3 Truths & 1 Myth About Online Learning vs Traditional Learning

By Keith Michael Howard | Last Updated: October 27, 2021

Will the online learning vs traditional learning debate ever die?

Yes. Yes, it will.

Big time.

It will be over sooner than you think, but not for the reason you expected.

This post is to make clear why online learning is unstoppable for only certain classroom contexts and to dispel one of online learning’s biggest myths.

Truth #1. Online learning is more environmentally friendly than traditional face-to-face learning.

An influential study conducted by Potter and Yarrow [1] compared the environmental impact of online learning vs traditional learning. It concluded that Britain’s largest online university, the Open University, created 85% less carbon dioxide emissions per student, and used 90% less energy when compared to traditional learning courses.

This one is common sense if you think about it.

Let’s say a university has 500 students and 1000 support staff. They all have to get to campus, so they’re going to drive. Now, you have 1,500 people driving to campus. And once they get to campus, you’ll need to put them in buildings with lights, internet access, and heating or cooling. Add on the maintenance costs for the buildings themselves and you get a larger carbon footprint by offering traditional classroom courses.

These factors lead to traditional learning not being as environmentally friendly as online learning.

This is one of the main reasons I believe that online learning is future-proof and will only become more common; it uses fewer resources.

Truth #2. Online learning is more cost-effective than traditional learning.

The primary drivers of online learning are coming from the corporate training sector.

Companies such as IBM or Shell are slashing their training costs and saving millions of dollars every year by switching to e-learning. [2]

On the university side, a study at Arizona State compared the costs of online courses versus traditional face-to-face courses at four different institutions. They found that the savings for online courses are from $12 to $66 per credit hour, which is a reduction of 3 to 50% of the total costs. [3]

Another fact to keep in mind is that, in June 2020, enrollment for bachelor’s degrees dropped for the first time in years.

There are several other reasons administrators choose online learning, but the reality is it may be the only delivery option that is economically workable unless enrollments increase again.

Truth #3: Online learning may be more effective for adult learners.

A meta-analysis conducted by Shachar & Neumann [4] examined over 20 years of research on the differences between online and traditional learning in 125 qualifying studies with over 20,000 participants.

They found that 70% of the time, students taking courses online outperformed their peers in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Their findings agreed with previous meta-analyses that found distance education is a respectable and feasible option for adult learners.

Adult learners usually have the mental maturity and autonomous learning ability that are required to succeed in online courses.

Simply put, they can teach themselves for the most part and self-assess when they need to seek out help.

Their ability to learn remotely, and the flexibility in scheduling that online learning offers are two reasons that the majority of adult learners may actually prefer learning online.

Myth #1: There is “no significant difference” in online learning vs traditional learning.

Thomas L. Russell wrote a book in 2001 called The No Significant Difference Phenomenon [5] logging excerpts from 335 studies with findings that online learning is just as good or better than traditional learning.

There is also the No Significant Difference website.

The problem I have with this is almost all of these studies are in universities, the military, or corporations.

There’s only “no significant difference” between online learning versus traditional learning if you exclude children, young learners, and teenagers.

For these younger age groups that don’t have the same level of maturity or ability to focus – online learning is simply not as good as a traditional classroom.

And if there is “no significant difference” between online learning and traditional learning then why is it so easy to find articles like these:

  1. Online Learning Isn’t Working for Students, Parents or Teachers.
  2. Parents Think Zoom School Is A Total Nightmare.
  3. ‘Remote learning’ is a disaster, and terrible for children

To be fair, Russel’s book was written during a time when there was a heavy stigma against online learning, and there are also studies finding significant differences on the website, which is aimed at balancing out the discussion.

However, it is a myth that there’s “no significant difference” between online and traditional learning for all classroom contexts.


The truths about online learning are that it’s more environmentally friendly, it’s more cost-effective, and it may be more effective overall for adult learners.

One myth about online learning it’s there’s no significant difference no matter what the classroom context is, which I would argue against as online learning is not always ideal for children.


[1] Roy, R., Potter, S., & Yarrow, K. (2008). Designing low carbon higher education systems: Environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems. International journal of sustainability in higher education. [Google Scholar]

[2] Chen, C. (2021, March 4) Distance Learning Statistics from 2020 That Will Surprise You.

[3] Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018). Making digital learning work: Success strategies from six leading universities and community colleges. Boston: Massachusetts: Boston Consulting Group. [Google Scholar]

[4] Shachar, M., & Neumann, Y. (2010). Twenty years of research on the academic performance differences between traditional and distance learning: Summative meta-analysis and trend examination. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(2). [Google Scholar]

[5] Russell, T. L. (2001). The no significant difference phenomenon: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education. AL: International Distance Education Certification Center. [Google Scholar]

Hi, I'm Keith, an education technology innovator and host of The New Curriculum Specialist. But I wasn’t either of those things 2 years ago. Then 2020 happened. To adapt, I learned a little bit of code and things have really taken off from there. Not that bad for a guy who failed Math 6 times.

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