Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 1/4

I am drawing inspiration from the tweet that follows to write a series of four blog posts. I love and appreciate Hannah’s question (and admire her broader work, which is an exemplar of digital public scholarship), so I’ll take some time to think through some of the issues raised in the question in this series of posts. This first post deals with the face-to-face vs online binary. The second will examine what we mean when we say that a learning experience is “good” or “better/less than.” The third will focus on exploring some broader teaching and learning models that institutions may consider for Fall 2020. The fourth will highlight some specific instances of digital pedagogy that I think are worthwhile to consider. [update: Apr 29: I switched the order of the third and fourth posts]. Now, on to the first post.

Could anybody point me towards articles that argue AGAINST the assumption that an online course is always inherently a degraded version of an in-person course? I’d particularly appreciate work that roots these arguments in specific examples of effective digital pedagogy.— Hannah McGregor (@hkpmcgregor) April 17, 2020

The question is spot on. The online vs. face-to-face debate is heating up. Again. And I suspect that you’ll hear it more and more in the coming weeks and months as higher education institutions try to figure out what to do about the summer and Fall semesters.

Here’s a challenge: Walk into a room (say of academics and administrators) and promptly announce to everyone that online education is inferior to face-to-face education. Most everyone won’t bat an eye.

Here’s a different challenge: Walk into the same room and announce to everyone that face-to-face education is inferior to online education. Not only will your peers bat both eyes, they’ll look at you as if you’re Cronus in the process of swallowing his children.

But, step back from these two arguments, and you’ll notice that both positions assume that modality is the main determinant of what works best. If you’ve ever stepped into a face-to-face classroom that left you yearning for something better – and I assume that most of us have – you should recognize that what makes or breaks learning goes beyond physical co-presence. More importantly, our tendency to view face-to-face and online education as a binary is distracting. It distracts us from improving education and the learning experiences that we are able to offer to students. Not because one modality is superior to the other, but because there is no single modality or learning model that will work for every higher education institution and for every course. Some models work in some contexts but not in others, and no model is best for all contexts.

The debate also ignores much of the nuance around how to best design a course and who the students are. Here’s a simple example to demonstrate how we can quickly get into the weeds. Assume we are designing an online course. Should the course be synchronous or asynchronous? Why? Should it include peer-to-peer interactions and group work or should it rely on independent student work? If it involves group work, what is the most optimal group structure and size? And should such group work rely on loose ideas around collaboration or should it be structured formally as suggested by cooperative learning and social interdependence theory? These kinds of questions – necessary as they are for designing good learning experiences – are absent when the arguments around models focus on binaries.

To return to the tweet: When people argue that face-to-face is better than online, they assume that all online experiences are the same (which isn’t true), that all face-to-face experiences are the same (again, not true), and that by-and-large, all online learning experiences are worse than in-person ones (follows from the prior two untrue statements).

Coming up in the next blog post: what do I mean by “good learning experiences” and what criteria do we use to determine whether one kind of learning experience is better than another?


A pan-Canadian effort in online education? PD not content.


Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 2/4


  1. Dr. Jonathan Kathenge

    It all depends on the situation, we can’t out rightly judge one mode of study by comparing it with the other or else we fall into the trap of the fallacy of generalization.

  2. Elliud Muli

    Totally agree! Both methods can be used to enhance learner experiences, depending on the unique circumstances one is operating in. Why not blend the two?

  3. Augustine Mwangi

    You are right, no mode is better than the other. The context and the quality of content is either face to face or online is key. The end user(learner) preparedness and readiness is also key.

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