General Education

Online Learning vs Traditional Onsite Learning: Which is Better?

Online Learning vs Traditional Onsite Learning: Which is Better?
Most online programs are part-time, designed to accommodate students' other commitments. Image from Unsplash
Tom Meltzer profile
Tom Meltzer January 17, 2020

Online learning is convenient, and it may be a more effective way to learn as well. Most online programs are designed with the needs of adults in mind. Do they meet your needs? Read on to find out.

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Most prospective adult learners are overcommitted. They have jobs, families, community obligations—and they’re planning to add education, a huge time and energy consumer, to that list. What can they do to simplify their schedules?

Online learning is one option. Most online programs are part-time, designed to accommodate students’ other commitments. They may even allow the student to complete the program entirely on their own, without ever attending a live class or on-campus event.

Online education also greatly expands students’ academic options. No one near where you live offers that Master of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences degree you’ve been dreaming of? No problem, University of Florida – Online offers it. Now you can become an aquatic scientist from the comfort of your home, no matter where you are.

Online learning isn’t the answer to all problems, but it does solve quite a few. In this article about the benefits of online learning for adults, we’ll cover:

  • What is online learning?
  • How does online learning work?
  • What types of programs are available online?
  • What are the benefits of online learning?

What is online learning?

The term “online learning”—sometimes called “distance learning” or “e-learning”—refers to any form of education delivered via the Internet. Online learning includes everything from short tutorials to semester-long academic courses to certificate and degree programs. If you’ve ever watched a how-to video on Youtube, used an app to study an academic subject, or completed a work training on your computer, you’ve engaged in online learning.

Online learning has many applications. Elementary and secondary schools use online learning tools to deliver lessons or exercises to students, either in the classroom or as independent work. Private vendors, colleges, and universities use online learning to provide training courses and certification programs. Colleges and universities use online platforms to deliver undergraduate- and graduate-level courses and degrees.

Online learning delivers content in two ways:

  • Asynchronous content can be accessed by students at any time, 24/7. Asynchronous content typically consists of videos, graphics, readings, slide decks, bulletin boards and message boards, and third-party apps.
  • Synchronous content must be accessed at a specified time. In online programs that offer live classes, the live classes are synchronous content. In some online programs, attendance and participation in live classes are mandatory. In others, online students watch but don’t participate in live classes; in these programs, live classes are typically recorded so students can view them later, asynchronously. Online class meetings—for projects and study groups—are another form of synchronous content.

An online program can either be 100 percent online or require students to attend some sessions in-person. The latter format is usually described as a hybrid online program. The in-person meetings may be weekend-long immersion programs that culminate in a group project, or they could simply be courses that cannot be delivered online.

In its developing years, online learning earned a mixed reputation because:

  • Online courses were text-heavy and dull
  • Opportunities for students to engage with each other and with faculty were minimal
  • Many of the schools offering online options had poor graduation and job-placement results

Today, however, none of these are true. Expanded bandwidth means online courses incorporate high-def streaming video and interactive apps, and teleconferencing apps allow students and faculty to collaborate as frequently as they wish. Many top schools have launched online learning programs, producing impressive results for students. Not all online programs are worthwhile, but programs offering excellent value are not difficult to find. And in nearly all cases, schools award the identical degree to online and on-campus students. There is no stigma attached to earning a certification or degree online.

How does online learning work?

To study online, students typically log into a learning management system (LMS). The LMS is the platform in which courses and grades are delivered to students. Once logged in, the student can access the courses in which they are enrolled as well as their grades for completed work.

Most LMSes are highly intuitive. If you know how to point and click, you can navigate your way through an online course. Course modules typically appear in outline form; students progress linearly through the modules. These often include occasional quizzes to ensure students have understood what has been taught.

Some online programs are 100 percent asynchronous, meaning that all the material can be accessed independently at any time during the course. In such programs, students are not required to attend live sessions. Other online programs require live sessions—they typically occur once per week—facilitated by an online meeting app such as Zoom or Adobe Connect.

In many ways, online learning is quite similar to traditional classroom learning. In both formats, an instructor leads the class by providing a syllabus and delivering instruction. Students complete readings, exercises, and other assignments to supplement instruction and demonstrate mastery. The end result is often a grade or some other verification that the student has learned the material.

One critical difference is that, in traditional courses, students and their instructor convene for live sessions in the same location. Another significant difference lies in the purpose of those live sessions. In the traditional classroom, the standard instruction model is the lecture: the instructor stands at the front of the class and speaks while students sit silently and take notes. Online learning programs, however, deliver lecture material asynchronously, usually in pre-recorded videos. This means the live session can be used to reinforce previous independent—i.e., asynchronous—learning. It’s where students apply, synthesize, and question what they have learned (this learning model is often described as the flipped classroom). Many online students are surprised to discover that their online live sessions are more interactive and dynamic than their traditional live classes ever were.

Another potential difference is that, in an online course, your section instructor will almost certainly not be the lead instructor delivering the asynchronous content. Most online courses have dozens, if not hundreds, of enrollees, so they are subdivided into sections taught by adjunct faculty. In this way, they are a lot like large traditional introductory classes at the undergraduate level, where a lead professor delivers the lectures and teaching assistants lead the discussion sections.

What types of programs are available online?

Online learning delivers just about any program that can be delivered in a live classroom, and some that can’t. Adults can pursue any of the following online:

Many professional degrees—for teachers, social workers, or nurses, for example—require students to complete a practicum, internship, or other field placement. Most online programs that offer these degrees provide support for students in finding these placements. Be wary of any program that will not guarantee you such a placement, because you can’t graduate without it.

Popular online degree programs include:

New degrees are being added to online offerings all the time. Until recently, the American Bar Association refused to approve online Juris Doctor (JD) degrees for lawyers, but now four (hybrid) online law programs have been approved, and more are on the way. Some degree programs—many PhDs come to mind—may never go online because they are too small to make it worth a school’s investment. It’s arguable that the MD will never be offered online, but who knows? Things change fast in online education.

What are the benefits of online learning?

There are many reasons to choose online study over traditional on-campus study. We’ve listed below five of the reasons most commonly cited by students:


For many adult students, the need to be on campus for a traditional program is a substantial impediment. The amount of planning required to be at school at a specific time—with all the juggling of work schedules and family obligations that can entail—can be a deal-breaker.

Many online programs can be completed without ever having to leave your home; no need to line up daycare or a babysitter. Likewise, when you need to travel, you’ll be able to access your schoolwork anywhere you have online access. Nor will you have to miss class when you’re sick. You won’t have to travel to and from campus nor find a parking space when you get there (nearly always a challenge; why don’t schools provide better parking options?).


Many online programs are 100 percent asynchronous, meaning you can complete the study materials whenever you like. Are you a night owl? An early bird? Have ten minutes at the end of your lunch break for some quick study time? Whenever you’re ready to study, your academic content will be waiting for you.

Even programs with mandatory live sessions are still mostly asynchronous: live sessions typically meet once a week in the evening, for an hour to 90 minutes. You will have to prepare for the live session by reviewing the asynchronous material, but you can do that at any time.

Cost savings

You may have heard that many online programs charge the same tuition as traditional on-campus programs charge, and that is, in fact, true. Even so, you will still save money by studying online. First, you’ll avoid the cost of commuting and parking, and all the time you would have spent in transit (which arguably has a monetary value).

Second, you can continue to live where you currently live and not have to relocate—which costs money—to a location near a school (where rents and property values tend to be inflated). Finally, online students sometimes avoid fees—such as an activity fee, or health insurance fees—that are charged on-campus students.

More options

With traditional on-campus programs, you have two choices: attend a school near your home, or relocate to attend a program farther away. For those unwilling or unable to locate, that can severely limit your choices. Do you want to attend a top MBA program? You’d better hope there’s one within driving distance.

Or you could pursue that MBA online, where options include:

The same is true for all degrees: by choosing to study online, you eliminate geographic location as a factor. That can greatly expand your choices and your opportunities.

Novel learning opportunities

Learning online is similar, but not identical, to learning in a traditional on-campus class. Here are some ways in which online learning is arguably better:

  • When you study online, you can review asynchronous material as often and as frequently as you like. Were you ever utterly confused by a lecture and wished you could hear it again? In your online program, you can hear it again and again and again until it makes sense to you (or you determine that it will never make sense to you).
  • Online courses—particularly those that are 100 percent asynchronous—afford students latitude to learn at their own pace. They can parcel out the material in small chunks nightly or cram it all in in a few monster study sessions. Whatever your learning style, online learning accommodates it.
  • Most online courses include many interactive elements that engage students in ways in-class lectures do not. Frequent quizzes check to determine whether you’ve mastered the material. Interactive apps increase students’ level of active participation in learning. Live classes, bulletin boards and message boards, live study sessions, and online group projects keep students in touch and learning from each other as well as from their instructor.
  • Online learning is multimedia learning, which “accommodates different learning styles and so maximizes learning for more students.” By adhering to Mayer’s 12 principles of multimedia learning, online course designers can exploit such unique benefits as: redundancy (the pairing of text and audio, which improves learning); segmenting (breaking lessons into smaller discrete learning units); and pre-training (constructing asynchronous material so that knowledge necessary for a subsequent lesson is introduced at exactly the right time).

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About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.