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What Can You Gain by Teaching Online?

By Michelle Everson / January 2011

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What Can You Gain by Teaching Online?

January 11, 2011

©2011 Michelle Everson

I've noticed something recently. When I tell people I teach online discussion often turns, rather quickly, to all that a teacher will lose when teaching in the online environment. For example, I'm often asked how I know my students aren't cheating on assignments or assessments when I cannot see them. Or how can I gauge whether they are actually "getting it" if I can't read facial cues or body language. I will be the first to admit that there are certain things we often take for granted in a physical classroom—like the ability to see our students and monitor what they are doing—that can be more of a challenge in the online environment. However, I have benefited in so many more ways as an online instructor than I could have imagined when I was in the classroom. It's time we focused more on what can be gained by teaching online rather than what could be lost.

When I first started teaching online, I wanted to find ways to create an environment in which students were actively engaged. I decided to use asynchronous discussion assignments as a way to create a more collaborative community of learners. In my face-to-face courses I include lots of activities and opportunities for discussion, and it only seemed natural to do the same in my online courses. What I never imagined is how much I would learn, not only about my students, but about how they comprehend complex concepts and ideas, and how I might better teach these concepts and ideas. Certainly in the classroom I can walk around and observe students as they engage in activity and discussion, but not only do I learn more in the online setting, I get to better know my students as a result.

For example, one activity I use (both online and in the classroom) involves students working together to analyze the grading policy of two professors. Students are told the professors' grade distributions are "normal," then the students discuss what it means for a distribution to be "normal." They also learn that each professor uses the same criterion to assign an "A" or an "F," but the means and standard deviations of the two distributions are different. Students discuss the given information to determine how this will affect the proportion of students in each course who get an "A" or an "F." They must make a good argument for why it might be better to take a course with one professor over the other (in addition to other data they might collect to make the most informed decision).

In the classroom, students work through the activity in small groups, and although I can easily walk around the room and listen in on different discussions, I can't simultaneously monitor all of the groups or hear everything being discussed. I don't always get a good sense of who is participating and who is not, and I don't always know who is getting it and who is not. Misconceptions or misunderstandings might be voiced that I don't hear, and unless these come to light when we have a wrap-up involving the entire class, I may never get the chance to correct these misconceptions or misunderstandings.

Using the same activity as an online discussion assignment is a completely different experience for me and the students. First, because I want to make sure students are motivated to work through the assignment, I include discussion as part of each student's grade. I don't do this in the regular classroom because (a) it would be challenging for me to monitor every group and determine whether each group member is participating in an equitable way, and (b) I hope that my physical presence will be enough to motivate most—if not all—of them to participate in the discussion. Because online participation is graded, each student is compelled to take the time to not only share his or her own answers, but to read through and reflect on the answers posted by his or her peers. By taking that time to independently reflect on the assignment and post their thoughts in a public forum, my hope is that students are thinking more deeply about the content and making it more meaningful.

Second, I am able to observe every single group discussion from start to finish. This allows me to see how thoughts evolve and to learn what is challenging for students or what is misunderstood. I can interject and attempt to correct misunderstandings, and I'm able to reach out to the students who are clearly struggling. In a regular classroom, I might not be able to identify these students as easily.

Third, I am an active participant in every discussion group. I'm able to have conversations—if I want—with every single student by taking the time to respond to each student's initial posting. This gives me the opportunity to provide valuable feedback as the students learn the material. In a typical classroom, it was nearly impossible to provide this kind of individual feedback during every group discussion.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am able to "hear" the voices of my students. Although quite a bit of what we do online involves text, I truly get to know my students better in the online environment because of opportunities I've built into the course for them to talk about their understanding of the content. I can listen to them as they explain what they know and what they don't know, and I am able to learn more about them through the kinds of examples they share during discussion or the kinds of questions they ask.

In a regular classroom, I do benefit from seeing my students, but I don't always get to hear them, interact with them and get to know them. And I am often left wondering if they got everything they could out of the class when they don't participate in discussions or take the time to share their thoughts and ideas with their peers.

Yes, we can lose some things when we teach online, and it's critical that we think about this when designing online courses. However, it's just as important for us to think of all we can gain.

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.

Article ©2011 Michelle Everson


  • Thu, 20 Jan 2011
    Post by Fran Lo

    I teach blended / hybrid middle school English classes. The online discussions are so much richer than classroom discussions, with every student participating.

  • Sat, 15 Jan 2011
    Post by Kim Green

    As a former classroom teacher (high school English), I can relate to the concern about losing the opportunity to observe reactions in the classroom. I had considered the value of emails back and forth about a particular assignment (because I have taken Technical Writing online and experienced this). I found this very helpful, but the interaction might not apply to other topics. such as math. However, I hadn't really thought about the value of viewing small group discussions and seeing how students think and analyze problems. You are right. Understanding this process first hand would be so valuable! Thanks for this article.