What Are the Differences Between Online and Traditional Education?

Jun 20, 2019

The differences between online and traditional education, in terms of instruction and social interaction, might be worth considering when choosing between these two options. Discover some of the key differences and find out more about each option.

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  • 0:03 Format Differences
  • 0:35 Learning Styles
  • 1:58 Classroom Setting
  • 2:55 Technological Concerns

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Differences Between Online and Traditional Education

When choosing between online and traditional education, it can be helpful to consider factors such as learning styles, settings, and technology need. When students are considering choosing between online and traditional education, they may only think about the most obvious difference between computer versus classroom. There are many other differences that could significantly impact a student's ability to succeed. In this piece, we'll discuss several of these factors, including:

  • Learning styles
  • Classroom setting
  • Technology
  • Tuition
  • Pacing

Learning Styles

Typically, online learning tends to favor independent learning styles. Online students are expected to be self-directed in achieving their academic goals while balancing other responsibilities. Some courses also favor certain learning styles over others. For instance, those that rely primarily on visual content may favor visual learners. Others deliver material through recorded audio lectures, which can be helpful for auditory learners. Although there are still misconceptions that online courses are isolating, most online education programs have adopted active learning environments that incorporate activities, peer-to-peer communication, and student-instructor interactions. This can helpful for individuals who learn better when working with others.

Some communication options in online courses include:

  • Email
  • Message boards
  • Instant messaging
  • Video conferencing
  • Chat rooms

Nevertheless, traditional courses often cater more specifically to students with collaborative learning styles, especially auditory and kinesthetic learners. Likewise, traditional learning environments offer opportunities for face-to-face interaction in and out of the classroom. Furthermore, at a brick-and-mortar school, social and academic support may come from peers on campus.

Classroom Setting

In a traditional course, multiple students gather to learn at a specific time and place. Students may attend lecture discussion sessions, independent study groups with peers, or interact with the instructor after class or during office hours. The style of instruction at traditional universities is most often teacher-driven, in that the knowledgeable instructor lectures on the subject of his or her expertise.

Some online courses actually follow the same model, with synchronous online class sessions and question-and-answer sessions that serve as instructor office hours. However, other online courses allow students the flexibility to choose the time and place to learn that is most convenient for them. The style of instruction in online programs is more user-driven. Depending on the course, students may experience varying levels of control over the pace of learning and when they attend the class.

Technological Concerns

To do well in online courses, students must have basic computer literacy. Likewise, teachers must understand how to incorporate these resources into lessons, and teachers must be able to provide instruction on how students can use the resources. In addition to the communications methods previously discussed, some of the media that may be utilized in online courses include web pages, webinars, software programs, webcasts, search engines, and social media.

However, while traditional classes may take place in the classroom, students and faculty still require some technology skills for using document creation programs, conducting Internet-based research, and using other technology resources. Therefore, traditional classes will not save students or faculty from having to learn how to use and incorporate some technology into their education programs.

There are both similarities and differences between online and in-person educational programs. Prospective students can choose between them based on their personal preferences and learning styles.


While some schools charge online students the same price as on-campus students, many have separate tuition and fees for their distance learning programs. Often, schools will structure their tuition on a per-credit basis or charge a flat fee that includes all requisite costs for the semester. Some schools drop certain fees that don't apply to online students (such as a lab fee) or add fees that help them maintain the online program's technological infrastructure.


In a traditional on-campus setting, students must take courses on the semester, date and time they're offered. Since there's no physical location, online courses often offer more flexibility. This is true in two senses. One, many schools offer self-pacing where students absorb the material on their own time using resources provided by the college, giving them the flexibility to work around their busy work and life schedules. Other schools have a more traditional setup, 'conducting' online classes according to a set schedule, but offering them in different start times and lengths. For instance, students might choose a 12-week course or an accelerated 5.5-week course.

With these flexible options, online students typically finish their degrees faster than their on-campus counterparts; for a bachelor's degree, full time online students in an accelerated program could complete their degree in about 2.5 years to graduate, while traditional students take an average of 5 years. However, students who enroll in their online degree program part time, and complete it around their work schedule, usually take longer.

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