I’ve met mothers that swear they could not have completed their qualification if it was not for online courses and I’ve met resentful online students who feel they are missing out on the richness of post-secondary study.

Clearly the different offerings suit different student needs. But there is an underlying question here. Is the traditional classroom actually the better way to achieve learning outcomes? Are the parents of young children, the busy professionals, the remote and disabled (all early adopters of online education) getting a second-best option?

Not long ago most people assumed that having a teacher and students together in a classroom had to be a better learning experience than studying online. The classroom was seen to be the real deal and online learning a poor approximation.

Students and teachers were generally comfortable with the social context of the classroom, whereas online technologies were fraught with steep learning curves and technical challenges. Learning design and the student experience were often neglected as management pursued the potential cost savings of online learning.

Now while many if these challenges remain, online learning has come a long way. It has demonstrated the potential to match and even exceed the quality of the best face to face classes. It may not yet be consistently achieving this potential, but we can now visualise online learning as premium learning. Face-to-face students are increasingly expecting the extras that their online counterparts receive – such as a virtual learning space populated with resources and supports, communication and collaboration tools, live webinars and the online submission of assignments. The classroom is being reconfigured as the flipped classroom, and what was face-to-face learning is rapidly moving to blended learning.

Much that we thought was best done face to face we now find is effective online as recordings –lectures, demonstrations of practical tasks, interviews with industry experts. These can be played and replayed as needed and come with transcripts.

And it turns out that synchronous activities that can benefit from being done in real time, from group-problem solving tasks to networking with industry experts, don’t have to be done in a classroom. They can be done online with live webinars featuring whiteboards, break-out rooms, screen sharing, live chat, audio and video and session recordings. Skype and Google hangouts are popular ways to meet.

I’m not suggesting that fully online learning is for everybody (though it is becoming relevant to a broader audience). I am arguing only that for students who choose to study online, and who can study independently, a quality online course can provide an effective way to achieve learning outcomes. Online is no longer the poor relation!

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