Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of on-line learning?

By Laurie Clune and Cirene D’Monte

With the advances in technology, on-line learning has become more and more prevalent in education.  There exists a passionate debate surrounding this format.  Advocates and critics are in constant dialogue about the benefits and limitations of on-line education.  Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages currently under discussion.

Advantages of On-Line Education

1.      Accessibility, Universality and Flexibility

On-line education offers students improved accessibility to learning materials, throughout the world. On-line education eliminates barriers of time and distance, and can offer content that is not country specific, thus enabling educators and knowledge providers from anywhere in the world to participate. (2, 4) On-line education also learners the flexibility of participating at any place and time that a computer is available.  Class is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can accommodate busy schedules. (1) On-line education also eliminates the hassle and expense of travel, parking, childcare, and other incidentals of physically attending a class. (1)

2.      Allows for Interaction within Distance Education

On-line distance classes encourage interaction among participants, which plays a key role in the participation and success of the student. (4) On-line technologies such as audio/video-conferencing, e-mail, and virtual classrooms enable interaction with other students and facilitators/instructors.(1) The setting encourages collaborative learning that is otherwise unavailable in distance courses. (1) A virtual environment also provides anonymity, which prevents discrimination based on factors like age, appearance and race. Attention is focused on the subject matter at hand and in the ability of the individual to respond intelligently to the topics of discussion. (4) Furthermore, it eliminates the authoritarian role of the instructor, and puts students and instructors on a more level ground. Students engage more readily with each other and with the course materials when their learning is in their control. (3)

3.      Provides for New Learning Opportunities

Learning via the Internet promotes learning about Internet. (2) Not only will students have equal access to information within the course, they will be able to transfer their Internet skills, and the information those skills make available, to their personal and professional needs. Such new learning opportunities can be intertwined with the presentation of the material itself.  Assignments can be designed to involve the use of the computer to access Internet based tools, to explore supplementary information, or to discuss issues with other students or the professor. (5) Computer interactions can also be designed so that students utilize and refine their cognitive. (5)  Because of the nature of interaction, students’ written communication skills are developed and improved.(4)

4.      Facilitates Self-Directed Learning

The on-line environment can provide instant feedback.  Tests can be graded and returned electronically to learners within hours; and on-line quizzing and self-assessments can provide feedback immediately (1), thus displacing control of pacing from the course or instructor to the learner.  Learner often find their instructors guide their learning as opposed to delivering the content, and the learning process is directed by each learner to suit their needs.

Disadvantages of On-line Education

1.       Lack of Face-to-face Interaction with Peers and Faculty

Adult education is more than the acquisition of content.  There is a social component of learning, both inside and outside the classroom.    Outside the classroom, there exists a sense of community in campus life.   In the classroom, dialogue promotes oratory skills, debate, articulation and justification of one’s viewpoints and the development of listening skills.   It allows for immediate feedback from peers on one’s views so that clarification and perspective transformation can occur.   Non-syntactic communication, such as body language, voice tone, passion for the discipline, respect and emotion, are lost when face-to-face interactions are not available.  Professors also lose the visual cues and immediate feedback when their students are confused, interested or bored. 

2.       Technological Limitations

Students are unable to participate in on-line learning, if access to the Internet is unavailable due to financial limitations, server malfunctions, or computer failure  Students may also not have the knowledge and skills of how to navigate e-mail, browsers, download software or trouble shoot hardware.  The continual evolution of computer technology can make systems obsolete in short periods of time, and students will have to assume the financial burden of upgrading to remain compatible with the educational institutions.

3.     Limits the Capabilities of Instructional Methods

On-line learning environments present limitations and restrictions in instructional methodologies.  If testing is a component of the course work, there is no way of ensuring that the student taking the examination is the enrolled participant.    While multiple choice questions may give the learner immediate indications of success or failure, written responses must be submitted for feedback.  This may delay the learners’ in proceeding to subsequent modules of the program.  While the ability to surf the Internet does allow the learners to conduct research easily, students can just as easily digress, lose focus of the learning objective and spend large amounts of time on “nice to know” rather than “need to know” information.    

4.      Eliminates Protected Time for Study

When attending a traditional class, our families, employers and society see this as protected time for study.  On-line course are not regarded in this way.  The flexibility of on-line learning also allows for procrastination when the challenges of everyday life intrude on study sessions.

The on-line format is not suitable for all learning experiences, and it should be viewed not as a solution, but as an alternative delivery method.  In planning an educational program, one must determine the important elements and objectives of the course, and then decide how distance education may be used, either wholly or in part.  A responsible instructor should be aware of these and other advantages and disadvantages, how to capitalize on the advantages and counterbalance the disadvantages to meet the learners’ needs.


1.      http://www.pmoutreach.usyd.edu.au/News/content-faq.htm#q31

2.      http://www.rushmoreu.com/~hsaloor/chapter_nine.htm

3.      http://topclass.it-tallaght.ie/adapt/papers/DISTANCE_EDUCATION.htm

4.      http://www.terra.com/specials/universities/index_lycos.html

5.      http://employees.csbsju.edu/jmakepeace/Perspectives2k/f10Gordon.jmm.html

April 2001

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Last updated on September 04, 2002.