway through the professor will be unlikely to accommodate you as going back and reviewing what was just said would negatively impact the rest of the class.

In college, a professor of mine tried to sue a well-intentioned (but ill-informed) student for recording her lectures. The student wasn’t redistributing or publishing the lectures for others to see, she was simply watching them after class to catch up on anything she missed as the lecture was too large for her to raise her hand and be helped every time something wasn’t clicking for her.

In some cases the professor will notice when the class isn’t following along or is confused and they can regroup and adjust their lecture, butt that’s only effective when everyone in the class is confused, if only a handful is lost they are often times out of luck in a traditional classroom.

Online, though?

You can pause, rewind and rewatch.

When you are able to watch the lecture over and over again you can really take control of your education. Confused about something? You can pause and rewind in real time and get caught up before moving forward.

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Do I need to set aside time and schedule classes myself?

This is another worry that people have - as inconvenient as traditional classes can be, the set schedule can help keep students accountable. When you signed up to be somewhere twice a week - you show up.

But in online education it’s often up to you to complete the material you signed up for. That’s intimidating for a lot of people, but so long as you treat this material the same way you would a physical class you should be set.

Commit to sitting down twice a week, the way you would in a traditional classroom, and completing the material. The only difference is that now you can sit down at whichever time is the most convenient for you. During your lunch break? Fabulous. At 2 in the morning when everyone else if finally asleep? Perfect.

In the end you have control and can consume the class at your convenience.

Is it worth the money?

Money is another issue that people worry about - when you’re paying your college tuition you’re going through the same (expensive) rite of passage that millions of other people have validated for you. It’s what’s normal and what’s expected therefore it feels a lot less risky than investing in an online course where you’ll be the only person you know taking it.

With that said, when you’re looking at education as the end goal, 99 times out of 100 the online route is going to be the more cost efficient route to take.

Most online courses are only a few hundred dollars - a fraction of the cost you’d take to take the equivalent course at a university, and you’re getting the same information. If you’re in it for the education rather than degree, online courses will come out on top every time.

Variety of topics

In college you more or less have to take the classes that are offered to you - there might be independent learning programs or partnerships with junior colleges with extra classes - but oftentimes you are limited. While this might not be a problem at a huge state university it’s something that can be limiting at a smaller school.

In edtech, though, there is no limit to what type of course you can take. Here at Teachable we have successful instructors teaching everything from dog walking to yoga for bros. When you choose an online education you can hand mold your education to fit exactly what you want to take.

No more sleeping your way through general education classes that are irrelevant to what you really want to do or signing up for a class that might sort of cover what you’re actually interested in learning about.

If you want to learn about something, chances are that there is already someone out there who has created a course on it.

Do I need to have advanced computer skills?

The most intimidating part of online education for some people? The illusion that you might need technical skills to be successful. Luckily, the skillset required for being successful in an online course doesn’t go far beyond signing in and clicking your mouse.

If you’ve navigated your way to this blog post - congratulations! You have the skills required to not only to take an online course, but to excel in taking an online course.

The final verdict?

Many experts will agree that online education is superior to traditional classrooms. Between the ability to cater your education to your schedule and the control the student has over how the course is consumed students are able to be more engaged and focused.

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Morgan Timm

Written by Morgan Timm

Morgan Timm is a content marketer at Teachable with a background in blogging and social media. She runs Mostly Morgan, a lifestyle blog with over 4 million lifetime page views, and she recently started a blogging and business site, MorganTimm.com.