Will E-Learning Replace Face-to-Face Learning?

FILES: This photo taken on June 17, 2011 shows Cambodian students learning computer skills in a class at a community centre in Siem Reap province, some 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh. (Photo: AFP)
  • Rathana Phin
  • January 13, 2021 9:15 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced physical classrooms worldwide to close; as a result, educational institutions across the world have had to adapt to e-learning (electronic learning) as an alternative to stay on track with their planned academic curriculum. 

The closure of educational institutions as part of measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus has affected over 1.3 billion learners in nearly 185 countries (UNESCO, 2020). With the cancelling of traditional classrooms, remote or online learning via digital platforms supported by e-learning and videoconferencing software and applications has begun to increase significantly (Li & Lalani, 2020). The rise of online learning has led to a debate about the possibility of replacing the traditional classroom-based learning with online or e-learning (Lee, 2020).

Benefits of e-learning

E-learning or online learning is a new mode of learning enabled by digital devices such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones connected to the internet. In e-learning, students can virtually study from anywhere. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online classes conducted remotely are the only alternative available to continue education. In several ways, e-learning brings numerous benefits to both students and instructors.

Firstly, easy access to resources allows educators to upload study materials such as video lectures, slide presentations, textbooks, assignment instructions, and relevant course materials to their online classroom system. This can provide students with the opportunity to browse through the course content at their own pace and they can study anytime and from anywhere.

Secondly, online learning allows for greater flexibility. For example, courses on Coursera and edX do not require students to join lectures in the exact time set by their instructor or institution; they can, therefore, study whenever they have time. Thus, students will not miss the lessons even when they are busy with other tasks and commitments.

Thirdly, students and instructors can avoid a lengthy commute. Students do not have to go to their school or university anymore. They can stay at home and study without spending a cent on transportation, and they can be safe from the virus or other unpredictable incidents on the road.

Fourthly, students have the opportunity to ensure that they understand the lessons.  In physical classrooms, especially in large classes, students who sit at the back or who take a nap during the class session might miss the important points in the lecture; however, in online classes, students can watch the recorded video lecture as many times as they wish until they can fully understand it.

Challenges of online learning

Online classrooms became the only option when schools were closed because of the pandemic. Online or e-learning via digital platforms came into existence and became a billion-dollar industry even before the pandemic. In 2015, as reported by Forbes, e-learning industry made up $107 billion and it was estimated that this business would triple to $325 billion by 2025 (McCue, 2018).

The advancement of technology is, however, not flawless. As it advances, it creates its own challenges. As the pandemic has forced students to study virtually, the issue of learning inefficiency (Nidheesh, 2020) and student dissatisfaction have arisen (Binkley, 2020). In what follows, I argue that e-learning will not replace the face-to-face classroom due to several reasons.

Online classes do not develop social skills

In online classes, students seem to engage less during lectures (Meyer, 2014). They are in front of their screens, talking to the devices, not to their friends nor their teacher as they do in physical classrooms. Besides, the quality of teaching in the face-to-face classrooms is arguably higher as the environment allows students and students or students and the instructor to interact with each other better, allowing them to work together to achieve the teaching and learning objective (see Kristiansen et al., 2019).

Without socialization students may not develop interpersonal skills. In traditional classrooms, students can do presentations or exchange ideas without any communication barriers. The learning experience in physical classrooms is unique and will never be replaced by other teaching styles. In face-to-face classes, teachers can use body language such as gestures to explain, facial expressions to express emotions, or action to demonstrate. Doing all of these in physical classrooms can attract students’ attention easily.

Ineffective class monitoring

In traditional classrooms, the instructor can easily keep students on their toes. For example, some students might look outside through the window, sleep or chat with their friends when they get bored or distracted. However, it will not take long for the instructor to draw students’ attention to reconcentrate on the lesson in physical classes. Unfortunately, in online classes, this might be harder.

In e-learning classes, students sit in front of their screens. However, not all students might focus on the lesson at hand. As research has shown, students were more likely to do multi-tasks such as being on social media, browsing the internet, and listening to music while learning online than when they study in in-person classes (Lepp et al., 2019). When there is no inspection from the instructor, students can do anything else besides focusing on the lecture in online classes. Unlike in traditional classrooms, I believe students can easily fall asleep, lose focus, zone out, or even leave the online classroom.

A study by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center found that the hurdles that online students face is the lack of personal individual engagement with their instructor (The New York Times Editorial, 2013). When lecturing in physical classrooms, teachers can directly give feedback to students, and students can ask their instructors questions straight away for clarification when they need. However, in online classrooms, it is different. Students may have to contact their instructor via message, email, or chat first. This means of communication might discourage them to ask questions.

There are other issues, including lack of engagement and interaction as well as feeling of estrangement. For example, it was found that students were more likely to fail or withdraw from the course than when they studied in face-to-face classes (The New York Times Editorial, 2013). A study by Martin and Bolliger (2018) showed that most college student believed that online courses were less effective than traditional classrooms. They also found that physical classes could increase student engagement, student satisfaction, and student motivation as well as reduce a sense of isolation among students.

Lack of access to digital devices and internet connections

Even though​ students commit to participating in online classes by trying to listen or take notes, they are still facing some problems stemming from the lack of digital devices or internet connection. I believe some devices, such as old phones, might be impractical as they can become hot and switch off by themselves while in the middle of the learning session. Students may face problems with their computers running on outdated operating systems that do not function effectively.

As reported in the Irish Times, when Irish students were asked about the reality of their virtual learning, poor internet connection was among other distracting factors during online classes (The Irish Times, 2020). This could deteriorate the quality of teaching and learning. No doubt, this kind of issue is more prevalent in developing countries in Middle East and Africa that have low internet connection (Euro News, 2020).

In Southeast Asia, the term ‘digital divide’ has been used to illustrate the inequality of internet access in the region (ASEANPlus News, 2020). For example, there are only three countries such as Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia that have internet penetration of up to 80 percent of the population while other countries in the region have the internet penetration of around 60 percent or less (Jalli, 2020).

Poor course design and instructors’ digital literacy

There are problems related to course design and teachers’ digital literacy skills as well. For example, older teachers might find it hard to design a course that can be effectively delivered online. They may also find it challenging to engage students in online classes. No doubt, the success of online learning depends on a well-designed course, active discussion, and interaction between students and instructors (Swan et al., 2000). Thus, poor preparation or organization on how the course can be conducted will affect the quality of teaching.

Online class could cause health problems

With e-learning, students need to stay in front of the screen for long hours.  According to Hand (2018), online learning can cause isolation, leading to anxiety and depression, while overusing computers can lead to negative physical effects such as muscle and joint injuries, increased mortality rate associated with excessive sitting, and eyestrain from computer use.


Online learning is a new adventure in education for students and instructors across the globe. It has a lot of benefits as we are living in this digital age. However, since the success of students’ learning depends on a well-designed course, accessibility, preparedness, and the instructors’ ability to engage students in their learning, the possibility of adapting fully to virtual classrooms becomes successful only when these conditions are met. Despite the rise of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is evidence of students’ dissatisfaction and learning ineffectiveness (see Dziuban et al., 2015).

In sum, although traditional face-to-face classes are not possible during the pandemic and online teaching is the only option, both types of learning have their pros and cons. Thus, the way forward should be the combination of both, that is, a hybrid learning mode, a new type of teaching-learning method that will compensate the weakness of traditional classrooms and online learning for a better learning experience. Personally, I believe online or e-learning will not take over the physical classroom anytime soon.

Rathana Phin is currently an intern at Cambodian Education Forum (CEF). He is a junior student pursuing a Bachelor of Political Science and International Relations at Paragon International University in Phnom Penh.

 This article was originally published by Cambodian Education Forum on January 2, 2020.









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