7. Differences Between Online and Face-to-Face Learning

We all have had many years of experience in learning in face-to-face settings in both classrooms and seminar rooms. Although the face-to-face learning environments are often complex and unpredictable, we are very familiar with them and have developed high levels of skill in working in these environments. We cannot assume, however, that the skills, strategies, and techniques that we so effectively use in face-to-face learning environments will also work well in online learning. David McConnell (2000) has developed the following table that provides an excellent comparison of some of the differences that exist between online and face-to-face learning. Among the important differences that you will note on this table are differences in the nature of time, group dynamics, access to others, openness of system and discussions, and amount of effort required for both types of learning,

As you continue to work collaboratively with others in your planning team throughout the course, revisit this table to see if there are other important differences that are not included, as well as things that seem more similar than is noted in his comparison.

Comparison of Online and Face-to-face Learning Environments

Online Face-to-face
Instructors sense of control
  1. Less sense of instructor control
  2. Easier for participants to ignore instructor
  1. More sense of leadership from Instructor
  2. Not so easy to ignore instructor
Condition of meeting
  1. No waiting for participants to arrive
  2. No latecomers or early leavers, etc.
  1. Often have to wait for others to arrive
  2. People leave during the meeting, etc.
  • Discussions through text only; can be structured; dense; permanent; limited; stark
  • Verbal discussions: a more common mode, but impermanent
Physical context
  • Don't meet in a room; no shared physical context (other than text)
  • Meet in a room; strong physical context
  1. Group meets continuously
  2. Concept of 'to meet' is different since no scheduled date and time and location
  3. Time less important and doesn't limit group - at least span of time is greater
  4. No sense of leaving the meeting
  5. Less controllable
  6. Sometimes deadlines are not adhered to since it is possible to extend beyond deadline to next period of online work
  1. Group meets in 'stop and start' fashion
  2. Strong sense of when group meets - all those involved attend at same time, date, etc.
  3. Time important and is a limiter.
  4. People leave during meeting for other meetings
  5. Controllable
  6. Deadlines usually adhered to since the expectation to complete them on time is high, and it is not really possible to continue into next period of time
  1. Work on multiple issues at the same time
  2. Work not condensed-fluid and interweaved with other activities
  3. Group contact continually maintained
  4. Depth of analysis often increased online
  5. Discussion often stops for periods of time, then is picked up and restarted
  6. Members sometimes lose sense of where they are in the discussions over long periods of time (information overload)
  7. Level of reflection high
  8. Able to reshape conversations on basis of ongoing understandings and reflection
  1. Usually work on one issue at a time and advance through agenda item by item
  2. Work is condensed and focused
  3. Little group contact in-between meetings
  4. Analysis varies, often dependent on time available
  5. Discussions usually completed during meeting
  6.  Discussions occur within a set time frame, therefore less likely that members will lose sense of where they are
  7. Often little time for reflection during meetings
  8. Less likelihood of conversations being reshaped during meeting
Group dynamics
  1. Group dynamics not same as face-to-face; participants have to learn how to interpret them online
  2. Less sense of anxiety
  3. More equal participation, especially for females; participants can take control of this
  4. Less hierarchies, etc.
  5. Dynamics are 'hidden' but traceable
  6. No breaks - constantly in the meeting
  7. Can be active listening without participation
  8. Medium (technology) has an impact on dynamics
  9. Different expectation about participation
  10. Slower - time delays in interactions/discussions
  1. Dynamics 'understandable' to most participants because they have experienced them before
  2. Anxiety at beginning/during meetings
  3. Participation unequal and often dominated by males, but group may try to share time equally among members
  4. More chance of hierarchies
  5. Dynamics evident but lost after the event
  6. Breaks between meetings
  7. Listening without participation may be frowned upon
  8. Medium (room) may have less impact
  9. Certain 'accepted' expectations about participation
  10. Quicker - immediacy of interactions/discussions
Accessing other groups
  1. Can access other groups easily
  2. Can see who is working in other groups
  3. Can participate in other groups easily
  1. Never have access to other groups
  2. Can't participate in other groups
  3. Can't see what is happening to others in groups
Effects of medium
  • Effects of group software
  • Effects of technology
  • Effects of room/location?
Absence of rejoining
  • Psychological/emotional stress of rejoining is high
  • Stress of rejoining not so high
Giving feedback of people's work
  1. Feedback on each individual's piece of work very detailed and focused
  2. Whole group can see and read each other's feedback
  3. Textual feedback only
  4. No one can "hide" and not give feedback
  5. Permanent record of feedback obtained by all
  6. Delayed reactions to feedback
  7. Sometimes little discussion after feedback
  8. Group looks at all participants' work at same time
  1. Less likely to cover as much detail, often more general discussion
  2. Group hears feedback
  3. Verbal/visual feedback
  4. Possible to "free-ride" and avoid giving feedback
  5. No permanent record of feedback
  6. Immediate reactions to feedback possible
  7. Usually some discussion after feedback - looking at wider issues
  8. Group looks at one participant's work at a time
Total effort of group
  • Greater using online learning
  • Less than with online learning
Divergence/choice level
  1. Loose-bound nature encourages divergent talk and adventitious learning, since it is an open system regarding time, place, source and recipient
  2. Medium frees the sender but may restrict the other participants (receivers) by increasing their uncertainty
  1. More tightly bound, requiring adherence to accepted protocols
  2. Uncertainty less likely due to common understandings about how to take part in discussions

McConnell, D. (2000) Implementing computer supported cooperative learning. London: Kogan Page Limited.


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