Is online education as effective as traditional in person education? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Brian Galvin, Chief Academic Officer at Varsity Tutors, on Quora:

I love the question, but in a way it’s a lot like asking “is a hammer as effective as a screwdriver?” In both cases you’re looking at two tools with very similar goals — to fasten items together, to teach people important skills and concepts — and each tool has use cases where it’s the absolute right tool, others where it’ll get the job done, and still others where you really should use the other one.

So I personally like to think of the two educational forums not as competing tools but as two tools in the same toolkit that can complement each other in many cases and that may be the primary or sole tool in others. And that’s kind of esoteric so let’s get specific.

Where In-Person Is The Right Tool

We all saw in 2020–21 that having elementary schoolers sit online for a full day of classes with traditional class sizes was a rough experience for just about everyone involved. But it’s like the old adage: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — for at least a few months, all the educational system had was online as an option, so students got hammered with it. And we saw some of the things that are just so essential about in-person learning, especially for young learners. For the vast majority of elementary and middle schoolers, it’s very important to have an in-person, physical component be a primary method of learning, whether that’s a traditional school or a homeschool. When learning how to be students, they need a physical presence to help them organize materials, to keep an eye on behaviors, to give quick informal feedback, to pay attention to (and use) body language.

In-person learning is also the ideal way to create an immersive daily experience. In person it’s far easier to ensure that learners get the changes of venue and activity that come from recess, lunchtime, groupwork, and other activities that break up the monotony of a single location and format. There’s social stimulation and collaborative downtime, there are supplies readily available, and those are accompanied by a teacher’s ability to change up the plan when it’s clear kids need a change or break. When you can hand a student a book or walk a class to a new location, you can ensure that they’re getting that stimulating, immersive experience.

And I could go on: there are a great many use cases where in-person education is the perfect tool. Lots of learning just requires a physical component, whether it’s hands-on opportunities or direct teacher observation or just the kind of informal socialization that thrives in a physical environment.

Where Online Education Is The Right Tool

But there are also many use cases where online education is the perfect or preferred tool. Notably:

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  • Access to subjects and experts. A physical school can only have so many classrooms that can each only accommodate so many students. Add in budgeting concerns and the availability of teachers who can physically be present and schools are just limited in the number of elective classes and extracurricular classes they can offer. If, for example, only 10 students would take advantage of a class offering, that likely doesn’t justify the use of a classroom and a paid teacher to offer it. And even if a full room’s worth of students would be interested, a specialized teacher may just not be able to justify the commute and preparation time to come to that physical location for short, frequent class periods. Online, however, that teacher can run sessions back-to-back with students across the world, and even if only a few students from any one school are going to take advantage, educators can pool together a handful of students from multiple schools to justify the expense. Physical schools have to choose a small subset of foreign languages, computer programming languages, AP classes, etc. — by opting into online classes, however, they can make massive catalogs available.
  • Scalable, personalized learning. We see this vividly in our Learning Differences classes: learners with special needs often find themselves separated from their peer groups, or taught in groups with diverse needs. And that’s a fairly necessary factor of grouping students primarily by geography. But online, students can be grouped by learning needs: it’s far easier to group 20 students of the same age working through the same challenges and reading at the same level—we hear all the time from students who have finally found a peer group of kids just like them, plus they’re matched with a teacher who has both the expertise and the opportunity to teach a group with the same needs at the same level. And the same is true across various learning needs, ability levels, and interests. By taking geographic constraints out of the equation, learners can find specialized teachers and optimal groups to receive the instruction that really fits them for the subjects and needs it’s most important to do so.
  • The advantage of anonymity. We all know that the more you participate, the more you learn. But participation has stigmas to it: some students fear asking a silly question or volunteering an incorrect answers, while others fear looking like a teacher’s pet or try-hard (I vividly remember a precalculus teacher / varsity coach pulling me aside to say “you’ve gotten As on every test — I had no idea you were smart” and feeling that I had accomplished the perfect duality of being a great student without the stigma of peers knowing it). And there’s similar trepidation in signing up for an extracurricular activity that you know you’d love but aren’t sure your friends would approve. Online education removes that: when students are grouped with like-minded learners who they won’t see every day in the hallway or cafeteria, they can feel much freer to ask and answer questions, try new subjects, volunteer ideas, and be more active participants in their own learning.
  • Supplementary & extracurricular learning. A good teacher friend once mentioned that what school districts do is like putting on an Olympics, every day: they send out busses to every corner of town; power several massive buildings with light, heat, and a cafeteria to serve hundreds; enlist hundreds of subject matter experts to put on a day’s worth of interactive “events,” and coordinate last-minute substitutes; etc. In-person learning is a massive logistical undertaking, and if we want to extend beyond its scope someone needs to make those logistics happen: provide a building, transportation, and supplies in addition to supplying engaging, meaningful education. Online learning brings that “extra” education to where the logistics are already in place: students can learn at home without requiring an extra trip, or schools can “import” expertise without having to account for getting extra teachers/tutors on site. Increasingly, we’re seeing a need for supplementary learning to combat learning loss, to give learners access to specialized and personalized help, or to give them access to an array of subjects and experiences. In-person learning requires Olympian logistical efforts to make the standard school day happen; online learning gives supplementary learning the freedom to circumvent those needs.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

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