Can online learning ever replace traditional classroom learning?
Author | Yvunne Rinaldi
Author | Yvunne Rinaldi

Everything, including online learning, has advantages and disadvantages; factors that need to be considered are practical elements and psychological impacts.

Learning online is not new for many students. Complete degrees can be completed via digital modes. The pandemic showed us that we can learn online from an early age when needed.

Learning online is definitely here to stay and could this replace a classroom in the future? The simple answer would be the affirmative; however, consideration should be given to the role of a classroom environment, compared to an online space.

A classroom is a living community: children talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other; relationships are understood and created through verbal and non-verbal interactions. Identities are formed according to the type of experiences offered and absorbed. The adult in the environment has a unique task of identifying how each student learns and providing the appropriate tools to reach their potential. It is through careful observation of a student that data is collected, rather than digital facts.

Tools offered by class educators will address both physical and psychological needs. A kind word or touch at the opportune moment is irreplaceable. How many of us remember the kind teacher that really cared about us? Somehow, we applied ourselves far more during that person’s lessons.

A counterargument would be that replacing this environment with a digital learning space may have advantages, such as efficiency in producing work, choice of timing for learning, global access to information rather than a limited source. Technology is improving daily, and AI is employed in many learning areas with great success and enticement. Again, evidence that digital learning is here to stay.

The proposed initial question of whether a classroom will cease to exist or to be required in the future is a very difficult question. We all are attracted to the novelty and to the ease of usage of technology for learning. However, we are still instilled with human needs and personal/physical contact is a primary human need.

In 2020, when students all over the world were forced to learn online, one of the overwhelming unmet needs was the contact with friends and teachers and the benefits of a mini-society – the classroom. Students from all backgrounds and in every country stated that they missed the companionship and the interactions with peers and educators.

In a Montessori context, the belief is that students must experience first-hand any concept for knowledge to be stored in memory. Neurologically we know that when we use many parts of the brain simultaneously the information received by the brain will be consolidated easily and remain for the long term. MRI studies have demonstrated that neural activities are accentuated when more than one sense is involved. Thus, our methodology and philosophy strongly advocate for real life experiences using manipulatives for best learning.

How will this translate into a future learning environment?

Blended learning by using digital and class learning will meet many needs and students will continue to grow interpersonal and intrapersonal skills if an environment is provided for groups to meet (a class). Will a classroom look as it does today? Possibly not. A future classroom should still include elements such as conversations between students and students and adults with full language components: encoding, decoding, feedback and medium of transmission. Most of these components would be limited if the physical presence is unavailable. Our brain does not translate digital messages in the same way it does through sensory exposure.

To conclude this contemporary and ongoing discourse, we could say the following: The ‘learning space’ is the new name for a classroom. We will work in a space prepared for learning as well as include the outdoors and virtual space, so the attribute of a classroom will no longer apply. We hopefully will include movement and exploration and for older students, collaboration with peers when studying. We do not want students isolated by digital tools (no matter how exciting they appear). We want interactions, we want communities working together to grow the capacity of understanding and finding optimal solutions to problems encountered and, most of all, we want caring relationships and healthy minds.

About the Author: Yvonne Rinaldi

Ms Yvonne Rinaldi was born in Italy and moved to South Africa where she worked at the South African Institute for Medical Research, researching child malnutrition. This initiated her interest and passion for children. Ms Rinaldi holds two educational degrees and a Masters in Guidance and Counselling.

Ms Rinaldi is currently the Principal of the Caboolture Montessori School, the school commenced in 1998 with 8 students and now has more than 200. The school’s vision is ‘to provide an exceptional Montessori environment that develops each child’s potential’.

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