If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ve likely noticed that everyone has been talking about how the learning experience in a classroom (traditional learning) is vastly different from the one that occurs in a digital space (online learning).

As more schools (including those at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level) shift to a remote learning model, it’s easy to find yourself wondering whether the learning outcomes and experience are the same within these two separate environments.

Although the differences are certainly there, there are plenty of benefits to taking online courses – and believe it or not, the online training environment is often a much better way to learn than the traditional education model.

Here are some of the key similarities between online and traditional education – the common ground that the two share might shock you! Although there are a few differences, the common ground is more pronounced.



Like it or not, the workload is going to be consistent for all education systems, regardless of whether they are on-campus or online.

You are still going to have homework, tests, quizzes, and lectures, and while those assignments might look a bit different in the online learning model, they still exist.

In fact, some students report that online classes often come with even more independent assignments than the classes they have taken in a more traditional education system – likely because there are fewer requirements in terms of “seat time.”

Of course, the main difference between online and traditional learning is that you will need to be more self-directed and disciplined in the online setting to get your coursework completed on time.

Your assignments might be delivered and need to be completed in an asynchronous way – meaning it’s up to you to decide when to get them done, rather than relying on an instructor to nag you along the way.

Whether you decide you want to attend class online or in a physical setting, you’re still going to get homework. How much homework you receive has less to do with the format and environment of the class than it does with the teaching philosophy of the instructor. You will still need to complete reading and writing assignments, watch films, or listen to recordings – the workload is still there, it’s just in a different format.


Textbooks and Learning Materials

Another similarity between online and traditional courses is that both are going to require supplemental course materials to help you prepare for and complete reading and writing assignments. For the most part, even if a course is online, it still requires a print textbook.

That said, more and more courses (including those that are offered in-person) are moving to virtual textbooks or “e-books,” which can help conserve resources and often save you money, too. Either way, though, it doesn’t matter what kind of class you are taking – you are still going to have some serious reading to do.


Importance of Feedback and Communication

Feedback and communication are both crucial elements of both online classes and the traditional education system. Without proper feedback, there is no way for you to know how well you are mastering the material and whether you are prepared to move on to the next section of learning.

In an online course, feedback might be delivered via grades and comments on assessments or through communications such as emails, phone calls, and video chats. Of course, in a traditional classroom, that feedback is often delivered face to face.

One is not necessarily better than the other, but many online students like how feedback is delivered in an online class because they have it to look back on later on.

When feedback is delivered in a written or electronic form, as it often is in online courses, there is a permanent log of that information so that you always have a reference to guide you to make changes for later work.

Another benefit of online learning that you might not find in a traditional classroom is that although the potential for feedback and communication are present in both environments, in an online learning environment, students have more opportunities to engage 1:1 with their instructors.

In a traditional classroom, a shy, timid student might not feel comfortable raising his hand to ask a question – while in an online environment, there is more opportunity to inquire and interact in a low-risk setting.

You’ll be able to communicate with your instructor regardless of whether you are attending school on-campus or online. In fact, many instructors, despite teaching in an online environment, still have office hours, allowing you to get clarification on any questions or just talk with your professors.

Communication for both online and in-person classes can also be done by phone and email, too, meaning the methods for communication don’t vary much between in-person and online classes.



For both online and in-person classes, you’re going to have to attend some lectures. The format might vary – for example, in an online class, you might have 24/7 access to recorded lectures, allowing you to revisit and to study the material whenever you feel like it. In a traditional class, your lecture time might only consist of ten hours or so.

Either way, expect to attend lectures regardless of the kind of class you are taking. After all, you need to be able to access the course materials somehow.


Challenges and Rewards

Looking to boost your career opportunities by taking a class or two? In both an online class and a traditional class, you’ll be able to do this. Sure, there are significant challenges associated with both kinds of classes, but there’s also the potential for some significant rewards.

In the past, online classes might not have been viewed with the same kind of respect as those that were taken in-person. And to be fair, there are some classes that are still best-suited for in-person learning (the trades come to mind).

However, for the most part, employers and schools no longer care about (or differentiate between) in-person and online classes. In fact, most colleges, when printing your degree or transcripts, don’t indicate as to whether the class was completed online or in-person.

The one exception is if you are pursuing a career where hands-on training is necessary (as mentioned with the trades professions, above). You could be turned down for a position because you don’t have any hands-on experience – but believe it or not, this is something that happens just as often with students who attended in-person programs as it does with those who studied online.

The key to being successful in any program – and to reaping the associated rewards! – is to make sure that you are taking advantage of any and all opportunities that come your way. Don’t be a wallflower, but instead, actively seek out ways to boost your knowledge and hands-on training in a discipline or topic.

Most online programs offer experiences like internships, cooperative learning programs, and other hands-on experiences. That way, you can still acquire the practical skills you need, even if you don’t attend your courses on campus.


Teacher Instruction and Interaction

Both online and in-person classes rely on a skilled, knowledgeable teacher to deliver and organize course material. You will learn from that instructor’s expertise, regardless of the setting in which you take your classes.

Therefore, it’s imperative that you look for a teacher whose instructional style meshes with your own – and whose knowledge in the chosen discipline is impressive. That’s true for both online and in-person classes.



While you might think that taking an online class will entitle you to sit behind a screen and not interact with your classmates, instructor, or the course material at all, that is simply not the case. Both classroom-based and online classes require you to participate in discussions or to ask and answer questions.



In fact, many online classes have virtual discussion boards in which instructors require students to contribute on a regular basis.

The beauty of an online classroom, in this regard, is that many of the limiting factors of participation in a traditional classroom are eliminated in this realm.

Shy students who might be unwilling to contribute in a crowded room full of chatty peers sare much more likely to participate in written discussions in chat rooms – where participation tends to be mandatory.

As a result, students in online classes tend to have the opportunity to hear a wider breadth of perspectives.



Alas, distractions exist regardless of the setting in which you take your classes.

The distractions might seem more obvious and glaring in an online class – after all, you have complete freedom to shirk your course responsibilities and browse Facebook rather than getting your assigned reading done.

But just think back to any in-person class you have taken. Remember the class clown? Do you remember that one classroom where the heat was always turned up way too high, or the clock was ticking way too loud?

Chances are, you probably do.

There are distractions that can hinder your learning in both an online and traditional classroom. However, the major difference between online and in-person learning is that in an online class, you have more control over those distractions.

There aren’t any other people to throw you off os you can sit down and focus on what’s in front of you – without having to worry about Class Clown Kevin’s stupid jokes.

Room too warm? Simply get up and turn the thermostat down. The clock won’t’ stop ticking? Unplug it. In an online environment, many of the distractions that are present in a traditional classroom simply aren’t there. Of course, you’ll still have to have the discipline and willpower to turn away Facebook and other distractions, though.


Assistance From Support Services

Support services are usually available in both online and traditional classes, but they might look a bit different in either environment.

Some students report that there are more opportunities to join associations, clubs, and fraternities or sororities while they are taking classes on campus.

While this is marginally true – some activities, like sports, simply aren’t going to be a possibility when you study online – more universities and other educational institutions are making student activities available to fully online learners, too.

Plus, as an online learner, you’ll usually have access to the same support services you would receive if you were studying on-campus. You can still get support from counselors, instructors, tutors, and other professionals – the support might just take place in a different form.


Time Management

When you take any kind of class, it’s going to be essential that you learn how to manage your time wisely. This need might be more pronounced in a more hands-off online class, but we’ve all taken that traditional class in the past where the instructor was remarkably laissez-faire (so it’s not necessarily a sure thing that an online class is going to require better time management skills).


Both online and traditional classes will require you to manage your time wisely. However, in an online course, you will often be required to acquire and learn course materials on your own time.

This freedom is part of what makes online classes so attractive to nontraditional students. Not only can you move through the course material at your own pace and on your own schedule, but it’s more convenient if you work a job or have family commitments that make in-person attendance a challenge.



Some schools charge online students at the same rate as on-campus students, while others have separate tuition and fees for their distance learning programs. Sometimes schools structure tuition on a per-credit basis or charge flat fees which include all costs for the semester.

Still more schools drop fees that don’t apply to online students, like parking or add fees to help the school maintain its technological infrastructure.

All in all, though, the cost of online vs. traditional learning doesn’t tend to vary much. Online programs are usually marginally cheaper, but that’s not always the case. It’s important that you do your research before signing up for one or the other, because often, the assumption that one program is less costly than the other is one that is made in error.


Technological Concerns

It might seem obvious that, to participate in an online course, you have to have some computer literacy. In addition, your instructors need to be able to understand how to incorporate technological resources into their lessons.

Believe it or not, though, information technology is imperative for in-person learning, too. Most traditional courses still require some basic information technology skills when it comes to creating documents (like essays), conducting Internet-based research, and doing other work.

You won’t be saved from your technological ineptitude by enrolling in a traditional course – chances are, you’re going to need to understand the basics for both learning environments.


Which Learning Environment is Right For Me?

There are significant benefits and disadvantages to both traditional learning and online learning. However, studies show that there is little difference in overall performance between the two formats – and that’s according to the American Sociology Association.

However, your learning style might play a role in determining which method is best for you (and for lowering your overall stress levels when it comes to participating in a new course).

For example, if you tend to be a more self-directed, autonomous, and organized learner, you are likely going to do better in an online environment in which you are in control. However, students who rely more on instructors for instructions and direction may struggle in this environment.

If you’re extroverted, an in-person class might be best for you, as you’ll be able to engage with classmates and instructors face-to-face. Introverted students tend to thrive more in online classes, where they can work in a more solitary fashion.

Your age might play a role in how well you perform in an online vs traditional class, too. Studies have shown that traditional classes are more suitable for young children, teenagers, and young adults who have not yet joined the workforce.

To acquire the skills and habits necessary for lifelong success in learning, regular attendance in class is a must.

This will not only help these young people interact with others of their own gender, but it can help them learn how to stick to a regular schedule. In a traditional classroom, it’s easier for a student to interact directly with the instructor, helping to develop habits and confidence that are necessary for lifelong success.

Often, young people who are taking online courses require more support from parents and other third-party individuals.

Still not sure whether online or traditional learning is right for you? Don’t worry – there is an option that falls between both, and it’s called a blended learning environment.

In a blended course format, the curriculum is designed to include both traditional in-person learning as well as online coursework. The methods and manners in which this kind of learning environment is carried out can vary widely depending on both the instructor and the subject.

However, it might look like this – an instructor requires in-person attendance just one day a week for lectures. Then, all projects and activities are assigned so that students can complete them online, on their own time.

This lets you receive some of the benefits of face-to-face learning (such as the social interaction) while also allowing for greater flexibility in your schedule.

Most universities and other educational institutions that offer online courses provide students with some autonomy in how they choose to take their classes. In many cases, you may be able to take a combination of courses both in-person and online, allowing you to play around and find the blend that works best for you.


Are There Any Differences Between Traditional Learning and Online Learning?

There are of course some pronounced differences between a traditional and online learning environment, too. For example, the communication methods in an online course can be quite different than those used in a traditional classroom.

It can be harder to work on group assignments when you’re trying to communicate with people you’ve never actually met face-to-face. Not being able to delegate work in person can lead to some complications.

Some online students report that it’s harder to get to know an instructor in person, too. Although traditional classrooms allow students to gain both support and develop personal relationships with their teachers, only electronic communication is possible in an online course.

Of course, with an online class, you’re going to have a bit more control over how and when you complete your classes.

Gone are the days of needing to shower and get dressed to head to class! With an online class, you can attend your sessions and complete your assignments from the comfort of your home, doing so at just about any time of the day.

There are some slight differences between traditional learning and online learning, but for the most part, the commonalities they share vastly outweigh the features that they do not.

You are going to need to put forth effort when taking a class, regardless of whether that class exists in the digital or in the real-world space.

It’s up to you to decide which model works best for you, your life circumstances and of course, your learning style.

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Rebekah Pierce

Rebekah Pierce is a writer with a B.A. in English from St. Lawrence University and a Master’s in Special Education from SUNY Plattsburgh. She has worked both as a college admissions counselor as well as a high school English teacher and has also written extensively on topics related to educational technology and the college selection process.

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