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Can web-based learning methods completely replace face-to-face learning?

Published on: Mar 15, 2021

The importance and use of web-based content is continuously increasing both in the professional environment and in the field of education. Particularly noticeable is the ever-increasing range of online courses for individual education and development. However, due to the increasing spread and acceptance in society, the question also arises whether such content is capable of completely replacing classic face-to-face learning. In the context of this post, we will look at which requirements must be met so that this trend is not accompanied by a loss of quality in terms of learning content, and which advantages and disadvantages result from the use of web-based learning content and learning methods.

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Technological change and digitization, combined with the current pandemic, have significantly accelerated the trend to substitute face-to-face learning with online learning. It is important to emphasize that educational institutions not only have an educational mission, but for many young people are also a place where they develop their social skills. The shift towards web-based and technology-supported methods and content must therefore be suitable not only for ensuring the quality of education and learning, but also for promoting social structures. A central component of this is the various forms of interaction that are able to reduce the perceived distance between the participants. The term interaction is defined as:

“an occasion when two or more people or things communicate with or react to each other”¹

In particular, Michael G. Moore’s work has made an important contribution to a better understanding of the importance of the various forms of interaction in the field of distance education. His approaches have been taken up by a variety of scholars and considered in the context of a wide range of approaches. For example, one finding is that different forms of interaction have different effects on the perceived quality of web-based learning and satisfaction with web-based methods. A high level of interaction between learners and instructors improves the perceived quality of learning. Interaction between the learners as well as the underlying medium or system also improves the perceived quality and moreover, this form of interaction also increases satisfaction on the part of the learners.² A general learning theory approach that considers the importance of interactions is constructivism. The underlying idea here is that learners’ knowledge is generated or constructed through interactions with the environment.³

Another influential variable regarding the perceived effectiveness of online learning is presence. In their work, Kyei-Blankson et al. (2019) come to the conclusion that the presence of the teaching person and social presence in particular have a significant influence on students’ experience with online courses. In this context, the presence of a teaching person can be visible both in the run-up to the development and construction of learning content and during the learning itself. The latter can occur, for example, through the way it is delivered or through explicit support during learning. Social presence is more oriented to the human need for belonging and emphasizes the importance of relationships among learners. This can be explicitly encouraged, for example, in the context of group work or result from mutual assistance among learners.

The number of digital education offerings is steadily increasing, and it currently seems unlikely that this is just a temporary trend. Instead, it is conceivable that in the future the entire education system will be based on web-based and technology-supported content and methods. The fact that this change is taking place is certainly a result of the fact that such content and methods have a variety of advantages in practice. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the increased use is the location-independence of the participants, as they predominantly rely only on an Internet connection. In addition, digital content can often be consumed regardless of time, especially if digital learning does not take place in groups. This means that learners can set their own learning pace and, if necessary, use recordings to play back or view the content as often as they like. The use of different software solutions can open up new ways of (jointly) developing content, which media and content can be used, and how processes and structures can be optimized in terms of their effectiveness and efficiency.

Even though the advantages are often mentioned, it should be noted at this point that web-based learning also has limitations and disadvantages. For example, the physical distance between the participants makes classic control mechanisms more difficult, which is a problem especially in exams and other tests. Effective communication can also sometimes be negatively affected by this distance. In practice, it can also be observed that technical problems still occur too frequently or that those involved are overwhelmed by the technical challenges. This is particularly the case on the part of the teaching staff, as they are often not yet technically proficient enough or willing to acquire the necessary skills. Lastly, it should be noted here that independent learning may be undermined by the multitude of potential distractions that exist at home.

A relevant aspect that must not be forgotten when objectively considering the advantages and disadvantages is the individuality of the people involved. Not all people learn in the same way, and thus no perfect solution that is equally suitable for all individuals can exist in digital learning offerings either. For example, while it was talked about at the beginning of this post that interaction between the person teaching and the person learning improves the perceived quality of online learning, it is just as conceivable that some people prefer a more passive learning style and try to avoid interactions. The same can be said about social presence or social inclusion. However, digital education offerings can be individualized to a certain extent compared to face-to-face learning, making it easier to cater to individual wishes, needs and preferences.

The shift towards web-based and technology-enabled learning content and methods seems unstoppable, and it cannot be denied that this comes with a host of benefits and potential opportunities from which society as a whole can benefit. However, such alternatives are not (yet) mature enough to fully replace the existing education system. However, it is conceivable that this point may be reached in the future. For effective learning to be possible in the digital age, however, certain requirements must also be met. It is unlikely that existing educational structures can be converted 1:1 to digital content without compromising quality, but it is conceivable that a new, improved educational apparatus can be created with the help of creative and innovative approaches.

¹ Cambridge Dictionary. N.d. “INTERACTION | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/interaction.

² Arbaugh, J. B., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2007). The importance of participant interaction in online environments. Decision support systems, 43(3), 853-865. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2006.12.013.

³ Su, B., Bonk, C. J., Magjuka, R. J., Liu, X., & Lee, S. H. (2005). The importance of interaction in web-based education: A program-level case study of online MBA courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(1), 1-19. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/161516/.

⁴ Kyei-Blankson, L., Ntuli, E., & Donnelly, H. (2019). Establishing the importance of interaction and presence to student learning in online environments. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 30(4), 539-560. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/161956/.

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