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Editor’s Note
:  The authors explore the potential advantages of online education among today’s high school students. Students who struggle with behavioral issues and those who want to take advanced courses are finding online are meeting their academic needs.  A major issue involves having adequate financial resources to develop a sound online program. Educators must devote time preparing curriculum materials and administrators need to offer professional development activities that enable their teachers to be effective facilitators. The authors highlight the problem with attrition among online students which continues to be higher than those in traditional education. Contemporary high school students represent an exciting frontier in the distance education movement.  BM.

Bricks and Clicks:
A Comparative Analysis of Online and Traditional Education Settings

Freda Turner and Jack Crews

This comparative study examines online and traditional educational settings for high schools, university learners and business organization. There has been a recent trend toward the replacement of traditional classrooms with web-based learning opportunities. Most recently, hospital associations are beginning to catch on to the e-learning methodology to meet their educational requirements to save expenses and educate employees and the Department of Defense launched over a 1,000 classes last year (Gonzolas, 2005).

Online courses have been proven to be a methodology to meet learner needs for ready and convenient access to education (Buckley, 2003). A comparison of the online versus the traditional classroom environments in relation to faculty and student perceptions, student attrition rates, costs, and participation of students and instructors are examined.


The classroom environment has changed significantly during the 20th century. Classrooms are evolving from the one-room rural schoolhouse constructed of wood, bricks, and mortar to learning opportunities available in an online virtual cyberspace environment in many cases. Traditionally, the learning environment was a face-to-face interaction among students and teachers at a physical site. Then in the late 19th century, distance education by means of correspondence emerged (Stadtlander, 1998). The purpose of distance education was to provide educational opportunities for individuals who were unable to attend the physical educational classroom. Students were mailed a box of books, video tapes, or CDs containing course materials. Dr. Jack Crews of Phoenix, Arizona coined this training strategy as “A Box with Class.”

Refinement in technology allowed educators to begin to use teleconferencing as a means of face-to-face instruction with students. This method of instruction was referred to as computer-mediated communication (CMC). During the 1960s and 70s a number of research studies examined the effectiveness of this style of instruction (Stadtlander, 1998). This methodology allowed a number of individuals to talk at the same time. In addition, CMC allowed for equal participation (Stadtlander, 1998). Then Interactive television (ITV), a format for synchronous classes held over an interactive network emerged. In this format, the instructor may have been in a different location or classroom but the class was live and interactive. The instructor could see and hear the students at the remote site and vice versa using technology. The result was that students at a remote site could join a class being taught on campus. The upside of this format was more students from remote areas could participate in classes without the cost and time of travel. The concern was the classes must be conducted at a location that had the appropriate technology.

During the 1990s enrollment in post-secondary education was on the decline. Initially, technology was a strategy to attract studentsIn 2001, “more than 1,100 institutions of higher education in the United States offer[ed] courses online” (Elvers, Polzella, & Graetz, 2003, p. 159). Today almost every school either has online courses available or investigating implementing them. Harvard, Vanderbilt, MIT, and a number of Ivy League schools have launched initiatives on online learning. Enrollment in online courses continues to grow. The concept of a site compass with face-to-face participation has evolved to an “individual remote participant” model (Benigno & Trentin, 2000, p. 259). Today online learning is offered at most all the Ivy League universities with University of Phoenix being one of the premier providers attracting a diversified study body.

Faculty Perceptions of Teaching in an Online versus Traditional Setting

Research regarding teaching in an online environment versus a more traditional face-to-face setting indicates that key factors affect faculty perceptions of the experience. Responding to student demand for online learning environments requires faculty to venture into a nontraditional classroom. In spite of a willingness to try this style of teaching, multiple issues surface, which are not present in a traditional setting. These issues are broadly included under the umbrella of a pedagogical paradigm shift.

The challenge for the high school educator is that many students that are taking advantage of distance education are those with problems in the regular classroom. These problems may include behavioral as well as students in need a more advanced curriculum. Teachers at the high school level need to be adequately prepared for online instruction and knowledgeable about their student population.

Faculty prepares online curriculum prior to the launch of the class and this ensures a common thread runs through each of the lectures. These tasks place an extra burden on online faculty, requiring advanced preparation, and planning than is necessary for the traditional classroom faculty. Faculty must adjust to the different nature and requirements of online classes. Leonard Presby, a professor at William Paterson University, explained, “faculty members are often surprised at how much extra time is involved when they first teach an online course” (Sakurai, 2002, p. 29). It is a common expectation that online faculty will be available to respond to students questions five to seven days a week. Some institutions offering online classes expect faculty to be prompt in responding to students’ questions, often within 24 hours. Presby estimated that the time an online instructor must spend in contact with students is about double that of the traditional classroom (Sakurai, 2002). 

Online learning environments require the instructor to facilitate extensive written communications. While the hours are long involve posting and responding to threaded questions, evaluating student work and answering concerns and questions, the upside is “the learning appears more profound as the discussions seemed both broader and wider” (Smith, Ferguson, & Caris, 2002, p. 65). Further, online communications forces the voicing of all the students whereas in a traditional classroom, learners may not contribute to discussions. In an online classroom, students cannot participate, as there is a requirement to post meaningful contributions for all to see in each class and share scholarly materials.

Shifting to the role of facilitator requires faculty to re-consider the presentation of the materials. In a face-to-face class, students wait for the instructor to start class, handout syllabi, and follow the instructor’s lead. Smith, Ferguson and Caris, (2002) noted, “in online instruction, the student initiates the action by going to the website, posting a message or doing something” (p. 66). Additionally, due to anonymity, students may feel certain equality with faculty while posting messages. Faculty, however, enjoy the dynamics when proper communication takes place. Online faculty must think about how material is presented because eye-to-eye contact is absent. Teaching moves instructors from the traditional role of front of the room, “on stage” (Ryan, Carlton, & Ali, 2004, p. 74) to a facilitation role, where an instructor cannot check body language to scan learner concern or understanding. Smith, Ferguson, and Caris (2002) found that to break “pieces of the information into small parts and sequence each part in such a way as to make sense to someone who is reading the information online, helped instructors to feel the online experience provided worthwhile challenges” (p. 65). Once the initial challenges of a paradigm shift are overcome, faculty report that teaching online is an “intellectually challenging forum which elicits deeper thinking on the part of the students,” and “has some definite advantages that may make . . . the work worth the effort” (Smith, Ferguson, & Caris, p. 67).

Student Perceptions of Learning in an Online versus Traditional Setting

The concept of a site campus with face-to-face participation has evolved to an “individual remote participant” model (Benigno & Trentin, 2000, p. 259). To have an effective online course, Hines and Pearl suggested that there are four levels of learner interactions to incorporate. These levels of interactions include interfaces with content, instructors, classmates, and self. Students need “to be involved in the process of activities” (2004, p. 1).

In a study comparing traditional and online education programs, Althaus examined the academic performance of students who had face-to-face discussions versus those who used on-line discussions. Althaus found that students who were involved in online discussions created responses that were more thoughtful because they had more time to read and think about their responses compared to students in a face-to-face setting. Althaus also found that the student in the online class earned higher grades than that of the student in the traditional classroom (Christopher, Thomas, & Tallent-Runnels, 2004).

However, there is a paucity of scientifically sound research regarding student perceptions of learning in an online environment versus a more traditional face-to-face setting. The exploration to date indicates variation in the study results. Traditional education programs do not fit into the schedules of adult learners. The use of an online forum appeals as an alternative way to complete a degree (Kozlowski, 2002). According to Kearns, Shoaf, and Summey (2004), most students were satisfied with the flexibility of an online education platform. The “convenience, flexibility, and course quality were the primary motivators for taking online courses” (p. 281). In addition, accessibility of content resources, the frequency, and timeliness of faculty feedback, and the use of innovative learning environments were other advantages over traditional face-to-face learning modalities. However, a majority of students said they would take another online course.

Bocchi, Eastman, and Swift (2004) also found that flexibility was a key satisfaction indicator for online learners. Bocchi, et. al determined that curiosity, scheduling issues, and a strong desire to attempt online courses were drivers of whether students sought to learn in a traditional face-to-face environment or in an online environment. Leasure, Davis, and Thievon (2000) discovered that the traditional classroom afforded students the opportunity for direct interaction with decreased procrastination and immediate feedback fostering more meaningful learning experiences than that which is found in an online forum. However, Leasure et. al also discovered that an online  forum afforded the student flexibility with various methods of communication, which increased student confidence. Buckley (2003) found that since “online communications moves the ear to the eye as the dominant form of language, . . . this same processing contributed to feelings of isolation and interfered with collaborative learning processes” (¶ 11).

Student Attrition and Cost Analysis of Online Versus Traditional Settings

There is an ongoing concern regarding student success and dropout rates for online students. Researcher Ryan (2002) found that “currently distance students have higher dropout rates than classroom students” (p. 7). Kleinman and Entin conducted a study comparing attrition data gathered from online and traditional courses. Data indicated no significant differences between the two groups in achievement. However, “the technology hurdle was responsible for a large drop in enrollment within the first few weeks of the semester for the online students, whereas for the in-class students, the attrition was lower and more gradual” (2002, p. 1). A study conducted by Terry (2001) at West Texas A&M University found potential explanations for higher attrition rates included “students not being able to adjust to the self-paced approach in the virtual format, the rigor of study being more difficult than students anticipated, and a lack of student and faculty experience with the instruction mode” (¶ 5). Using online learning strategies with high school students provides them with flexibility of when and where they take needed courses, which may lead to fewer dropouts. The schools can also expand their curriculums to accommodate a larger population. Another upside to online learning for high schools is it may provide a cost-reduction strategy for students that are home bound for a medical condition. Currently, many states fund teachers visiting homebound learners to preclude them from missing too much class and failing. Online learning might provide the learner with an opportunity to remain engaged in learning while reducing state funding costs to those students that have access to computer technology.

Currently the attrition rate of the online learner is greater than that of the attrition rate for the traditional student. The reasons for the higher attrition rate varies among learners and can range from difficulty with self-direction, poor technology skills, or realization that courses are more difficult and time consuming than anticipated. It is also noted, “five of six online students are employed and would not be able to attend traditional classes” (Bocchi, Eastman & Swift, 2004). Employment responsibilities may also contribute to the attrition rate to a higher degree than in traditional learning environments that have a lower per student employment rate. Despite of the higher attrition rate for online learners when compared with traditional learners it was reported that those who stay with the program report a higher satisfaction rate with regard to their education because of the familiarity with online learning and the ownership that is felt in the online education process.

Offering online learning environments is an expensive proposition. As the number of virtual learners continues to increase, institutions will benefit from higher retention rates. “A major concern for institutions is the cost of online education, because it is expensive to prepare and teach each course” (Bocchi, Eastman, & Swift, 2004, p. 246). Technology infrastructure, professional development of faculty, licensing, internet connection, and curriculum development are some of the hidden costs incurred by institutions. Course instructors, as well as, technical support staff also increase the cost per student.


Online courses are gaining acceptance in traditional higher learning institutions, high schools and business organizations.  “From the Ivy League to small community colleges and now some high schools, a majority of higher education institutions report that online learning provides better than traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction (Roach, 2003). The two methods of instruction do not need to be rivals, as both possess advantages that meet the needs of different students and faculty. In the academic universe, there is room for online and traditional classroom education to co-exist peacefully. Further, as collaborative partners the two instructional methods can together achieve the ultimate goal of providing academic opportunities to all resulting in a better society.

Online education is becoming a norm in education as funding and geographies affect the delivery of educational lessons. An analyst for a consulting group in education businesses reported,” the virtual school market is definitely expanding” (Annone, 2001, p. 32). The current teacher shortages and overcrowded facilities are driving secondary schools to handle their burgeoning student populations to new directions including through online programs. Therefore, high schools contemplating distant education programs are headed in the right direction, but will need to make adequate preparation before embarking on online learning.


Benigno, V., & Trentin, G. (2000). The evaluation of online courses. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

Bocchi, J., Eastman, J. K., & Swift, C. O. (2004). Retaining the online learner: Profile of students in an online MBA program and implications for teaching them. Journal of Ediucation for Business, 79(4), 245-253.

Buckley, K. M. (2003). Evaluation of class-room based, web-enhanced, and web-based distance learning nutrition courses for undergraduate nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 42(8), 367.

Christopher, M., Thomas, J., & Tallent-Runnels, M. (2004). Raising the Bar: Encouraging High Level Thinking in OnlineDiscussion Forums.

 Elvers, G. C., Polzella, J. D., & Graetz, K. (2003). Procrastination in online courses: Performance and attitudinal differences. Teaching of Psychology.

Gonzales, A. (2005). Employers picking up pace of e-learning in the workplace. Retrieved  On April 11, 2005 from  http://www.bizjournals.com/industries/business_services/human_resources

Kearns, L. E., Shoaf, J. R., &  Summey,  M. B. (2004). Performance and satisfaction of second degree BSN students in web-based and traditional course delivery environments. Journal of Nursing Educations, 43(6), 280-282.

Kleinman, J., & Entin, B. E., (2002). Comparison of in-class and distance learning Students’ performance and attitudes in an introductory computer science course. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges. Retrieved August 24, 2004, from Portal.

Kozlowski, D. (2002). Returning to school: An alternative to ‘traditional education’. Orthopedic Nursing, 21(4), 41-47.

Leasure, A .R., Davis, L., & Thievon, A. L. (2000). Comparison of student outcomes and preferences in a traditional vs. world wide web-based baccalaureate nursing research course. Journal of Nursing Education, 29(4), 149-154.

Roach, R. (2003). Survey says online learning equal to classroom instruction. Black  Issues in Higher Education.

Ryan, J. W. (2002). Online and in the classroom: The numbers and what they might  mean. Lakeland Community College, OH.

Ryan, M., Calton, K. H., & Ali, N. S. (2004, Mar/Apr). Reflections on the role of faculty in distance learning and changing pedagogies. Nursing Education Perspectives, 25(2), 73.

Sakurai, M. J. (2002). Traditional vs. online degrees. E-learning.

Smith, G. G., Ferguson, D., & Caris, M. (2002). Teaching over the web versus in the classroom: Difference in the instructor experience. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(1), 61-67.

Stadtlander, M. L. (1998). Virtual instruction: Teaching an online graduate seminar. Teaching of Psychology. 25(2), Montana State University.

Terry, N. (2001). Assessing enrollment and attrition rates for the online MBA. The Journal Technological Horizons in Education.

About the Authors

Dr. Freda Turner, Chair
Online Doctor of Management and Leadership Program
University of Phoenix

Dr. Freda Turner, is currently the Chair of the Online Doctor of Management and Leadership Program with University of Phoenix. She has been involved with educational programs for over 20 years as a consultant, provider of training to military learners, and now online doctorate learners.

Dr. Turner may be reached at: Freda.Turner@phoenix.edu.


Dr. Jack  Crews, Chair
Online Education Department University of Phoenix

Dr. Jack Crews is currently the Chair of the Online Education Department at University of Phoenix where he oversees online instruction in the Ed.D. program. Dr. Crews has been involved with teaching and administration of K-12 within the public school system as well as collegiate level education.

Dr. Crews may be reached at Jack.Crews@phoenix.edu.

Contact Telephone at University of Phoenix :
1-800-366-9699 ext 72886



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