Learning Curves Topic
  • Digital Content & Curriculum
Learning Curves
August 30, 2018

How Does Online Learning Stack Up Against the Traditional Classroom?

MHT Partners  | Education Investment Bank

Online Learning Programs

The prevalence of distance or online learning programs has grown consistently for more than a decade, driven by more and more people seeking flexible and affordable options to further their education and open the door to new career opportunities. Notably, the 2017 Distance Education Enrollment Report prepared by the Digital Learning Compass organization indicates the number of enrollments for online programs has grown for 14 straight years with more than 6 million students enrolled in online courses in the U.S. during 2015*.









Online learning programs have altered the entire education landscape. Web-based courses have been integrated into the learning curriculum for all types of organizations, including corporations (e.g., workforce training), higher education institutions, and K-12 schools and programs. Several factors drive the popularity of online education programs, including accessibility, career advancement opportunities and affordability.

  • Accessibility – Online courses allow individuals to work at a pace that accommodates busy schedules and are accessible anytime, making education possible even for the atypical student
  • Career Advancement – Approximately 72% of online students report job and employment goals as the primary driver for pursuing online learning, including transitioning to a new career field and earning academic credentials in a current field of work
  • Affordability – Online learning programs are generally more affordable than traditional brick-and-mortar programs given that schools don’t have to incur the same level of overhead to support online students

Efficacy of Online Learning

There are undoubtedly many advantages to online learning programs, but as popularity continues to grow, it is only natural to wonder about the degree to which online students are successful relative to their classroom counterparts. To that end, many studies have been conducted in which the performance of online students has been measured against the performance of students in traditional classroom settings. Most recently, Connections Academy, an accredited K-12 online public school, completed an assessment of the performance of the students enrolled in its virtual schools. Connections Academy’s students identify as belonging to one of the following categories: academically advanced; struggling academically; experiencing health issues; struggling with bullying issues; and seeking greater flexibility. This creates a unique dynamic considering many of the individuals with these characteristics have complex needs, which tend to result in poor academic performance. Nevertheless, the study indicated there was no statistical difference in the performance of students enrolled in online programs when compared against a similar cohort of students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Said differently, the study showed that students who pursued online learning programs attained the same level of achievement and success as those who pursued traditional education programs.

As enrollment in distance or online learning programs increases, people will continue to question the efficacy of online learning. Studies have shown there isn’t much of a correlation between the cost of a degree and the quality of education. However, it’s important for students to thoroughly research and assess the particular program in question to determine whether it serves as an appropriate alternative to traditional education.

* Digital Learning Compass:  Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017


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  1. Thank you for explaining how online classes allow students to better align their educational time with their schedules. My brother has been interested in attending an online high school program next year since our mother typically has to travel regularly for her job, but he needs to find a way to continue learning when he is staying at a hotel or in an apartment. He should consider finding a program that will help him get the education he needs no matter where he is.