Can digital learning trump face-to-face education?

Friday, 26 November, 2021

Can digital learning trump face-to-face education?

The pandemic has seen a marked shift in education, with lockdowns creating limited face-to-face interaction, and more reliance on digital learning.

Researchers in Germany have suggested that digital teaching cannot replace face-to-face teaching in university education, but can certainly be seen as a complementary tool.

They believe that the future of teaching and learning may lie in so-called blended learning, a mix of face-to-face and online education.

For a high-quality university education, face-to-face teaching is considered an extremely important core component. However, digital teaching also brings unexpected advantages and opportunities, as demonstrated in a report for Psychologische Rundschau by the Study and Teaching Commission of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie (German Psychological Society).

Dr Anne Gärtner from Technische Universität Dresden explains that digital teaching offers students as well as lecturers new, unprecedented opportunities and brings a completely renewed form of teaching and learning to life.

“On the one hand, the flexibility in terms of time and space in work organisation is one of the greatest advantages of digital teaching, as not only time but also costs can be saved, for example, by eliminating travel. Lecturers have greater autonomy and can decide for themselves how to manage their time and organise their seminars and lectures. In addition, recorded teaching material can be reused,” she said.

Students feel similarly: digital teaching allows them to learn at their own personal pace and repeat recorded lectures as often as necessary. Nevertheless, “face-to-face teaching and digital formats should not be played off against each other”, Gärtner said.

“Digital teaching should be seen as a complementary means to further improve the quality of teaching, and the importance of face-to-face teaching should not be forgotten.”

Even if online learning brings more advantages than initially expected, the lack of contact between lecturers and students leaves many gaps that cannot be ‘filled’ online. One obvious disadvantage, for example, is the requirement of a stable Internet connection and the necessary technical equipment. Since digital teaching and its technical implementation was still uncharted territory for many, there was accordingly an increased workload, especially in the early days. In addition, one of the main disadvantages is undoubtedly the difficulty of remaining disciplined, focused and motivated in front of one’s computer all by oneself over a long period. For students in particular, this requires significantly more self-discipline and organisation than in face-to-face courses.

For Gärtner personally, the biggest disadvantage was not knowing whether she could actually reach her students in her online courses.

“However, it turned out that my online seminars and lectures have been very well attended so far, and interaction and exchange have been possible, albeit in a somewhat different form. As well as that has worked out — my digital seminar was even awarded a teaching prize, which I was particularly pleased about — I still hope that I will soon be able to discuss things with students together again in the seminar room and conduct exciting experiments in the lab,” she said.

Gärtner is also convinced that blended learning (combining classroom and digital teaching) could be a promising method for teaching and learning in the future. In face-to-face teaching, for example, the focus could be placed more on interaction and exchange, while in digital forms of teaching and learning, the material can be worked on individually. In the future, more and more people will want to learn and teach online, since everyone now has the opportunity to continue their education anytime and anywhere — whether on the road, in the waiting room, on the train or at home.

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