5 Reasons I Prefer Traditional Classrooms to Massive Open Online Courses

February 18, 2013

Traditional classrooms have benefits over MOOCs


Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). I’m fascinated by MOOC’s and believe they’ll shape the future of higher education. And if you couldn’t tell by this blog, I’m a proponent of online experiences.

That being said, I recently attended an intensive, classroom-based program (to get me trained on a particular vendor’s marketing software) and that experience made me further appreciate the value of the traditional (physical) classroom.

It’s All About Your Personal Learning Style

MOOC’s have the potential to reach a global audience – and for some, they’re perfect learning vehicles. Me? I’m easily distracted and inclined to multitask. When my team (the New York Giants) played in the 2012 Super Bowl, my attention was split between the larger screen (the game) and a smaller screen (the Twitter feed on my laptop).

While the shared experience of Twitter was rewarding, I knew that my attention and appreciation (in the game itself) was partially compromised. That was something I’m passionate about (sports). Now, imagine an instructional program to teach you to use software. It’s interesting, but doesn’t involve the same level of passion. Imagine the potential for distraction.

Let’s consider five ways MOOC’s may not work well with my learning style.

1) Inclination to multitask.

We all multitask online. Don't we?

Photo source: User Victor1558 on flickr.

Admit it. Whether it’s a web meeting or a webinar, you’ve often checked email, posted to Facebook or updated a spreadsheet while someone else was speaking. You’ve also been asked a question (while multitasking) and were forced to confess that you weren’t paying attention.

In my classroom training program, we performed hands-on training exercises with the software. So that meant our laptops were out, we were online and our browsers were open. So yes, I multitasked a bit, even in the traditional classroom setting.

However, the traditional setting forced me to focus, because of the other people in the room. I knew that falling off track could cause me embarrassment, while a lack of eye contact with the instructor would be rude. When you’re online, you can multitask and lose focus without much penalty or repercussion.

2) Lack of discipline and focus.

Being on the web makes it easy to multitask. And did you notice that ever since browsers introduced tabbed browsing, that multitasking within a browsing session becomes heightened? Hey, that means you! Please return from the other tab!

Beyond online or application multitasking, I also have an inclination to lose focus. If a particular learning topic doesn’t naturally engage me, I’ll start to get drowsy. Or, I’ll think about what to have for lunch. A traditional classroom setting, on the other hand, provides convenient ways to pull you back into focus.

First off, your brain tells itself, “I’m sitting in a classroom, so I’m here to learn. Let’s stay focused.” Next, you have the other folks in the room (learners and instructors), who keep you from putting your head on the table or going in the corner to read a book.

3) Multitasking beyond the computer.

If I was working from home and attending the same classroom session online, I’d be inclined to hit “pause” (if I could) and get a few things done around the house. Maybe the laundry is done and the clothes need to be put in the dryer. OK, so I’ll take my laptop with me and go do that.

Similar to tweeting during the Super Bowl, my attention has just been compromised. In a traditional classroom, there are barriers that prevent you from doing this (not to mention the fact that your laundry machine is back at home).

4) Limited “connection” with the instructor.

Some online learning modules use a PowerPoint presentation or desktop sharing (no video). Others present the instructor via webcam. Neither compare with the instructor being 10 feet in front of you. There’s no way (yet) for online learners to make eye contact with their instructor. In a traditional classroom, however, being in the same room creates a connection that helps reinforce focus and discipline.

5) Less effective for hands-on learning modules.

Instructors provide assistance in a traditional classroom setting

While online platforms are effective at assigning hands-on exercises to learners, there’s something about the classroom setting that you miss online. Our program was over 50% hands-on modules (which was great). If you had an issue with your assignment, you could raise your hand and the instructor would visit.

Often, it was a simple setting (or step) that needed to be adjusted. You could watch over your neighbor’s shoulder to understand their issue and how it was resolved. I imagine that this same sort of “instructor-led management” can be accomplished online. But being in the same room created a shared learning experience that’s hard to replicate online.


In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote quite eloquently about MOOCs in a column titled “Come the Revolution.” And while I just got done writing about how MOOCs may not suit my learning style, count me a big fan of their potential.

After all, my training program was highly specialized. It was far different from the college lectures that MOOCs have focused on to date. In addition, it was a regional course. An overwhelming advantage of MOOCs is their ability to support an audience of geographically dispersed learners.

So, for Physics 101, I’ll see you online. For the marketing software boot camp, I’ll see you in the classroom.

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