Date Published: 15 May 2018

Study and learn online or in person - Seminars or Webinars ?

A decision to learn about a subject by taking a course used to be followed by researching courses locally or at another location that the student was able and willing to travel to. The same general idea applied both to short courses, e.g. one-off workshops or seminars as short as an hour in duration, and longer courses such as professional or degree courses lasting several years. Although there are still many courses taught in person with teachers and students in the same physical space for most or all of the course, online learning is now a genuine alternative for many subjects and types of courses.

Some of the most obvious differences between expectations and experiences of traditional vs online courses concern:

  • Cost
  • Convenience
  • Availability
  • Personal contact
  • Quality incl. accreditation

What are the advantages and disadvantages of online courses or webinars compared with face-to-face tuition?

Of the general differences between these types of learning experiences, the consequences might be considered positive or negative depending on the type or subject of the course, reasons for studyingy and personal preference.

Here is a quick overview of some of the main aspects of traditional vs online learning:

Learning in a physical environment:

  • Likely to meet other people in person. Possible advantages incl. developing social skills and networking
  • Possibly less privacy e.g. if workshops or seminars are recorded or group exercises require sharing views and experiences
  • Higher Cost, money and time
    • Courses can be more expensive
    • Additional travel and possibly accomodation costs
    • Travel time involved
  • Course dates tend to be fixed
  • Structure often provided e.g. learning schedule determined by timing of lecturers, seminars and practical work
  • Necessary for some practical subjects e.g. learning to swim or to ride a horse require availability of a body of water or a horse, etc.

Online (physical location irrelevant):

  • Unlikely to meet others in person although online interaction with others might be included e.g. language learning
  • Privacy and control over environment e.g. to wear items of cultural or religious significance without notice by others
  • Lower Cost, money and time
    • Courses often inexpensive, perhaps no charge.
    • No additional costs for travel etc.
    • No travel time involved
  • Often flexibility re. schedule incl. start date
  • More personal discipline can be necessary to maintain momentum in pace of learning by reading, watching videos etc.
  • Not always possible e.g. for learning practical skills involving use of special equipment or geographical or weather conditions

Learning in a physical environment:

  • Likely to meet other people in person. Possible advantages incl. developing social skills and networking
  • Possibly less privacy e.g. if workshops or seminars are recorded or group exercises require sharing views and experiences
  • Higher Cost, money and time
    • Courses can be more expensive
    • Additional travel and possibly accomodation costs
    • Travel time involved
  • Course dates tend to be fixed
  • Structure often provided e.g. learning schedule determined by timing of lecturers, seminars and practical work
  • Necessary for some practical subjects e.g. learning to swim or to ride a horse require availability of a body of water or a horse, etc.

Online (physical location irrelevant):

  • Unlikely to meet others in person although online interaction with others might be included e.g. language learning
  • Privacy and control over environment e.g. to wear items of cultural or religious significance without notice by others
  • Lower Cost, money and time
    • Courses often inexpensive, perhaps no charge.
    • No additional costs for travel etc.
    • No travel time involved
  • Often flexibility re. schedule incl. start date
  • More personal discipline can be necessary to maintain momentum in pace of learning by reading, watching videos etc.
  • Not always possible e.g. for learning practical skills involving use of special equipment or geographical or weather conditions

Specific differences vary with the type of course, both by subject and complexity incl. duration, examination, certification and so on.

Some of the considerations listed above will be inter-related for any particular student in a specific location looking for a particular type of course. For example, in order to be a real possibility, any course would need to be affordable in terms of both time and money, accessible in terms of physical location (if applicable) and any entry requirements, and available at a time possible for the student esp. if dates and/or times of day are fixed. Only if such requirements could be met either online or in a classroom style environment are further considerations re. traditional vs online learning meaningful.


Aspects of these types of courses that will appeal to students or not according to personal preference include personal contact, extent of supervision and advice from others, and to a certain extent cost.

Personal Contact

Young people undertaking education or training in the first few years after leaving school often have social as well as educational expectations of the learning experience. Interaction with other people can be especially important when the subject or purpose of the course involves interaction with other people e.g. training to work in the caring professions. Conversely, contact and interaction with other people might not be as important or even particularly useful in the case someone (such as an older adult who already has a community of friends, colleagues and/or family) who wants to learn more about a specific subject such as computer programming, photography, geology, music, etc.. A different situation again might be that of an older person who would like to meet people and perhaps make friends while learning a new skill or about a subject of interest - that is if the desire to spend time with people is also significant irrespective of the need for such interaction in order to learn the information or acquire the expertise.

Supervision

Close supervision can be important in the early stages of learning anything for which there is or might be danger or risk to life or health, for example extreme sports, learning to operate transport (car, bus, airplane) in busy environments, developing skills for use in healthcare situations or other 'life and death' situations. Personal attention from an expert teacher can also be extremely helpful when learning a wide range of types of skills such as forms of art, music, sports, performance arts, and life skills such as yoga, meditation and so on. However, if the purpose of developing a skill is partly for peaceful relaxation with no time pressure or requirement to pass a test, there might be less desire for input from a tutor. For example there are many free resources available online to help people learn new skills in various crafts - activities that are fun, satisfying and more dependent on individual time, patience, creativity and expression than on learning precise techniques from an expert. In simple terms, if the purpose of the learning is to pass or complete an evaluation process in order to receive a qualification then supervision is more likely to be important than if the purpose of the learning is personal development and satisfaction for which no certification is needed.

Cost in time and money

There is huge variation in how much people are able or willing to spend on a learning activity. Some employees benefit from training opportunities including expenses paid and time made available by their employer. Some young people are willing to invest several years and a considerable amount of money (often borrowed with long-term repayment terms) to acquire skills and qualifications necessary to pursue the career of their choice. Meanwhile some older or unemployed people might be time-rich but cash-poor. People who can't or don't want to spend much money to attend an accredited course in person are often still able to learn a great deal and acquire valuable skills using various online resources.


Considerations that depend on the type of subject or course include things like the need for access to sophisticated equipment and assessment or the acquisition of qualification(s) needed in order to go further with the knowledge acquired.

Use of equipment or facilities

Sometimes learning a new skill involves using rare or expensive equipment that either could not be purchased for personal use or is expensive and generally only obtained when serious interest or ability has been established. For example, while many people might be willing to buy some watercolour paper, paints and brushes and follow an online course to test their interest and aptitude at watercolour painting, the same approach wouldn't be applicable to an interest glass-blowing or blacksmithing. Learning to work with molten metal is best achieved in person under expert tuition and supervision. In the same way, scientific research and study that requires the use of the latest sensitive and expensive equipment is unlikely to be possible from a home or ordinary office environment.

Assessment and qualifications

In many cases the knowledge and skills acquired as a result of study are the real goal. For example, actually being able to understand and communicate in another language is often more useful than earning a specific grade after taking an exam in the subject. However, in some cases - such as for entry to a university or other establishment for further study - qualifications recognised by such organisations may be required and therefore be important for that particular person. In fact when seeking entry to a university that requires certain grades in a minimum number of subjects, the qualification and grade might be more important than actual competence in a subject that the person does not have any interest in pursing further.

In other situations, while knowledge and skills are at least important, perhaps essential, some form of certification is also required in order to actually use the skills in employment or business or to continue learning more about that subject. Depending on the rules that apply in any particular location, specific qualifications might be required in order to enable the person to work in certain jobs in medicine, education, law, law-enforcement and other occupations. Some skills cannot be tested or assessed as well (or at all) online compared with in person. If a specific qualification, rather than just the associated knowledge and skills, is required it might be more difficult to find online opportunities equivalent to following a course in person at a physical location followed by taking a test or exams, also in person. An extreme example of this type of learning and qualification is a driving test. While it might help to read about regulations and study road signs online, physical skills must also be acquired in a physical vehicle on a real road, then a standard test must be taken and passed in person.

These notes might help students and potential students to consider which type of course to take and some of the advantages and disadvantages of learning partly or completely online compared with receiving tuition at a physical location.

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