I pioneered online learning back in 1994 with the Internet. After a year of struggling with online learning with post secondary learners and the problems that they faced, I came quickly to the conclusion that nothing beats face to face learning. I wrote up a multipage report on the problems and presented it to the Dean of our department. The report was ignored, shelved and never read. The attitude was that I must of been doing something wrong and that they could do it better.
Almost 20 years later, the same problems are occuring for online learning, it focuses on one predominat learning style: seeing. There are 4 basic learning styles: seeing, hearing, doing and thinking. The "seeing" learning style is characterized by a person who can pickup a book or read a webpage and gather knowledge in that manner. A "hearing" oriented learning, learns by listening. They are characterized by being able to follow verbal instructions or directions easily: "go two blocks North, turn left, go 4 blocks then turn right next to the blue garbage bin, etc..".
The "doing" learning style, learns by doing the work, this is the best way to learn. Our institute is heavily loaded with lab work, up to 50% of classroom time is spent in the lab. Another way to re-inforce doing is by taking notes, either through pen and paper or laptop. The last learning style is "thinking". A person who is predominantly a thinker will have to "think" about what was said or presented to him in order to understand. They "go away" for a little while to assimilate the information then return back to the conversation. A typical reaction from a thinker is that they will briefly look away when you tell them something new.
Nobody has just one learning style, we have combinations of all 4 and are predominate with one or two.
If I gave a University theatre style lecture, no interaction with the students, straight power point presentations with powerpoint handouts already given out, the students will remember about 10-15% after 3 days. If it was a smaller class size of 30 students or less, interactive questions between the students and instructors, note taking, then after 3 days, the students will remember about 30%. If it was a lab with hands on exercises and interaction, the students will remember about 80% after 3 days.
Online learning fails by not delivering multiple learning styles and by missing the teacher/student interaction. It falls somewhere in the University large theatre learning results - that's why the high failure rate. Often, it takes a person to explain how things work. I found that the majority of students were particularly hesistant to use online tools (email, forums, blogs, twitter, 1-800 numbers) to contact the instructor to ask questions when things didn't make sense. They preferred to struggle "days" trying to figure it out until they could meet face to face.
The best learning is obviously "to do", my preference is to have no theory classes, just lab classes and pass on the information on a need to know basis. It's time to do this lab, this is what you need to know to do this. In the past, I've found that no matter how many times, you talk about a particular topic: in the classroom, online, at the beginning of a lab, it will be forgotten until the time is right and the student is ready for the information. In one course, I used to repeat the same explanation to each student in the lab when they needed to know it. I would repeat the exact same 5 minute explanation over 100 times a week. The students appreciated the one on one time and I got really good at explaining it! LOL.
The problem with having "just lab" classes, is that it flies in the face of everything that Universities teach about learning. The mantra is present the material, give an example, students practice the material and then assess the students. That is the "best practice" (I hate that phrase!) teaching method. In my labs, I don't feel that it is right to be assessed on the first time that you attempt something. Where's the learning in that? How about the first time, you attempt to drive a car, you have to take the driver's exam? In my labs, you do the lab until it is right, make as many errors as you want, no sign-off until it works to my satisfaction and the student shows an understaning of the lab. Then the student is assessed.
The other issue is that labs cost money. Small lab/class sizes are expensive compared to large theatres on a cost per student basis. Large theatre size classes are money makers.