Understanding Why Distance/Online Education is far behind formal education

The traditional face-to-face education is formal and has stood the test of time. Online or even distance education has no distinct features that make them at least fifty percent as effective as formal education methods. This article is an attempt to discuss the reasons as to why this is the reality of online/distance education.


The Covid-19 pandemic taught the entire world several lessons. Even schools in relatively remote areas, pan-India, started online education classes. Yet, there has been a big gap between what was taught and what has been achieved; numerous sessions with the teachers have only lead to more stress when the teachers have had to repeatedly stress the main points or explain most points over and over again.

In the main, the pitfalls of distance/online education pertain to a) Lack of personal touch b) Infrastructure issues c) Lack of basic education support d) Lack of peer pressure found in the formal system, and e) The lack of continuity in teaching, research and continuous learning.

Lack of personal touch

Even the traditional lecture method has its flaws. However, the biggest advantage of formal classroom teaching is the wonderful opportunities that it presents to the teachers to keep on developing a personal rapport with the student and his/her parents. It also lays the foundation for the creative expression of the unique talents of the children, due to face-to-face observation. This is missing in the online method. It has lead to an increase in blood pressure of teachers; homework given is not taken seriously at all and there are instances when mass copying takes place even in subjects like mathematics. The students are equally confused, as the time is always short and the teacher does not have the luxury of conducting special online classes. The problem is somewhat solved in the arts and science colleges and even engineering colleges, but the main problem of lack of personal rapport remains here too. Even if the students are somewhat more serious, to teach many topics, in say, the MBA course through the online method is as challenging as it is in schools across the country.

Infrastructure issues

This is a big issue in India. Though we do have the best of internet facilities in the big cities and the metro cities, internet penetration is one of the worst in the semi-urban and rural areas. Even the best University like IGNOU, or its competitor, the Annamalai University, has suffered so much in this regard. There are always complaints that online classes do not work at all. Worst, in the remote areas, where a good number of students hail from, the year 2020-2021, has been a literal washout for the distance education students. IGNOU and Annamalai University are very good at dispatching the study lessons to the students. Both institutions were ( and still are) very good in conducting the contact classes. The range of subjects is simply amazing.

Yet, Covid has been a big disaster. Only in June 2021, the normalcy is expected to return. Both these Universities are keen to get going where it matters most -- to compulsorily conduct the face-to-face sessions. Alagappa University is also reported to be quite good in this respect. At least for the next full decade, till the internet facilities become highly established in India, online/distance education cannot improve to the desired levels.

Lack of basic education support

In the advanced West, the basic grounding in any subject is reportedly too good. The emphasis is on learning and not merely cramming. The logic of any subject is taught in a very detailed fashion. It is no wonder that there are specialized courses in the USA, in an art form like Bharatanatyam. ( a famous dance form from Tamil Nadu, India). Or in classical music. Harvard University has a chair for the development of the Tamil language. Even at the age of 65, a Chartered Accountant can enrol for a doctorate in Organizational Behavior, evince deep interest, and still make it in the USA. We just do not have any such facilities in India. We are highly specialized. We do not have the luxury of basic education that expands far beyond the syllabus.

For example, if any first-year student of the BBA/B.Com course is asked to prepare a PowerPoint collection of Indian Corporate Developments since the ear of globalization after 1991, and the student is from a college from say, Tirunelveli, he is bound to see stars and cannot do anything. If the student is from Chennai, the teachers from the elite CBSE schools would have given the student at least some exposure. This problem remains a big problem in India. We lack the will to probe deep into social, political, and economic phenomena. And when the student enrols himself or herself with any University and persues any graduate or post-graduate course through distance education, the basic problem is that he or she gets a degree, but without deep knowledge of any subject.

Lack of peer pressure found in the formal system

This is another issue. Peer pressure is always good. When things become competitive, people tend to put in extra effort to perform well. This does not happen in distance or online class methods. There is a total lack of peer pressure since there will be a mere handful of students from the same area. I had a first-hand experience of this when I recently completed the two-year MA(Sociology) course from the IGNOU. When I took the first year term-end examination ( the course is a non-semester course), I found to my shock that in the entire centre, I had just one more student studying for the course. He was not interested in any research or any topic far beyond the syllabus. When I tried to probe if he had studied the chapter on caste and its importance in India, with special emphasis on social justice ( everything is researched and all data is available in numerous books), he merely said that he would not attempt to answer the question because he had not studied it at all!!. So, the emphasis is on just procuring the degree but not extrapolating the knowledge through additional reading.

It has been reported that there is no attempt to create any feeling of group work or at least attempt to make people interact with one another in groups. To some extent, this has been done with some seriousness in the Post Graduate Diploma in Guidance and Counselling conducted by Annamalai University. A friend of mine who attended the contact classes said there were too many practical sessions conducted by the learned faculty members with a lot of seriousness. He came back saying that he had learned so much through teamwork, and through friends, he had made in the process.

The lack of continuity in teaching, research, and continuous learning

Among the various courses that are conducted through distance or online education, the MBA course suffers the most. There is no attempt to encourage 'contextual learning". As an adjunct faculty member for one of the University courses, to my shock, the students merely said: "Sir, please teach us only what is required for a pass". The subject was industrial relations. Every student had a bazaar guide that had complete answers to questions in the year-end examinations for the past five years.

It was shocking to see so many students merely interested in any knowledge. When I asked the students to come on day two, with data on the PRICOL strike( in Coimbatore), after going through the internet and researching all data, to my shock, I found that only two students out of the 44 in the class, had done a little research. There is no attempt at continuous learning. I had to thank my stars that when I did the full-time two years MSW degree course at the world-class Loyola College at Chennai if we failed to collect any data from the library on all additional learning that we were exposed to, we could not take the final examination at all. The continuous assessment was so taxing now. (the early eighties without no internet facilities). The library was the only source of all knowledge. Today, the need for additional knowledge has multiplied tenfold. The students are made to slog even more now.

However, distance education and online education do not have such facilities or there is no will to do different things. This problem is likely to continue for a long time to come.


Based on my personal experience as well as those that were reported from some quarters, I have discussed some points regarding the distance/online teaching methods. Hopefully, the pitfalls will engage the attention of the powers that be and there will be some improvement in the years to come.

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Author: Umesh16 Dec 2020 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 4

The author has pointed out the deficiencies and shortcomings of the online education system as compared to the physical one. There is definitely a big difference between the two modes and given a choice many institutions would like to go for physical mode. Formal education is a person to person approach established for a long time as evident from the educational history of the world and is a foolproof and robust approach for educating the masses. On the other hand online education is a via media to provide the education somehow to those students who cannot attend the college. We are in the initial phase of this confusion and hopefully in coming times such things will be addressed by the authorities.

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