In Search of (Lost) Traditional Learning – Is It Viable in the 21st Century?

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Has online learning killed traditional learning? Can they coexist? Or, together, can they form something great?

When I decided to write about traditional ways of learning, I was sure there was something to write about. But I wasn’t sure exactly what. I looked at some traditional learning and teaching methods, which gave me pause. Nearly each one turned out to be not entirely traditional. Wherever I looked, digital influences were making inroads. I decided to adopt a classically scientific approach to my problem: start with a definition.

What Is Traditional Learning Anyways?

In search of a definition, I again used a very traditional approach: Google. Wikipedia’s definition of traditional education referred to the theory of education and its “long-established customs that society traditionally used in schools”. This wasn’t the explanation I was looking for.

I switched my search to traditional learning, which is described as “situations where students learn primarily from the instructor (the “sage-on-the-stage”) and/or from resources such as books, journals, and audio and video [recordings]” (source: IGI Global).

This definition was very ’90s, so I decided to create my own definitions for traditional and online learning:

  • Online learning includes electronically-delivered courses, e-learning studies, videos, slideshows, podcasts, etc.
  • Traditional learning includes all non-electronic activities that use books, paper, etc.

Why Learn Traditionally?

As an e-learning specialist, I tend to focus on the benefits of online learning. Since I was looking for the advantages of traditional learning, I needed to turn my way of thinking upside down.

I was surprised that I needed to do so. It’s not so long ago that I conducted onsite workshops – a traditional learning method. What’s more, I prefer to read paper books and magazines rather than electronic versions. So I decided to send my mind back in time ten years, to my college days, when e-learning was not so common.

A decade ago, learning was not entirely offline. We already had some online resources available, and we already recognized the dangers of relying on Wikipedia as a sole research source. But most of the materials were paper-based. The social hangout in the university building centered around the copy machine on the staircase, where smoking was allowed. In a haze of cigarette smoke, punctuated by flashes from the copy machine, we made paper copies of pages from books that were soon to become outdated. We just didn’t know that yet.

But there are reasons why traditional learning is not dead. Look at some of the advantages associated with the following traditional learning methods:

  • In-class workshops – Workshops give you hands-on experience, which is very valuable. We can learn faster because we can interact with other students and get help directly from the instructor.
  • Individual lessons – Individual lessons are still very popular for learning languages and musical instruments, as well as for coaching and tutoring. This one-on-one style of learning gives us at least two important things: the full attention of our teacher and immediate, accurate help when we run into difficulties.
  • Books and manuals – I would call this slow learning. We are under a constant barrage of information; it’s difficult to sit down to read without being attacked by messages from apps, social media, and e-mail. Learning with a book or manual forces us to slow down and concentrate. For me, books are like distraction-blocking apps (which we wrote about recently in the Vertabelo Academy blog). The key is to stay offline for a while, which is challenging. But books and manuals are often the most cost-effective way to learn a new skill.

Comparing Traditional vs. Online Learning

I’ve mentioned some of the pros and cons of online learning in Strategies for Online Learning Success. Now I will compare the advantages of traditional learning with online learning:

  • The Hands-On Experience and Practice of Workshops – Some online courses allow students to interact with others and gain practical experience. In the language learning niche, we have apps like Duolingo and Memrise. Also, some online programming courses (like those offered by Vertabelo Academy) are based on interaction with a computer, which gives us hands-on experience in writing queries or tags. But when it comes to manual skills (e.g. learning to build a house or bake a cake) nothing can replace learning from others and getting in some real practice in the physical world.
  • The Individualized Experience of One-on-One Lessons – This is something that online learning cannot fully replace yet. (Although virtual reality might enable us to, one day. But that’s another topic.) However, there are some very similar substitutes available. We have instant messaging and video conferencing via Skype and other providers that lets us message in real time or talk face-to-face without leaving home. For some of us, this approach is even more convenient and comfortable than the traditional way. I’ve done some coaching sessions on Skype and it was much more comfortable for me than a traditional meeting. So this online contact can be less stressful than the traditional way. There may be a slight time lapse (i.e. between messages) but this allows more time for reflection.
  • The Slow, Focused Reading of Books and Manuals – Some of us prefer reading on tablets and e-readers; some of us will always choose the smell of paper. I prefer paper, but if I’m going on vacation with limited baggage space, my Kindle e-reader is the perfect solution. Generally, online learning requires a lot of reading, often providing us with various text sources. However, these materials are generally kept up-to-date, which is one of their most important advantages.

A Practical Approach to Learning

A few years ago, I started my training journey in a traditional learning environment. I completed business coaching school and then started to lead workshops. My main tool was the Kolb Cycle, which describes the different parts of the learning process and different learning preferences. When I moved to an online environment, I thought that I would love to implement traditional learning methods for adults in online courses.

After getting to know more e-learning tools and looking closely at how online learning is developing, I started to see that a combination of traditional and online learning is possible (with the obvious exception of in-person, one-on-one training). Online learning provides us with different media options. We don’t just have text: we have game-based courses, audio and video lessons, animations, infographics, simulations, and much more. We can use this to create experimental environments that match the various stages of the Kolb Cycle (experience, reflective observation, explanation, active experimentation).

I recently completed the SQL Basics course, which inspired me to reach out for a “slow read” manual about SQL. I wanted to see if this kind of material would improve my knowledge. What I found most useful was that the manual was a repository of SQL: everything was stored in the same place. But when it comes to developing technical skills, traditional learning is out of date.

The 21st Century Way: Traditional Online Learning

Don’t think I’m against traditional learning methods. What I found is that now, in the 21st century, the combination of both traditional and online learning methods is the best and most natural way. Traditional learning has its uncontested advantages, but it’s hard to keep it completely separate from digital. Combining the traditional approach with online learning technologies is inevitable, and it’s the way of the future.

Learning Project Manager