Online or In-Person: Study Looks at Students' Learning Preferences

By Samantha Gordon
Posted May 03, 2013 11:00 AM

Blend of online and face-to-face classes may be best for community college students.
Blend of online and face-to-face classes may be best for community college students.

Community college students typically have the option to take at least some of their courses online rather than in a classroom setting, but this arrangement may not be best for everyone. Inside Higher Ed reports that about 97% of two-year institutions offer at least a few online courses. A recent study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teacher's College looked at how community college students feel about online learning versus face-to-face classroom experiences.

A Mix of Online and In-Person Classes Is Best

While many school officials are of the mindset that students want more online options, this investigation finds that may not be the case. The researchers spoke with 46 students from two community colleges in Virginia who had taken both types of courses. 

Study participants indicated that while they felt online courses were useful for certain subjects, they still preferred traditional classroom learning. Only five of the students who were interviewed said they would take all of their classes online if they had the option.

Advantages of Learning Online

There were two main reasons that gave online classes a leg-up. The primary motivation to log on and learn was that online courses provided better flexibility, convenience and time efficiency, as many community college students are also holding down part- or full-time jobs, raising families or both. Online classes also reduce the need to travel to and from campus, as 20% of respondents cited travel troubles including not owning a car and worrying about high gas prices.

Some students said they preferred online learning and interactions to those offered in a classroom setting. Being able to complete work on one's own time rather than listening to a lecture or interacting with other students leads to fewer distractions and more freedom to take in the information at a pace that works for the individual.

Advantages of Traditional Classroom Learning

While some students preferred the learning environment behind their computer screens, the majority felt that being able to interact with their professors and peers was what made the face-to-face experience more valuable. Most of the study participants indicated they liked being able to raise questions to their professors and have the course material explained more thoroughly than if they were doing all the work on their own.

Many students felt that certain courses were suitable for the online classroom, while other subjects such as public speaking and foreign language classes were better to take in person. Approximately 40% of students in the study said they would not take a math course online, for example, because it would be too difficult without peer and teacher assistance.

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