The Best of Both Worlds

By Michelle Everson / April 2011

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Although I love online teaching, I've always been very grateful about the fact that my job allows me to teach both online and face-to-face courses My experiences teaching in both online and more traditional classroom environments have made me a better teacher, because what I learn from my students in one environment naturally informs what I do in the other environment. Yet despite how much I enjoy working in the online environment, there are times when that can get very isolating.

Generally, during the academic year, I might have one full semester where I only teach online courses. The following semester, I might teach mostly online and then teach one classroom-based course. I think teaching in both environments can make for a better learning experience for my students. As an example, in the classroom, I carefully observe what activities tend to engage and motivate the students the most, in turn I also attempt to observe where students struggle the most. I then use this information to create the discussion assignments in my online courses. The rich discussions that occur in my online courses give me ideas for how I can better structure those same kinds of discussions in a face-to-face environment. If I see, for instance, that students tend to misinterpret certain pieces of information they are given, I can clarify this information for my face-to-face students. If I see students in the online course struggle with certain topics, this often gives me ideas of new discussion questions I can ask my face-to-face students in order to better help them understand the material. I constantly find that the assignments I use in the classroom inform what I do in the online environment, and vice versa. My goal is to provide students with opportunities to discuss and reflect on issues that they have a vested interest in or that I feel might help them uncover certain misconceptions or misunderstandings they don't even realize they have.

I've also realized that teaching online has given me a better understanding of the many ways in which I can attempt to explain information to students, and I take this understanding with me now wherever I teach. I learned very quickly—when teaching online—that I couldn't always rely on being able to draw a quick picture on the board in order to explain a concept or an idea to students. I had to figure out ways I could use text—and other resources (online resources, instructor-generated graphics, etc.) —to help my students understand complex ideas. I might need to write out paragraphs in order to explain something that I could have just as easily explained by working through a problem in class or drawing a picture on the board. The act of writing those paragraphs, however, naturally leads me to think much more carefully about the material and about just what I want students to understand and how I might help their comprehension of the material. And, of course, once I have these paragraphs written, I can save them for future online courses, or share them with the face-to-face students who struggle to understand what is said in class and would like a more concrete record to refer back to over and over again.

Online also provides me opportunities to think more about how I'm going to respond to student questions and carefully craft my answers. I don't have to come up with an answer "on the spot," as I might be expected to do in a face-to-face environment. I'll be the first to admit that I don't always have answers to all the questions that are raised in class, however I worry that if I only teach online I'll start to get lax in terms of how I prepare to teach my students. There is the risk I will begin to think "Oh, I can get back to this student in a day or two, after I've had time to read more about this." I crave those unplanned opportunities where I have to think on my feet. I strongly believe that over the years, classroom spontaneity has helped me become a better teacher and to solidify my own understanding of the course content.

I certainly enjoy that online teaching allows me to work from almost anywhere, at any time of the day, but I sometimes miss the face-to-face contact I get with students in the classroom. I also miss being able to use body language cues and facial expressions to gauge if students are "getting it" or paying attention. Although I do sometimes feel I have more personal interactions with each student in the online environment, there are only so many things I can learn about their personalities when I work with them at a distance. I constantly wonder if the students are missing out on important social interactions they could be having with their peers in a face-to-face environment. Even though I attempt to bring these interactions into the online classroom in the form of group discussions, the assignments are naturally going to be different than they would be in the classroom.

When I am asked whether I enjoy teaching online more than I enjoy teaching in the classroom (or vice versa), it is a very hard question for me to answer. I love working in both environments, for very different reasons. I only wish everyone could have both of these experiences because even if you don't see yourself as an online instructor (or if you only teach online and couldn't imagine teaching in a face-to-face environment), there is much to be learned about who you are as a teacher and how your students learn by experiencing both kinds of learning environments.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Everson is a lecturer in the Quantitative Methods of Education track within the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. She has been teaching online for six years and teaches introductory and intermediate statistics courses, in addition to a course called "Becoming a Teacher of Statistics." In 2009, she received a Distinguished Teaching award from the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She is the editor of resources for the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education, and the statistics editor for MERLOT.

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