The debate over whether face-to-face is better for students than online is nothing new, but has certainly been more pronounced this past year during COVID and the increased need for online learning. In many cases, it is not even presented as a debate, but instead as a matter-of-fact assertion that face-to-face is intrinsically better for students than online learning. Just this morning I read an article in my local paper where the head of our local teacher’s association while advocating for school closures as our COVID count rises, stated flatly that “I think in-school learning is much better than online”. The internet is littered with stories about the failure of online learning.
I get that mass media isn’t always the place where nuance is explored, nor are these normal circumstances. We are still in reaction mode to the ever-present threat of COVID, requiring institutions to be nimble as they continue to move back and forth from face-to-face to online, then back again and sometimes to a place in-between. But blanket statements that continue to assert that one mode is superior to another need to be qualified as decades of research into online learning have shown that for some people, online learning works better than face-to-face while for some people face-to-face works better.
But even that “for some people” qualifier is an oversimplification of the complex reality of teaching and learning. You could easily qualify those statements further by saying that, for some people, online learning works better for certain subjects, while for that same person, face-to-face works better for other subjects. Statements like those are much more accurate reflections of what works for students.
And even then we have to add yet more nuance to the conversation to take into account COVID and the reality that what continues in most places is still not online learning, but rather a continuation of emergency remote learning. While entire education systems & structures may be coping with emergency remote learning, they were never intentionally designed for online learning. Just look at the supports and structures in place at schools that have a history of online learning as a core delivery method. These institutions often have layers and layers of specialized supports built into them for both students & teachers; supports that institutions who have never done online learning prior to the COVID pivot do not.
Blanket statements that one mode of teaching & learning is intrinsically better than the other for all learners are just wrong and do not accurately reflect the true complexities of what makes for “better” learning environments for some students. For some, it will be face-to-face. For others, online. For yet others, blended, hybrid, or hyflex. Some prefer learning Tuesday mornings at 10. For others, Sunday nights at 7. For some it works better to use pen and paper to take notes, others type their notes in a Word document. Some prefer online to face-to-face in times of COVID because the anxiety of sitting in a classroom with others is too much for them to focus on actual learning. In education, there is never one best way that works for all, and it is long past the time to end this false dichotomy that one method is inherently better than the other for everyone.