Studying Online: A Threat to Traditional Learning?

The last decade has seen a steady rise in the number of students enrolling on online learning courses, with much praise directed at the convenience and flexibility of this style of education which complement face to face summer schools. Reflecting this increasing interest, a new phenomenon has emerged on the online learning scene over the last couple of years: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which offer students worldwide access to web-based teaching from the world’s top educational institutions. But are these ‘MOOCs’ a game-changer that will result in sweeping changes to the way we think of higher education and transform teaching as we know it? Or are they simply a passing fad? In this article, we keep the hype surrounding MOOCs in mind as we look more widely at online learning, discussing its pros and cons, and looking at whether or not it could ever replace traditional learning methods.


What is online learning?

Online learning, as the name suggests, refers to study that takes place on the internet. There are many terms used to describe online learning, including e-learning, virtual education and web-based training. A number of methods exist for teaching of this sort, and we’ll look at them in more depth a little later in this article.

Image shows an iPad on a shelf full of print books.
Conventional courses are increasingly incorporating online resources too.

Online learning is a natural extension of the distance learning and correspondence courses that pre-date it. Such courses traditionally take place by post using printed materials, with the student posting (or, latterly, emailing) assignments to a tutor to mark and return. With the development of the internet, smartphones and tablets, online learning has started to replace traditional distance learning thanks to its greater convenience and reduced costs.
Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are the latest craze in the world of online learning. They grant students virtual access to some of the world’s top universities, allowing them to study with some of the greatest minds in a particular field without the need to be physically in their presence. FutureLearn and Coursera are both examples of such organisations, which essentially provide an umbrella for courses offered by dozens of institutions around the world.


What are the benefits of online learning?

It’s not hard to see why online learning has become so popular when you consider the many reasons why people choose to take an online course instead of more traditional methods of study.

Greater choice

One of the major benefits of online learning is that students aren’t required to travel to an institution, and can learn from their home (or even on the go) at the click of a button. In the age of online learning, students can study at top institutions from a distance, which is especially useful for those who live in rural areas or who can’t afford the costs of travel and accommodation (either to go to evening classes or to take a residential course). What’s more, as well as the choice of institution, the choice of subjects is virtually unlimited.

Immediate start

Unlike traditional university or college courses, many online courses don’t have a set start date, allowing students to make an immediate start. This is true of the courses at ORA Prep, for example. This flexibility will be a refreshing change for those who’ve experienced the frustration of discovering a course only after it has started, or having to wait weeks or months for a course to begin. That said, unlike ORA Prep, most MOOCs do have set start dates, as they incorporate an element of human interaction that requires students to be studying certain materials simultaneously.

Study at your own pace

Many online courses, including ours, give students the flexibility to work at a pace that suits them. If you’re a fast learner, you won’t be held back by the slower students. If you’re a slow learner, you won’t feel under pressure to move too quickly through the syllabus, as you don’t need to move onto the next module until you feel completely comfortable that you’ve mastered a topic. This leads to better learning outcomes, enabling students to reach their potential. Although many MOOCs progress in week-long units, with material uploaded by the tutor each week, slower learners should still find that they have enough time to devote extra focus to a topic if they need to; fast learners may prefer courses that have all the materials uploaded in advance (as ours do), so that they can move straight onto the next module as soon as they’re ready.

Fewer distractions

Many students find noise in a classroom distracting when trying to study, but with online learning, they’re free to take their studies into a distraction-free environment in which they can give a topic their full focus. This means that they can absorb information more quickly and easily.

Flexibility to fit your studies in around other commitments

Image shows a woman, wearing headphones, studying in a cafe.
MOOCs let you study wherever and whenever suits you.

Because you don’t have to commit to studying at a particular time each week, or at a particular location, online courses are open to anybody, anywhere in the world. This means you can fit your studies around other commitments you may have, such as full-time schoolwork or a job. What’s more, because the materials can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can study at unusual times if you want to. You can even log in from a smartphone or tablet while you’re on the move, meaning that you can take advantage of school breaks or travel time to get in some additional studying.

Enhance a university application or CV

Many people choose to enrol on an online course in order to add extra qualifications to their CV, or demonstrate grounding in a particular subject. At ORA Prep, our students do so because they’re preparing to apply for university, and they want to give themselves a better chance of securing a coveted place in a top institution.

Save money

There are fewer costs associated with online learning, as you won’t have to think about transportation, and nor will you have to cover the accommodation costs you’d have on a residential course. What’s more, as study materials are typically web-based, you won’t normally have the cost of buying textbooks to consider.


Are there any drawbacks to this method of learning?

There are pros and cons to any learning method, so in the interests of a balanced appraisal of online learning, let’s look at a few of the potential pitfalls of taking an online course.

Less human interaction

One of the main disadvantages of studying online is that, with some courses at least, students have less contact with other people, either their peers or their teachers. Whether that’s exchanging ideas or just receiving the incentive of immediate praise from a teacher, some argue that the relative lack of human interaction in online learning is one of its biggest pitfalls. To combat this issue, many online courses offer forums or chatrooms in which students can discuss ideas with other students, virtually but in real time.


Image shows a woman falling asleep on some notes she is making.
Self-motivated students are well-suited to MOOCs; others may struggle.

Some students may find it harder to cope with the fact that on an online course, they don’t have the time structure of a traditional teaching environment and must motivate themselves to study. Combined with the lack of contact with other students, this means that some students find it can be difficult to motivate themselves to study an online course. This can unfortunately lead to higher drop-out rates for online learning.


Teaching and assessment methods for online courses

In the absence of direct human contact with students, online learning providers are faced with the challenge of delivering lessons in an interesting and stimulating way. In addition to this, they must find ways to mark students’ achievements fairly at the end of the period of study. To be engaging, online courses must constitute more than a series of static webpages that students read and are tested on. Luckily, the multimedia capabilities of the internet provide a number of options for engaging students and sustaining their interest. The following are some of the methods used by ORA Prep and other online course providers to ensure effective learning in a web-based environment.

Interactive courses

Our interactive e-learning courses are the flagship courses at ORA Prep. They feature interactive presentations that support audio lectures to get students engaged with what they’re learning. Adding to the interactivity of course materials are a series of exercises, activities, worksheets and quizzes designed to test what students have learned as they go along.

Student forums and chatrooms

Replacing the traditional classroom discussion, student forums or chatrooms provide an online space for students to exchange academic ideas and ask their peers for help. Chatrooms offer live chat, while forums facilitate longer and more considered responses, with discussions recorded so that students can benefit from discussion that has already taken place.


The web version of a seminar, a webinar is a live web broadcast that typically takes the form of a lecturer providing an introduction to a topic before leading a discussion with those who are tuned in. As well as being able to participate live, webinars are often recorded so that those who missed the live version can replay what was said at a later date.

Video lectures

Some online courses consist almost entirely of a series of video lectures. While this style may suit those who struggle with reading, this attempt to take a traditional form of teaching into an online environment has received a lukewarm response, as it presents an insufficient challenge for students, resulting in lower engagement.


Image shows rows and rows of exam chairs and tables.
Traditional forms of assessment don’t work for MOOCs, so frequently multiple-choice questions are used.

Many online courses feature peer-graded essay assessments and exams as part of the learning process, allowing the course provider to issue achievement certificates to give the student something concrete to prove what they have undertaken. Assessment is uniquely challenging in an online environment, as it’s susceptible to cheating. Assessments are often performed via web-based multiple choice exams, a format that lends itself naturally to automated marking by a computer. While such a method is limited in the depth of knowledge it allows students to demonstrate, it does at least provide them with immediate results.


So what does the future hold for online learning and MOOCs?

Having had a clear look at the pros and cons of online learning, it’s not hard to see why MOOCs have enjoyed a great deal of hype in the last couple of years. But are they here to stay?
Interestingly, the results of a recent annual survey of 4,700 universities and colleges in the US suggest that after an initial burst of enthusiasm for MOOCs, interest may be starting to wane. For the first time, the Babson survey of online learning found a decline in the number of institutions claiming that online learning is “critical” to their long-term strategy. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that MOOCs suffer from high drop-out rates, with completion rates typically lower than 10% and a huge number of students not making it past the first week; Coursera has reported a completion rate of between 7-9%. The reasons? According to one study, students’ excuses included courses being either too basic or too difficult, taking too much time, hidden costs and poor course design.
So does this mean that MOOCs, and online learning in general, have a bleak future? Not necessarily. Unsurprisingly, Coursera has found that students taking paid courses tend to enjoy higher completion rates relative to those on free courses; it makes sense that a student who has invested money in their own education is likely to be more motivated to see their studies through to completion. For such motivated students, the flexibility and convenience of online learning is unlikely to diminish, and the future for intelligently designed, engaging online courses looks bright.


Could online learning ever replace traditional methods?

Image shows King's College and Clare College, Cambridge, on a beautiful sunny day.
It doesn’t seem that traditional universities need to feel threatened just yet.

Online learning has much to contribute to providing wider access to education, and as we move increasingly into a web-based world, it looks likely that its popularity will continue to grow as more and more people realise its flexibility and convenience as a learning method. The question is, what will its future role be in the world of education? Will online courses continue as they are now, sitting independently of traditional forms of learning and being taken mainly by students who look to improve themselves of their own volition? Or could they ever replace part or all of students’ teaching and assessment for formal National Curriculum qualifications – even degrees?
The problem with online learning at the moment is that it’s difficult to guarantee fairness or to impose proper exam conditions on students of online courses. In theory, nobody would know if a student were to take the credit for a course they’ve paid someone else to take for them using their identity, and this would put them at an unfair advantage in the job market – and potentially lead to qualifications from online courses being discredited by employers even for those who’ve taken them honestly. A possible way of overcoming this issue and making online courses a more viable teaching method might be to adopt a hybrid: a form of “flip” learning, combining online and traditional learning methods. One way this could work might be to establish exam centres all around the world, with students studying the course materials at home but taking the exams under proper exam conditions at their nearest test centre. This would give online courses (including MOOCs) greater credibility, providing employers with a guarantee that a job applicant really did study the courses they’ve put on their CV.
It seems unlikely that online learning in its present form will ever completely replace traditional learning methods, and not only because of the challenges of fair assessment. Human interaction and body language are an important part of the teaching process that some may struggle without; and despite efforts to provide this in a web context, chatrooms, forums and webinars will never be the same as being physically in the presence of peers and teachers and able to communicate ideas face-to-face. Furthermore, many students choose to go to university for “the university experience” more than anything else; the life skills it teaches can’t be taught online. Online learning hasn’t quite reached its full potential yet; it’s a concept that requires some development before it can present a viable challenge to traditional learning, but its future in an increasingly internet-reliant world is surely bright. In the meantime, the popularity of purely web-based courses in their current form is unlikely to diminish as a handy way for students to pick up extra qualifications and enhance their career prospects in their spare time.

Image credits: banner; iPad; café; sleepy student; exam room; Cambridge