As online course offerings grow, the allure of teaching online also grows in appeal. There are many reasons for this: It can be done from anywhere in the world, you don’t need a special wardrobe; you don’t even need to bathe or get out of your pajamas to do it. Teaching is teaching, regardless of the delivery format. Yes, the fundamentals of teaching are the same as traditional teaching, but that is where the similarities end. As this author discovered, teaching online presents many challenges unique to this method of delivery. These challenges occur in every aspect, from creating the course to communicating with students to grading assignments. This paper looks at the available research and explores why online teaching is really quite different from traditional teaching.
Many people believe teaching online is just like teaching in the classroom—only it is all done in the new medium of the Internet. After all, a traditional classroom can’t be that different from an electronic one, right? To some extent, this may be true. Fundamentally, the online classroom requires the same basic skills as teaching in the classroom; however, the uniqueness of the medium requires a redefinition of many aspects of teaching.
Whether writing curriculum from scratch or altering a pre-packaged course, differences between online teaching and traditional teaching are immediately apparent to the new online teacher. Teaching begins with the lesson plan, generally written a week or two before teaching the concepts. However, for online curriculum one must design the entire course, from start to finish, before putting a single lesson to screen. The design process includes being able to incorporate both the teacher’s and student’s point of view, as well as weekly announcements, lesson activities, opportunities for reflection, and a weekly wrap up (Perreault et al., 2002). A good rule of thumb for designing a course from start to finish is that it should take twice as long to write the course as it does to teach it, especially if the teacher has never designed or taught a course online (Smith and Rose, 2003). Part of the reason for the length of time necessary to develop a course is that the entire process must be manually entered into the course management system; in other words, it all has to be typed in, proofread, and analyzed to make sure the information is understandable.
Written communication is much different from spoken communication. Much of the spoken word is conveyed through body language and personal interaction (White, 2000). Being able to read “body language” enhances the ability to understand the spoken word (Lewis, 2000). However, the online environment means a lack of visual cues. With this in mind, the teacher and students need to take more time with their communication in order to be understood properly. A simple sentence or phrase, without appropriate visual cues, can be taken in the wrong context. With these things in mind, the instructor must be ever vigilant to what is happening in the online discussions in order to prevent misunderstandings that will ultimately hurt the overall online community.
Online learning poses unique challenges to the online teacher. Because the online classroom can seem cold and distant, the teacher must spend considerable time building a learning community, an important step in the creation of the online classroom. For this reason, an online teacher would be well advised to start each semester with some sort of welcoming letter. It helps allay some fears about the medium for students new to online learning. It also sets the tone for the interactions of the classroom (Lorenzetti, 2003) and creates the impression that there is no distance separating students from one another. This allows students to form a community that replicates the social environment of a traditional classroom (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). Deliberately including community-building processes while writing the course curriculum encourages the formation of relationships, which themselves are unique because they might not otherwise occur in a traditional classroom or school (Wood, 2005). The relationships, according to Palloff and Pratt (1999), are limited only by time and access rather than by distance and social class. Students in a traditional school might rarely hear an opinion from someone very different in social class, race, ethnicity or even citizenship. This aids students in understanding a world beyond their own.
Teaching in the online environment requires a change from being teacher-centered to being student-centered. To keep students interested in the subject matter, the traditional teacher often engages in “tricks,” hoping to reach all the students in the first or second attempt. In this sense, from a constructivist teaching perspective, online education is the ideal learning situation. Because the teacher’s role has moved from lecturing to providing resources, activities and feedback to facilitate the learning (Perrault, et al, 2002), it allows students to explore the content in their own way. The online classroom is also available to students on a 24/7 basis. Incorporating diverse types of learning activities gives students the freedom to interact with the content in their own time and fashion, rather than being force-fit into the common way everyone else learns the content in a traditional classroom. Students customize their own learning in such a way that they can explore the concepts as deeply or shallowly as they wish (Perreault, et al., 2002).
Most online courses are asynchronous in nature, meaning that not all the students are online at the same time. This allows students the advantage of being freer in their responses to classmates. Conversations tend to be more open because students feel they can express themselves more candidly due to some degree of anonymity provided by the online structure (Wood, 2005). Students who are generally quiet in the traditional classroom find the anonymity provided by ‘faceless’ communication gives them the courage to speak up (Kindred, 2002). Through asynchronous discussion, which requires students to read and think about what their classmates have said, students have the time to reflect. Furthermore, the online medium allows students the chance to explore resources that would be otherwise inaccessible in the traditional classroom (Revenaugh, 2000). The responses then become richer and more reflective. Students show a deeper understanding because they have had time to think about the response rather than saying the first thing that comes to mind, which is what generally occurs in the traditional classroom.
Since written communication is the chief mode of activity in an online course, the new teacher has to be prepared to budget the proper amount of time required to “teach” their class. Reading comments and responding to discussion take longer than verbal communication. More than that, simple communication is also very different for the online teacher. As stated previously, communication is a complex process of speaking and understanding what is said and often involves reading visual cues to fully understand the conversation. But, in an online class, teacher-to-student and student-to-student contact is devoid of visual cues. That inability can cause a student’s comment to be misconstrued, which could lead to hard feelings and potential hostility between classmates. A breakdown of communication in an online classroom can seriously damage the learning environment. This is another reason for building community early and encouraging students to use positive language in discussions.
The Internet is as much about person-to-person connections as it is about information (Revenaugh, 2000). The normal relationships between teacher and students changes in the online environment. A new online teacher should be prepared for much more intimate and extensive communication with students. This coaching role allows the online teacher to build a personal relationship with students without ever physically meeting (Perreault, et. al., 2002). Because students new to the online classroom may find it impersonal, building a personal relationship is important. It is up to the teacher to create opportunities for interaction with the students. Perhaps because the teacher loses the aura of being an expert, the communication between teacher and students takes on a more personal nature. This allows students to see the teacher as more approachable and less intimidating because the teacher is now seen as a participating member of the learning community. Not only will this help overcome the impersonal nature of the online environment, it promotes student-student communication and enhances the student-teacher relationship (Kemp, 2000).
By observing the traditional classroom during day-to-day activities, the teacher gets feedback in the form of looks of confusion and/or understanding, and this prompts the teacher to take appropriate measures to ensure that students understand (White, 2000). The online instructor does not have this luxury. In order for the online discussion to reach its full potential, the online teacher must avoid becoming the center of every discussion, allowing the students to carry the discussions (Smith and Rose, 2003). When a teacher makes a statement, as often happens in a traditional classroom due to the way students view their teachers, students take the statement to be fact, thus ending the discussion (Lorenzetti, 2003). Instead of making statements, the online teacher must ask probing questions. Active participation is essential for the online course to be a success (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). This helps to ensure students take the initiative to ask specific questions in order to enhance their own understanding of the concepts. The obvious outcome of active participation is increased critical thinking about the concepts and less regurgitation of facts (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). By the same token, if the teacher does not make a significant presence in the online environment, it can also damage the learning community. Students easily become discouraged by what they feel is the lack of presence of a teacher. Therefore, the online teacher must find a balance showing students they are progressing adequately without taking over the course (Bischoff, 2000).
Time is a crucial issue for the online teacher. Students demand more of online teachers than they do of traditional teachers (Wood, 2005). New online teachers should recognize that more time must be allotted to the online environment just for the simple fact that everything is textual in nature. The class day does not end at 3:30 as it would for the traditional teacher. With the multitude of electronic communication methods available, students have access to their teachers whenever they are online. There may be a need for the online teacher to referee conversations between students. This can occur because students misinterpret a comment, because students are not pulling their own weight in group collaboration projects, or because the teacher needs to motivate students who may have stopped participating. Grading is another aspect of change for the online teacher. There will no longer be paper copies of assignments to mark, which may seem strange at first.
Support networks are essential for anyone starting the process of teaching online (Wood, 2005). Just as research shows that mentoring helps new teachers feel more successful, mentoring from an experienced online teacher gives the support a new online teacher needs to be successful, especially since new online teachers often report they feel like brand-new teachers once again (Wood, 2005). In the ideal situation, the new online teacher should become an online student using the same delivery system that will be used for teaching. This enables the new online teacher to develop instructional materials appropriate to the delivery method used (Perrault, et al, 2002). This allows the new online teacher to juxtapose teacher and students concerns, leading to a better understanding of the fears and frustrations that new students will feel.
As more and more students take distance courses, administrators and principals should be concerned about the teaching that occurs. According to the NCREL report “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice” (2004), the requirements for online teachers are the same as for traditional teachers—a state certification in the content area they are teaching. This report stresses that although online programs currently affect only a small population of students, those numbers are increasing at a significant pace and are making an impact on public education. According to the Department of Education, during the 2002-2003 school year, about one-third of our nation’s public school districts had students, nearly 97% of which were high school students, enrolled in distance courses. We want quality teachers in our schools; we also want quality teachers of online courses. Ensuring that potential teachers realize and understand the differences between online and traditional teaching will become increasingly important as we move forward in the 21 st century.
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Email: Jean Kiekel