How does online teaching differ from offline teaching?

The underlying fundamentals of online and offline teaching are similar, because the fundamental project of student learning and success are the same. There are, however, some important differences that an instructor needs to keep in mind.

Online learning is more demanding for the student.

In an online context, there is far less immediate feedback for the student. In the absence of scheduled interactions with the rest of the class and with the instructor, it takes more self-motivation and more self-discipline for a student to succeed in an online course than in a traditional classroom.

The online instructor can address this in two main ways:

  1. Provide more scaffolding for an online course than you would for the equivalent course delivered face-to-face. Frequent, low-cost exercises and timely feedback help to keep students on track and engaged with the course.

    In particular, assign a simple, low-cost assignment due within the first day or two of class. If any of your students are going to have technical troubles—trouble logging on, trouble with their Internet connections, trouble using Moodle, or the like—you want to find this out quickly, before these problems become costly in terms of their performance in the course.

  2. Pay more attention to interaction and building community in an online course than you would teaching face-to-face. Students in a traditional classroom will meet each other and interact with little effort required from you. Students on a residential campus will additionally interact in the dining hall, in the library, in the dorms, and in extracurricular activities. None of this is readily available online.

    Community-building activities include the following:

    • Class discussions (forums and chats)
    • Having students review and rate each others' work
    • Getting-to-know-you assignments. Some people hate these, others get very good results. As elsewhere in teaching, one size does not fit all.

Online learning is basically asynchronous.

One of the great advantages of online learning is that students don't have to show up in a paricular place at a particular time for class. As a result, online learning can reach students who would not be able to take the same class face-to-face.

This has some clear consequences:

  • Leave quizzes and exams open for at least 24 hours. Your students may well be scheduling their coursework at different times of the day, and there's no compelling educational reason not to support this. Of course, you can allow the students a far shorter time on the quiz once they start it; the idea here is to allow them latitude in when they start.
  • Use synchronous exercises sparingly, if at all. Synchronous exercises (chat rooms or Web conferences) can be very valuable in building community if they are used carefully. If you rely too much on synchronous exercises, however, you risk throwing away one of the major advantages of online education.

Online teaching makes Internet resources very accessible.

The Internet, properly used, is the greatest reference library the world has ever known. Not everything is online, of course, but there is far more material available online than there was in even the most expansive libraries of decades past. While taking advantage of this wealth can be cumbersome in a traditional classroom, it's only a few clicks away for your online students.

The greatest problem with the Internet as a reference library is that an awful lot of what is online is unreliable, confusing, or even downright false. It takes a subject-matter expert to separate the weeds from the wheat—which is one reason why the advent of the Internet (and of online learning) is unlikely to make our jobs obsolete. Your skill in picking out the useful resources is itself an invaluable resource for your students.

There is no such thing as a closed-book exam online.

It is technically trivial to cheat on a closed-book exam online. A student can do any of the following, with very little chance of getting caught:

  • Search the Internet from another tab in the same browser.
  • Search the Internet from another browser.
  • Search the Internet from a completely different device (such as a smart phone).
  • Call a friend.
  • Provide a totally different person with the login credentials needed to take the test in the student's place.

The answer to these temptations lies, not in technical measures that provide mostly illusory security, but in test design. Specifically, a combination of the following measures can reduce cheating on tests to levels comparable to the levels found in traditional classrooms:

  1. Write open-book tests from the start. Since the students are going to have Internet access during the exam anyway, write the exam with that in mind. This normally provides a more realistic assessment of student skills anyway, since real-world use of whatever you are teaching seldom takes place in a closed-book environment.
  2. Don't make too much of the course grade depend on tests or quizzes. Lowering the stakes lowers the temptation to cheat, which in turn reduces the probability that students will.
  3. If you do want to give a closed-book quiz, give it a restrictive time limit. This may be useful, for example, for a quick, low-cost reading quiz. Of course, the student can look up the answers to your questions, but not as fast as a student who already knows them. Talking to another person, or having someone else take the quiz, is comparably quick to knowing the material, but if the quiz is low cost, such methods of cheating aren't worth it.
Last modified: Monday, 6 August 2012, 9:53 PM