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Editor’s Note
: This paper synthesizes a diverse body of research and praxis. It challenges instructors to find best practices for their subject matter, teaching style, and student needs. Seemingly trivial findings such as “distance learners tend to be attracted to distance education methods” become part of design concepts and causal relationships. Compare these ideas with your own teaching and pedagogy, particularly statements like” most online students are independent style learners, in contrast to classroom learners who are more dependant or collaborative.”

You Can’t Teach That Online
a Proposal for Consistency
Eric J. Schmieder


You can’t teach that online! There are many published papers in the field of distance learning that accent the differences between online instruction and traditional face-to-face instruction methods. While illustrating the differences, it is often stated that online courses are suitable for certain types of courses, but not for all types of courses. This paper is the culmination of an extensive literature review process and intends to accomplish the following goals: to suggest the hypothesis that any course that can be taught in a traditional face-to-face classroom can be effectively taught online; to review some of the key trends in distance education as found in the published literature; to review student and teacher benefits and challenges related to online learning; to review some of the documented arguments about which classes are not suitable for online instruction; to suggest a method for online instruction that enables instructors to teach any traditional class effectively in an online environment; and finally to discuss future opportunities for research in this field.

Keywords: Online learning, distance education, teaching methods, pedagogy, course development, virtual classrooms, web-based instruction, teaching online, online courses, student retention, online education, course management, teaching styles.


Online education is being integrated in to the curriculum structure of many educational institutions (Abromitis, 2002) and with that integration threatening the traditional class structure and laden with numerous arguments of poor quality and insufficient standards for online courses, we find many traditional students and faculty claiming, “You can’t teach that online”. Despite this claim, online courses are developed and released nearly daily at institutions around the world (Natale II, 2002).

The problem with many of the courses developed, especially those that are produced in mass quantity is that they lack the focus of traditional course development, because the online course development process frequently ignores the question “What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of our course?” (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). Without this focus and target outcome definition as part of the process, traditional instructors and institutions are forced to “question the suitability of certain courses being online” (Hirschheim, 2005). Some research claims that a subset of traditional courses are not appropriate for online delivery, with specific concerns about instructor’s teaching methods and student’s learning styles affecting this claim (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). This paper aims to present the assumption that teaching methods and student learning styles are not dictated by the delivery method, but rather that teaching is a process that supersedes the method of delivery.

Hentea, Shea, and Pennington provided an effective definition of the broader concept of teaching as “a process that aims to increase or improve knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviors in a person to accomplish a variety of goals and generally focuses on the personal growth of the learner” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Assuming this definition as accurate in describing the teaching process, is there really any difference between teaching online versus teaching in a face-to-face classroom as suggested in several discussions of the topic (Bailey & Luetkehans, 1998)? The author believes that the only difference is in the methods used to convey those “knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviors” contributing to the growth of the learner.

Assuming these opinions and definitions to be true and that the learning process invoked through teaching methods, whether online or in traditional face-to-face environments, is the same conveyance of knowledge, why do some schools or universities maintain different standards for the two delivery methods (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003)? As noted by Kamberg’s research, there are many similarities between the two methods, “students in online programs have books, professors, classmates, tests and finals”, and one minor difference, “the whole class doesn’t have to be online at the same time” (Kamberg, 2007). Online courses may even have the same books, the same professors, the same classmates, and the same tests and finals as their traditional counterpart, so should the two sections be treated differently?

Students in online courses often receive instruction in different ways, but they still expect a level of interaction and engagement in the material, both with the instructor and fellow students. For some, due to their personal experiences of highly interactive video games and other multimedia experiences, there may be an increased expectation for interaction and engagement in the online classroom. The traditional online course design, one laden with large amounts of text, resembling an independent correspondence course, does little to meet this expectation or student need (Crawford, 2006). Incorporating tools that encourage interaction among students in online classes, thereby fostering learning communities, gives students “simultaneous access to the work of others to provide comparative models and opportunities to appropriate ideas more advanced than they might think of on their own” (Saldivar, 2005). Students in online classes expect to receive the same core knowledge as their traditional counterparts, but for various reasons find the online method more convenient or appealing. However, very few base this choice on a desire to avoid the classroom (Aman & Shirvani, 2006). As a result, online instructors must still teach in ways that are familiar and accepted.

Purpose of Study

Studies indicate that “online students are missing something that the classroom students are not” (Ury, 2004) and most of what is missing in the online classes, as identified by research, is educational quality (Hirschheim, 2005). This loss is due primarily to a lack of focus on the goals for student learning outcomes during the course development process (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). Online students are often left defining their own outcomes and goals for a course and pursuing them based on the information provided in electronic form. According to one study, “distance education is just a high-tech and more responsive form of correspondence study, relying predominantly on test” (Natale II, 2002).

It is true that online education opens opportunities to integrate technology into the course design in different ways, and many online students expect or even demand these technical aspects, however, “a high tech façade is not a substitute for the rigorous application of established pedagogical principles (such as setting clear objectives, promoting active learning and so on) to the online environment” (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). Online courses must be structured in similar fashion to their traditional counterparts with organized class schedules, assignments designed with ample time and resources for completion, and tasks that are not too easy or too hard to ensure a successful learning experience (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Clear expectations are critical to student success and retention as suggested by Crawford’s research noting, “The reason most often reported by high school counselors to virtual high school teachers for students dropping a course and becoming non-completers has been that the course was not what students had expected” (Crawford, 2006).

Another claim of opponents to distance learning is that online courses lack “the human dimension of group interaction” (Natale II, 2002). Group interaction through online learning communities provides opportunities for students to collaborate, share ideas, compare their results to those of others and as a result produce stronger outcomes (Saldivar, 2005), but interaction with other students is only part of the equation. Students need and prefer direct interaction with the teacher regarding the course material to foster learning (Saldivar, 2005). Interaction with the teacher or fellow students can be accomplished in a variety of ways in an online classroom, including email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, phone calls, and video conferencing. When these methods are implemented in the online classroom higher completion rates are attained as compared to a documented 25 percent completion rate in strictly self-paced courses (Osberg, 2002). Such interaction among students and with instructors of online courses reduces the distance in this form of distance education by fostering a community of online learners within the course environment this reduces the barriers of time and space (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

The purpose of this study is to understand the current trends, benefits, and challenges of online learning environments as documented in research literature in order to reduce the risk of dissatisfaction with online learning. Methods will be proposed for teaching traditional courses online in a way that does not lack quality or purpose (Natale II, 2002). To accomplish this purpose, the author has taken the approach of a comprehensive literature review to “explore the reasons for the differences in the results and determine what the body of research, taken as a whole, reveals and does not reveal about the topic” (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007).

Background and Literature Review

Key Trends in Distance Education

The growth of distance education and online learning in the last decade is staggering as illustrated by the research. For distance education as a whole the growth was identified and projected in the late 1990’s with “an estimated 1,363,670 students enrolled in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses in 1997-98” and “an estimated 2,876,000” by 2000-2001 (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007). In 2002 the number of students enrolled in at least one online course was an estimated 1.6 million with an estimated 578,000 taking all of their courses online (Funk, 2005). By 2005 this number had been increased to 1.2 million (Kamberg, 2007), and increased again to an estimated 3 million just a year later (Picciano, 2006). This represents “close to 20 percent of the total higher education student population” (Picciano, 2006).

In a study conducted in 2004, “50% of the online students would have preferred a traditional format” (Ury, 2004). One of the key reasons for this trend towards traditional classroom format is the level of interaction between students and the instructor. “There seems to be an overwhelming tendency among students to prefer a direct active interaction between the student and the teacher and the material being discussed” (Saldivar, 2005). It is important that students feel their instructor is active in the class and accessible through email, by telephone, or with virtual office hours that simulate the contact students would expect from a traditional face-to-face environment (Osberg, 2002).

As broadband Internet service becomes more readily accessible, even in rural areas, online education can better emulate the traditional learning experience with  “rich media, including online video, live chat sessions with peers and professors, and live audio to create a quality learning experience for their students” (Kamberg, 2007). Surprisingly, likely caused by the tendency of online courses to avoid implementation of these technologies, students who began using digital devices earlier in life and played video games frequently were less likely to complete an online course (Crawford, 2006). To cater to such a market, it is important that online courses are developed in a way to engage these learners.

There is no specific profile of an online student, nor their desires for how the technology functions that can simply be applied to all online courses, but the same can be said for traditional students; however some preferences and trends do exist. “In a report of a study about online education in Education Daily by Alana Keynes (2002), adult students who have children and who attend two-year colleges are more likely to take distance education classes” (Funk, 2005). These students appreciate and value the flexibility of schedule provided by online courses. Men and women also expect different things from technology in general. According to research, “women ask technology for flexibility but…men ask it for speed” (Aman & Shirvani, 2006). Regardless of the expectations of the students, the assumption exists throughout literature that “most online students are independent style learners, in contrast to classroom learners, who are more dependent and collaborative” (Funk, 2005), thereby shifting the role of the educator from deliverer to guide giving students greater independence and ownership of their own learning process (Hardin, 2004).

Even though independent learners tend to be attracted to distance education methods, they do not reject guidance from instructors in the learning process (Holmberg, 1989). Knowledge, cannot be created in isolation, but rather is created through communication with others and the sharing of ideas. Knowledge can be transmitted from one person to another, but individual knowing is the result of the interpretation of that knowledge communicated (Dennen & Paulus, 2005). In many cases, traditional instructors find the need to communicate lessons differently than they are presented in a text book or other source, or to encourage peer communication to foster this understanding. This same principal should exist in online environments as well. Studies show that “students using computer-mediated, collaborative, Web-based learning perform significantly better than the students using only Web-based learning methods” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). In general, there is “no significant difference in achievement and satisfaction between students in distance education classes and traditional modes of delivery” (Hirschheim, 2005).

Another key trend evident in the literature review is the claim that attrition rates in distance education are higher than that of traditional classroom environments, even as great as 10-20% (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007). According to Hislop and Ellis, traditional students took a higher average number of courses before quitting than distance students and overall retention for the on-campus students was moderately higher than that of the distance students (Hislop & Ellis, 2006). According to Osberg, the structure of the course can impact attrition rates finding that “only 25 percent of employees finish e-learning courses when they’re strictly self-paced; the completion rate is higher when learners are expected to communicate via email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, or phone calls” (Osberg, 2002). Another study claims that “84% of students complete the online courses in which they are enrolled” (Dianis, 2004). Hislop and Ellis noted additional findings indicating “a trend toward a higher graduation rate for the distance students combined with a higher retention rate for the on-campus students. These contrasting trends were created by a significantly earlier departure from the program by distance students who quit” (Hislop & Ellis, 2006).

Benefits of Online Learning Environments

Online courses offer a wide array of benefits to students and teachers including “flexibility with no loss of performance” (Ury, 2004). Offering “freedom from space and time constraints, increased interactivity, improved delivery of multimedia, broadened curricula, and personalized learning” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003), online courses allow students to learn material in innovative ways, at their convenience day or night during the course term.

In addition to flexibility of schedule, students have multiple avenues for enhancing communication with faculty and peers. “Students agreed that seven of the nine functions provided by the web-based online course management system enhanced their learning: private email (92.3%), calendaring (88.5%), course notes (88.5%), discussion forums (84.5%), online grades (84.5%), assignment descriptions (80.8%), and online quizzes (80.8%)” (Green, van Gyn, Moehr, Lau, & Coward, 2004). Additionally, in a recent study, tutor-supported online discussions were “consistently identified by students as contributing significantly to their active learning”  (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). The key to active learning in the online environment is student interaction, both with the teacher and other students (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). Research shows that student performance is also positively impacted by the incorporation of computer-mediated, collaborative tools in the online classroom over online class environments that do not employ such tools (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

While the students can benefit from a more collaborative environment, the instructor cannot simply let the course run by itself as “students expect the instructor to be a presence within online courses” (Saldivar, 2005). In online classes, however, there is a significant decrease in instructor-driven communication with indication “that instructors talk 90 percent or more of the time in the classroom, whereas online instructors post fewer than 10 percent of the comments” (Hardin, 2004). The online format encourages participation and communication between students and teachers because there are no time constraints limiting questions to a select few students as in a traditional, face-to-face environment (Hardin, 2004). As Kamberg stated, “In an online classroom, no one can sit in the back of the room and hide” (Kamberg, 2007).

Instructors also have greater benefits in efficient use of time for future offerings of online courses than with traditional face-to-face offerings. Although the initial development of an online course can demand more instructor time, especially those who are building familiarity with the course development tools, subsequent offerings of the same course require as little, and sometimes less time than traditional courses due to the reuse of much of the developed content (Gill, 2005). As instructors re-offer their online courses, less time is spent in development and more time can be committed to communication with the students and class management processes.

Challenges of Online Learning Environments

The biggest challenge in delivering online courses is to ensure that students don’t feel as though they “‘missed out’ educationally because they took an Internet class” as was reported by 74% of the students in the Hirschheim study (Hirschheim, 2005). Unfortunately, not all online courses are able to effectively deliver the benefits listed in the previous section. Instead courses are often under-developed or under-delivered due to issues like “lack of staff training and support, inadequate course design, lack of software, improper use of emerging technologies, inappropriate student selection, and flawed assessment methods” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

Another challenge in developing successful online learning environments is in the establishment of human interaction factors inherent to traditional face-to-face courses. Being physically separated from the other class members, distance learners may feel isolated, unsupported, and disconnected (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007). “The loss of a personal touch points to a major difficulty with online courses” (Aman & Shirvani, 2006). Without this “personal touch” online students may feel as though they are “missing out” on part of the classroom experience (Ury, 2004).

Ineffectively designed courses often rely heavily on text-based correspondence and independent study resulting in “just a high-tech and more responsive form of correspondence study” (Natale II, 2002). In this case students are often unsure of the expectations set for them and develop anxiety resulting in negative views of online courses and a preference for traditional lecture-style classes (Green, van Gyn, Moehr, Lau, & Coward, 2004). This dissatisfaction with the delivery method and unclear expectations leads to a greater number of non-completers and student drops (Crawford, 2006). In order to gain clarity, students resort to higher levels of interaction with the professor via email or other forms of communication making it sometimes overwhelming to the professor (Hirschheim, 2005).

In addition to the feelings of confusion and isolation, students often criticize assignments, textbooks, hardware and software, and other elements of the online course (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). These criticisms may be more symptoms of the larger issues of isolation and confusion. These feelings are directly related to a lack of communication among students in a typical online course as “even those who have the means of communicating with others in their class via online chats or email may not receive any encouragement to do so” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

Online courses are often criticized for being lesser quality than traditional courses, despite their provision of convenience and flexibility (Grandon, Alshare, & Kwun, 2005). This is directly related to the trend of colleges to choose “volume-oriented solutions that please the most individual customers, rather than quality-oriented solutions that will inevitably displease some individual customers” (Natale II, 2002). Online courses are often developed and re-run to capitalize fully on the potential benefit of time savings in subsequent offerings, but for quality purposes, courses need to be updated and renewed and faculty must be motivated to do so (Schell, 2004).

“Online courses can tend to make students more dependent on the computer for problem solving” (Hardin, 2004). Without the in-class discussions, professor and classmate views and perspectives, and other facets of traditional face-to-face instruction methods, students are reliant more on the computer to fill in the blanks (Hirschheim, 2005). As a result online courses begin to lend themselves more to a mass-marketed, pre-packaged product that minimizes the subject matter and encourages students to expect top grades with minimal effort and ability (Hirschheim, 2005). The lack of flexibility of most course management systems requires the use of supplemental technologies not necessarily available to all students (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003) and some critics of online learning note the lack of access to students without computers and the Internet as an additional barrier (Funk, 2005).

Other technologies, such as streaming media may be limited by Internet connections and available bandwidth (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003) and although “literature would suggest that a preference for graphics presentation of material in all students might be found,… the data [in Crawford’s study] did not support this conclusion” (Crawford, 2006). Videoconferencing also requires greater amounts of bandwidth than typical Internet services provide (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

“Perhaps the most controversial pedagogic issue associated with online learning environments is the nature of the class interaction” (Picciano, 2006). Knowing the limitations of the students regarding technology available for their independent efforts is important when structuring an online course.

Social interaction among students is an important aspect of learning that is not always present nor promoted in the online learning environment (Grandon, Alshare, & Kwun, 2005). Without such interaction the spontaneity element of the lecture situation is lost (Hirschheim, 2005). Lecture situations lead students to think of questions, and the immediate availability of an instructor response encourages students to ask more questions in class (Hirschheim, 2005). Further, “the flow of questions in a class allows a professor to adapt content and pace to the rate at which the students understand the material” (Hirschheim, 2005). This dialog nature of face-to-face classes is important to ensure that valuable feedback is provided to indicate whether learners have properly understood the material presented (Osberg, 2002). Although online students do not have the immediate availability of the instructor for face-to-face communication, the expectation of availability when questions arise is still present in online learners and through email “students now expect a professor to be available 24 hours a day” (Hirschheim, 2005).

Technology-based innovation, such as online learning, is often perceived as lower quality by traditional academic environments (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). With a focus on retention of students, quality becomes a greater issue in the field of distance learning assuming that such “quality (or lack of quality) of the product that has an impact on students’ willingness to ‘stay the course’” (Natale II, 2002). Education institutions should be cautious in their decisions regarding this delivery method to be sure that the immediate economic benefits do not cost them future market share and student retention by sacrificing quality in their online programs (Aman & Shirvani, 2006).

You Can’t Teach That Online

“Academics question the suitability of certain courses being online” (Hirschheim, 2005). The importance of human contact in the education process, limitations for those who don’t have access to the Internet or computers, and the overall value of the education system are three reasons some educators discredit online learning (Funk, 2005). In Hirschheim’s study, “the elements of traditional university instruction affected in some way by online delivery, as identified by study participants, were: loss of lectures; loss of information delivered in visual and verbal formats; loss of a professor’s views and perspectives; loss of classroom discussion; different type of access and relationship to the professor; loss of questions on course content; easier access to administrative information; increased level of group problems; an expectation that course work should be individual in nature, not group based; expectation that all reading materials be online; higher level of self-sufficient learning; and changes in student motivation” (Hirschheim, 2005). Students often find such missing features compensated by increased reading, exercises, and assignments in the online classroom while accommodating for lack of interaction, technology problems, and connection issues. With such challenges in the environment, “it is much easier to fall behind in the online courses and a student must be self-motivated with a strong sense of personal responsibility and possess tremendous commitment to succeed in the online environment.” (Ury, 2004). Teachers are also faced with challenges in teaching certain classes online, such as hands-on chemistry or biology laboratory activities, as these activities are presented through simulation and not in person in an online learning environment (Picciano, 2006).

When students who would not take another class online were asked to identify why, the most common response was “I prefer in-class instruction” (Aman & Shirvani, 2006). The reason in-class instruction is preferred is for the group interaction perceived to be only available in that format and unavailable in a distance learning environment (Natale II, 2002). “Adult learners need feedback to know whether they’ve properly understood the material and mastered the skills” (Osberg, 2002). Feedback in a traditional classroom comes in many forms including social interaction that may not be directly related to the course content but lends to group process learning (Natale II, 2002). Wong, et. al.  claim that to effectively teach online, adaptations must be made to maintain the learning process and not all staff are capable of making these adjustments to their tutoring skills (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). In reality the only thing that requires change is the method of delivery, not the tutoring skills of the staff. Online courses are still the same course, “the difference is that the whole class doesn’t have to be online at the same time” (Kamberg, 2007).

It is further assumed that online students are somehow different from classroom learners in that “most online students are independent style learners, in contrast to classroom learners, who are more dependent and collaborative” (Funk, 2005). Differences are also cited that the nature of a traditional lecture environment encourages greater participation by students in the form of asking questions (Hirschheim, 2005). In contrast, “survey results reported by several researchers indicate that online courses offer flexibility with no loss of performance” (Ury, 2004) and a number of studies show the two forms of delivery to be comparable (Picciano, 2006).

Traditional learning positions students objectively in the learning process with the assessment based on how much of the material they are able to learn and demonstrate (Dennen & Paulus, 2005). If online learning communities are to foster knowledge creation through collaboration among online students and faculty, “there must be a significant change in how courses are presented and course materials selected. What works in the traditional class is not always as effective online as evidenced by several findings” (Hirschheim, 2005). In order to create an effective online learning community, communication opportunities must be readily available and information sharing should be encouraged (Osberg, 2002).

Proposed Method for Online Instruction

In order to increase retention of students and lower attrition in online classes, the students must be engaged in the learning process. “Course dropout rates decrease when people who are learning the same subject engage” (Osberg, 2002). According to research, the two aspects of online courses to promote this active learning process are”1) participating in structured, tutor-supported online discussions and 2) writing conventional essay-style assignments” (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003). Students must be encouraged to use the communication tools available to them in the online classroom, whether by discussion board, online chat or email, students need to communicate with each other to promote a sense of community and reduce the feelings of isolation and confusion that come from being disconnected in an online class (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Simply put, “Require that students interact with the materials, their classmates and you” (Hardin, 2004). By doing so, learning will occur more freely and through interaction will be more effective (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

As the instructor, step back. By giving students the opportunity to respond to each other, rather than providing all of the answers immediately as the instructor, knowledge is constructed through the learning process, rather than simply being delivered (Hardin, 2004). “The learner-centered approach ‘demands more active forms of classroom instruction that engage the student in the process of learning and that rely on student input for shaping instructional objectives’” (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007). By providing opportunities for student-to-student interaction and communication, social interaction and group processes, valuable in face-to-face teaching, can be established in the online environment (Natale II, 2002). Establish opportunities for students to communicate in real-time through synchronous activities, such as chat sessions, that are topic focused and part of the overall learning experience (Saldivar, 2005). By integrating communication tools (i.e. chat sessions, threaded discussions, and virtual classrooms) into the learning community, learner interaction and feedback systems are fostered and e-learners are encouraged to stay online and active in the class (Osberg, 2002).

Step back doesn’t mean step out. As the instructor it is your job to be available for students and students expect you to maintain a presence in the online classroom (Saldivar, 2005).You can be part of the discussion without dominating the discussion. Students will not develop communication channels among themselves if the instructor always provides the answer, but valuable “discussions with instructors and other learners increase the likelihood that an online course will be completed—and knowledge will be retained” (Osberg, 2002). To encourage understanding beyond basic comprehension, “ask questions that require application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation” and “help students construct knowledge, not simply transmit information” (Hardin, 2004). Your input as an instructor to the discussion can help to clarify, redirect, encourage, and maintain productive lines of student-based communication channels.

Use the tools effectively and remember the purpose for their use. “Distance educators must incorporate ways to establish and maintain community among distance learners into the design of their courses; technology should be a tool to facilitate interaction, reduce the barriers of time and space, and therefore foster community” (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Feedback from students in online classrooms is different from that in a traditional environment and ,with the exception of videoconferencing methods, facial expressions and other body language, feedback is unavailable online, however, valid and timely feedback is necessary to ensure that students are learning (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Saldivar went into great detail in his 2005 article, “Chat Transcripts: Once the Chat is Over, is it Really Over?” about how chat session logs can be used to reinforce the learning that takes place in a chat session by guiding, teaching, elaborating, and making students realize that what they say can be important (Saldivar, 2005). Regardless of the tools used in your online classroom, be sure that the technical aspects do not “substitute for the rigorous application of established pedagogical principles (such as setting clear objectives, promoting active learning and so on) to the online environment” (Wong, Greenhalgh, Russell, Boynton, & Toon, 2003).

Learning online should not be any different than learning in a classroom. “The concept of a learning community in a virtual environment may be seen to be aligned with the way people learn and interact in the physical world” (Sheard, 2004) and therefore must cater to different types of learners by employing a variety of teaching styles (Aman & Shirvani, 2006). The right way to teach your traditional course is probably still the right way to teach your online course. If you have fully developed an effective, high-quality curriculum for your traditional course, find ways to integrate that same curriculum into the online instruction model (Ury, 2004). Due to the asynchronous nature of online learning, it is important that instructors ”organize the delivery of content as well as anticipate things that might go wrong and plan ahead accordingly” (Picciano, 2006) to reduce frustrations and problems that would be otherwise handled in a face-to-face classroom. Traditional lesson plans are based on targeted skills and clearly stated objectives, online courses should be as well (Bailey & Luetkehans, 1998). Online instruction (as with traditional instruction) requires time, effort and planning, all of which are common criticisms from instructors in moving their classes online, but “we should focus our efforts on meeting the needs of the learner; not on what is easy to deliver” (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007).

Just because the learning stays the same, doesn’t mean the delivery can. “Technical components must be combined with instructional knowledge in order to produce DLEs [(distance learning environments)] that achieve the twin standards of success: learning improvement for student users, and cost effectiveness, in terms of time and effort for instructors and funds expended for administrators” (Champeny, et al., 2004). If there is a better way to deliver the content, change the delivery method. Many students choose online learning for the conveniences and technology-based enhancements that this method brings to the education process. “Courses that are ‘data dumps’ of old lecture notes scanned or word-processed into Web pages will suffer from lack of student interest and poor student reviews” (Abromitis, 2002). Lecture can still be delivered, but in ways that build a participative environment for students and teaching staff (Sheard, 2004) that uses the technology available to maintain the interests that students have in the traditional lecture format. Lectures can be delivered through chat sessions, recorded videos, or live videoconference sessions, but regardless, they should engage the students in the learning process, not the technology, (Hardin, 2004) while meeting the students’ expectations of high quality online learning experiences (Grandon, Alshare, & Kwun, 2005).

Manage your classroom and maintain quality in teaching. “The role of the educator…has traditionally been the owner and deliverer of the knowledge, now his role is shifting to a guide and facilitator…to give the students ownership in their own learning process” (Hardin, 2004). Online learning environments provide less opportunity for direct synchronous delivery of knowledge to students than traditional face-to-face classrooms, but as mentioned earlier, students are provided the opportunity for knowledge creation through an online learning community and interaction with peers and teachers in other ways. The convenience of the online learning environment, one of the noted benefits of the method, should not offset the quality of teaching conducted in the online classroom (Grandon, Alshare, & Kwun, 2005). Deadlines, due dates, and quality assignments that encourage students to do more than simply re-state facts all aid in the development of quality forms of online instruction (Hardin, 2004).  

Be active in the learning process. Engage your students by participating in the conversation. “There is ample evidence that online learning has a better chance for success if teachers interact in synchronous communication activities” (Saldivar, 2005). With active participation, students are able to share their thoughts and work while gaining “simultaneous access to the work of others to provide comparative models and opportunities to appropriate ideas more advanced than they might think of on their own” (Saldivar, 2005). This level of interaction will be better received than traditional presentation of material by students who are accustomed to a high level of engagement and interactivity in video games and other technologies (Crawford, 2006). Explore the benefits of incorporating online video or live chat sessions into your online courses to further engage the students, especially now that broadband Internet services are more prevalent and accessible for students (Kamberg, 2007). Live lecture formats through these technologies can capitalize on the instructor’s personality and natural ability to capture student’s interest (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003).

Forget the distance. Take the “distance” out of distance education and online learning. As a faculty member office hours are likely available to your traditional students, be sure that they are virtually available to your online students as well. “The second most-mentioned request [of polled people who had recently completed online courses] was active correspondence with an online facilitator who has frequent virtual office hours” (Osberg, 2002). Expect your students to perform in the same way you would the traditional face-to-face students and remember that the only real difference is the timing of when they “come to class” (Kamberg, 2007). Keep up with your content and the tools available to deliver your courses more effectively in this online environment (Schell, 2004), focus on quality of instruction as you would in a traditional face-to-face environment, and remember that online students are still students and the course content is still the course content, regardless of delivery method.


By this point hopefully it is clear that the 1998 suggestion that “Teaching and learning in on-line environments is very different from face-to-face instruction” (Bailey & Luetkehans, 1998) no longer holds true. Advancements in technology over the last decade have produced tremendous opportunity for teaching to simply be teaching, regardless of the method used to foster the development of knowledge. As noted earlier, “Students in online programs have books, professors, classmates, tests and finals. ‘The difference is that the whole class doesn’t have to be online at the same time” (Kamberg, 2007).

Be careful not to simply post your lecture notes or traditional coursework on the Internet as modern day students demand greater levels of interaction and engagement as they have become accustomed to in other forms of technology (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007). Remember the benefits of online learning from the student perspective such as convenience and comfort (Picciano, 2006) when designing your courses. Establish learning communities that foster interaction among students and with you as the instructor (Saldivar, 2005), but begin to shift roles from educator to facilitator in an effort to pass ownership of the learning process to your students (Hardin, 2004).

Continue to focus on the needs of the learner, not necessarily what is easiest to deliver as the instructor (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007), and work to design a course with structure, schedule, deadlines, and assignments which are neither too easy nor too hard (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Maintain quality in your instruction regardless of delivery method (Hirschheim, 2005) and maintain the same standards for distance education as for traditional classes (Hentea, Shea, & Pennington, 2003). Decrease the focus on the technology (Hardin, 2004) and provide greater focus on fostering a collaborative learning environment and by doing so you should be able to teach any course online.

Future Opportunities for Research

Many opportunities for study exist in the field of instructional design relative to online course delivery methods. Case studies of specific courses assumed to be unsuitable for online delivery adapted for effective online teaching is one opportunity. Another suggestion for research is to consider the impact successful adoption of online learning methods have on the traditional classroom and the methods used in those environments to foster better learning.


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About the Author

Eric Schmieder is Computer Faculty Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, NC and a Ph.D. student at Indiana University through an online consortium program in Technology Management. He has taught in both traditional and online environments since 2001. Among Eric’s research interests are issues in effective use of technology for course delivery.



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