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  • Writer's pictureEmily Myatt

The Limitations of Online Learning for Acquiring Practical Skills

In today's digital age, technology and the internet have made it easier than ever to access knowledge. Online learning platforms have surged in popularity, providing opportunities for people around the world to learn new skills and enhance their understanding of diverse subjects. However, when it comes to mastering practical or hands-on skills, certain inherent limitations can obstruct optimal learning.


The Physicality of Practical Skills

Practical skills—often called "hands-on" or "kinesthetic" skills—involve performing physical activities rather than just understanding theory or concepts. For instance, the skills needed to cook, fix a car, perform laboratory experiments, or play a musical instrument cannot be fully comprehended merely by reading or listening to instructions. They necessitate real-world, physical practice.


Online learning platforms primarily rely on videos, written material, and sometimes interactive simulations to teach. While these resources are informative, they cannot wholly replicate the experience of physically performing a task. A novice chef, for instance, needs to feel the difference between a simmer and a rolling boil, or the texture change in kneaded dough, experiences that cannot be fully transmitted via a screen.


The Importance of Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback is an essential aspect of learning practical skills. In traditional classroom settings or workshops, teachers or instructors can provide on-the-spot corrections and guidance to learners as they practice new skills. This direct intervention allows students to make adjustments in real time, reinforcing correct technique and preventing the formation of bad habits.


Online learning often lacks this crucial feature. While certain platforms do offer virtual feedback through video conferencing, there can be limitations due to video quality, perspective, and latency issues. Some nuances in skill execution can be overlooked because the instructor isn’t physically present to notice them.


The Challenge of Resource Availability

Practical skills often require specific tools, equipment, or environments. For example, learning woodworking necessitates a certain set of tools and a safe space to work in; chemistry experiments require a well-equipped lab. Not every student has easy access to such resources.


Online learning platforms can demonstrate how to use these tools and materials, but they cannot provide them. While this may not be an issue for more universally accessible skills, it can be a significant barrier for students interested in more specialized fields.


The Need for Community and Collaboration

Learning is often a social activity. When learning practical skills, working alongside peers can motivate students, provide opportunities for collaborative problem solving, and even inspire a healthy degree of competition. It also allows for peer feedback, which is another valuable perspective alongside instruction from teachers.


While online learning platforms do attempt to foster virtual communities, the dynamics are not quite the same as in-person interactions. The nuances of physical presence, body language, and immediate social interaction are lost in virtual settings, which can make the learning experience feel less engaging and immersive.


The Way Forward

While online learning does present these challenges in acquiring practical skills, this doesn't mean it is an ineffective medium. It provides unparalleled accessibility and a vast array of learning resources that would otherwise be impossible to gather in one place. Instead, it should be recogniSed that online and hands-on learning can complement each other.


In an ideal world, students could use online platforms to gain theoretical knowledge, familiarise themselves with procedures, and observe skills being performed. This could then be supplemented by real-world practice, where they apply this knowledge and refine their skills. Through a hybrid approach, we can harness the benefits of both online and practical learning to provide a comprehensive, robust educational experience.


Emily Myatt


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