Online vs. Blended vs. Face-to-Face

A. Misconceptions about Online and Blended Learning

Because online learning is a relatively new concept, many misconceptions abound. The myths in the following formative quiz are from a 2006 iNACOL research project and adapted from the 2008 Michigan Online Learning Report.1 Take the quiz by clicking on "Quiz Group" to see how much you already know. There are a total of 7 true/false questions, with feedback returned after each question.

B. Comparative Advantages of Online and Blended Learning

Online and blended learning each have their advantages for teachers and students:

  • Anytime, anywhere 24/7
  • Credit (learning) recovery and Advanced Placement (AP)
  • More course offerings
  • Flexibility
  • On demand content - self pacing
  • Increased student communication and participation
  • Engaging students with digital tools

Using digital tools in an online classroom can help teachers check for student understanding. While a classroom teacher can scan a classroom (monitoring body language and facial expressions), teachers in an online environment use digital communications, utilizing audio and video recordings and virtual classroom spaces such as Blackboard Collaborate (formally known as Elluminate) and recordings created with Screencast-O-Matic, Screenr, Jing (TechSmith) or Camtasia Studio. Course discussions can be conducted with VoiceThread and/or FlipGrid that allow for teachers and students to asynchronously communicate via voice or video.

Face-to-face teachers may not be accustomed to the degree of student interaction encountered in an online and blended environment. In a direct instruction model, where lecture is the primary delivery method, participation may be evident from only the most verbal students. In a high-quality online or blended environment, teachers interact with every student and are not limited to the confines of a regular school day. In Spotlight on E-Learning, Cathy Cheely, Director of Virtual Virginia, states, "Though it may seem counterintuitive... online teachers spend more time interacting on an individual level with their students than teachers in a traditional classroom." 2

This infographic "10 Benefits of Blended Learning for Teachers" from Digital Learning Now!, which can be found on the te@chthought web site, is a nice representation of the transition of the teaching profession toward a blended learning environment.

For more information on online credit recovery, you may be interested in the article from: Promising Practices in Blended and Online Learning, "Using Online Learning for Credit Recovery: Getting Back on Track to Graduation."

C. Challenges of Online and Blended Learning

Even though online and blended learning have been successful for many schools across the country, challenges and/or controversy still exist. Some of the most pressing issues include:

  • Myths and Misconceptions - Online learning is new enough that many people still believe the myths, not the realities. One misconception about learning online is that course content is limited to reading text on a computer screen. While this may sometimes be true, in most online courses there is a high degree of communication and interaction between teachers and students. In fact, many online teachers report that teaching online is more time consuming than teaching face to-face because of the amount of individual attention that each online student receives.3
  • Growth - Commercial vendors and online programs have invested significant time, effort, and money creating some of the most engaging and learning-level appropriate lessons in education today. Format, rigor, and relevance of content have evolved from these efforts. However, development has outpaced the education policy in many states. Cutting edge educational tools may be rendered unusable because of district policies or state educational codes.
  • Regulations - An analysis of the information contained in the iNACOL's Keeping Pace with Online and Blended Learning 2012 document indicates that most states have some policies in place that specifically address online learning quality. However, there is still significant work to be done. Often administrative rules try to make virtual learning fit into a traditional model, potentially creating unnecessary work and stifling scalability. Another potential concern is the lack of uniformity for monitoring standards for inputs (i.e. teacher training and student support) and outputs (i.e. academic performance and pass rates).
  • Funding - Program funding has proven to be complex, depending on the program implementation model, and varies by geographic location. Often, funding follows the student. While this concept is not new, virtual schools can draw students from a wide geographic region and/or the entire state. This can create a new competitive dynamic amongst Local Education Agencies (LEA). In many virtual schools, state funding does not follow the student. These programs are normally funded with a fixed appropriation, which may create an enrollment limit. It has also led to concerns that online students may be double-funded. A few states have implemented a funding model based on the number of students or enrollments (FTE or full-time-equivalent based model). Florida pioneered a model where funding was only provided when students were successful. Aspects of this model now appear in other states. These funding models still need to account for the costs involved in serving students who do not successfully complete the course. School districts may encounter funding restrictions for students enrolled in district-facilitated online programs. Many states require the student to be physically present at the school and under the direct supervision of a school employee, in order for that student to be counted in the state education funding formula. Some states have established policies that will allow for exceptions to this funding rule.
  • Access and Equity - Equal access remains a challenge. Online and blended courses require, at a minimum, that the student have access to a computer, basic software, and the Internet at home and at school. For students in affluent areas such access is likely, but for students in inner-city and rural areas, this access should not be assumed. Educators must work to ensure that the opportunities of online education are available to students regardless of income level, geographic region, ethnicity, and/or special needs. Most schools ensure that online and blended programs are available to all students, including those with disabilities. Online courses can pose challenges for both students with learning or physical disabilities and their online teachers. Efforts are being made to increase student access through advancements in course design. Additionally, professional development has become increasingly important to improve teachers' ability to meet the needs of diverse students.
  • Transformation - Students need access to current technologies in their learning environment to be competitive in a global society. In order to realize the potential for online and blended learning, states and districts need to re-think policies that interfere with this access. Additionally, without an investment in professional development, program implementation will not be successful.
  • Time Commitment - The time commitment for online instruction can be overwhelming for teachers familiar with the traditional delivery model. The 24/7 nature of the online and blended environment, although advantageous for student learning, can significantly impact a teacher's time. The digital and (often) asynchronous nature of the work (i.e., discussion posts, wikis, email, dropbox assignment submissions, etc.) present unique demands on the teachers' time. Students accustomed to immediate feedback (i.e., text-messaging, email, etc.) may assume their online teacher should/will reply instantly. To address this issue, the online teacher needs to establish clear expectations and guidelines regarding communication, availability, and feedback. These should be clearly deliniated in the course syllabus.

1 Watson, John. (2008). The Michigan Online Learning Report, Michigan Virtual University. The Michigan report was adapted from the original version of A National Primer on K12 Online Learning: Version 2 , Matthew Wicks and iNACOL, November 2010, with a focus on Michigan state-level policies and on the practices of the Michigan Virtual University®.

2 Ash, K. (2010). E-learning in all Shapes and Sizes. Education Week Spotlight on E-Learning, 14.

3 Analysis of data obtained on April 24, 2010 from The Center for Education Reform. National Charter School Directory at