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Teaching Online Can Make Us Better Teachers

By Marie Norman / April 2016

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If I asked you to think of the teacher in your life who influenced your own teaching most profoundly, would you think of an online teacher? My guess is no. If you're like me, your models of teaching are mostly, if not exclusively, face-to-face.

But if I asked you to think of a skill or body of knowledge you've learned recently and tell me where you learned it, you might very well answer: online.

The fact that many of us lack models of online teaching, yet have ample experience with online learning presents interesting opportunities. On the one hand, because we lack mental models for online teaching, developing an online course for the first time can be disorienting—even scary. On the other hand, this very lack of models can also be liberating: We're simply not as constrained online by preconceptions of what teaching should look like. Moreover, because we generally have more experience with online learning than online teaching, our entry point is more naturally learning. And this allows us to bring learning research more creatively and profoundly into our courses.

With almost 50 years of research on learning under our collective belts, we now have a wealth of insights to draw on in our teaching: How prior knowledge impacts learning, the effects of stereotype threat, the limits of working memory, the factors that affect student motivation, etc. [1]. Yet this research makes surprisingly few inroads into traditional classrooms, where, despite decades of research showing the superiority of active learning, lectures continue to be a dominant teaching mode [2] and we continue to confuse content coverage with learning [3].

There are reasons traditional classroom education hasn't fully embraced learning research. The expectations and reward systems of academia are deeply rooted in content-heavy, teacher-centered models, and are resistant to change. Online education, on the other hand, has less investment in any particular model of teaching. It's lighter on its feet and still forming. As a result, it is potentially more open to new ideas. Moreover, there are certain attributes of online education-products of both its affordances and its limitations—that can lead us toward smarter teaching practices. Here are five of those attributes.

No. 1: Lecturing is Harder Online

When used in limited quantities, lecture can play a useful role in teaching. However, heavy use of lectures has been shown to produce far poorer learning outcomes than active learning methods. This is particularly true for women and minority students [4]. In fact, a significant meta-analysis comparing lecture with active learning concluded, with fairly breathtaking definitiveness, that if lecture were a medical intervention it would be "discontinued for benefit" [5]. In other words, lecture is so inferior to alternative educational "treatments" that it is unethical to use on real people.

And yet we continue to use it. In fact, extensive lecture continues to be broadly employed by 53 percent of male and 34 percent of female undergraduate instructors, according to a study done by the Higher Education Research Institute [2].

Online courses have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to lecturing, which can be an advantage when it comes to effective teaching. While it's fairly easy to prepare a lecture and come to class to deliver it, it's comparatively time-consuming and resource-intensive to produce video lectures for online courses. Once recorded, video lectures are difficult to change, which is problematic in fast-moving disciplines. Moreover, the videos themselves can begin to look dated quickly, as tools and technologies change.

The difficulty of producing video lectures for online courses has two positive consequences. One is that it encourages content curation rather than content creation. Rather than create yet another recorded lecture on, say, marketing principles, we can make use of existing content: YouTube videos, podcasts, and digital resources available on the internet. There's so much content out there already. Why reinvent the wheel?

Another is that less lecture creates more space for active learning. The fact that online students generally join courses from their own homes and communities is a rich teaching opportunity. They aren't in the rarified environment of a campus. They're in the real world, where they can apply what they're learning directly. They can use their smart phones to document and annotate examples of disciplinary concepts and principles in action: evidence of racial injustice or social entrepreneurship, of environmental problems and solutions, of physics principles manifested in everyday phenomena. They can use digital tools—many of them free or cheap—to produce course-relevant artifacts: a narrated video tour of local architecture, a social media marketing campaign for their own organization, a presentation to fellow pre-school parents on relevant child development principles, etc.

Online, the world is your classroom in a way that, frankly, isn't true when you're in an actual classroom. It invites active participation.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that online teachers won't use and abuse lectures; they often do. However, the comparative difficulty of producing video lectures gives online teachers an opportunity that onsite teachers haven't fully realized: To step away from the lectern and bring active learning into their teaching in a richer and more meaningful way.

No. 2: Student-Created Content

There is no better way to learn a subject than to teach it. The process of deconstructing complex ideas and explaining them in plain language helps us gain greater clarity and deeper comprehension. These benefits are well demonstrated and are known as the "Protégé Effect" [6].

This brings us to another advantage of online education: The proximity of Web 2.0 tools and the opportunities they provide to let students create content and teach one another.

The Web champions what Jenkins et al call "participatory culture" in which there are low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and an ability to shape the flow of media [7]. The ubiquity of smartphones and cheap or free apps makes it possible for students to create media-rich content: websites, blogs, video presentations, and movies. Students aren't limited to papers and exams as a way to demonstrate mastery, nor is their audience limited to their instructor. In creating—and not simply consuming—content, students have to engage in the same prioritization and distillation of ideas that we, as instructors, engage in when we prepare lessons. They benefit, in other words, from the Protégé Effect.

Sure, traditional education can also take advantage of digital tools and the creative assignments they make possible. The only real advantage online education has is that students are already online, in close proximity to these tools and in an ideal position to share what they create with one another. Perhaps, too, the democratic ethos of the web colors the online learning environment in positive ways, leading instructors and students to see one another as co-constructors of meaning, rather than as two ends of a hierarchy.

No. 3: Student Motivation

One weakness of online education is student attrition [8, 9]. Students appear less likely to finish online courses than traditional courses, though exactly how less likely or why is still in question. This is a dark cloud, but it has a silver lining: Student motivation and engagement move from a peripheral to a central concern in online teaching and highlight that we can't take student persistence for granted.

There is a wealth of research [10, 11, 12] on the critical role of motivation in learning as well as the factors that affect motivation. Yet it's entirely too easy to ignore motivational issues in face-to-face educational contexts, where students are a captive audience. Online, though, disengaged students don't just tune out in class or skip the occasional lecture, they drift away or drop out altogether. The problem is bigger and this can force us to think harder about who, and not just what, we're teaching.

Luckily, there are also affordances online that make it easier to fuel student motivation.

One is the possibility of engaging students in real tasks. Not too long ago, I talked with a recent college graduate whose favorite course in a largely residential college career was online; the course was in exercise science. When I asked him why this course stood out, he told me about an assignment that involved comparing and evaluating popular diet and fitness apps using the principles they'd learned in class. He liked the assignment because it felt intimately connected to the real world and to the work he would soon be doing. It was not, in other words, merely an academic exercise.

Another advantage online is the greater potential to engage real audiences. Stanford's Andrea Lunsford compared student writing at various times in United States history from the early 20th century to the present. She found, contrary to popular belief, students today aren't doing less writing, they're doing far more and not just for school. Moreover, their writing is getting better: more nuanced and more evidence-based. Lunsford credits the online environment for providing a sense of purpose that is missing when students write purely for their instructor. Students, she points out, are "writing things that have an impact on the world—that other people are reading and responding to" [13]. That's heady stuff and clearly far more motivating than simply writing another eight-page paper that only one person will read.

So what does online education offer? An opportunity, sparked largely by necessity, to bring the research on motivation more aggressively into teaching. A chance to ask ourselves, as teachers: How would we teach differently if students weren't a captive audience? That, and more and more tools and channels that allow students to assert their voices and refine their thinking within a larger conversation, unconstrained by the four walls of a classroom.

No. 4: The Social and Emotional Components of Learning

While we tend to focus on the cognitive factors in learning, social, emotional, and physical factors are also vital. Social interactions—discussions, debates, collaborations—help us process information, give it meaning, and make it stick [14, 15]. The relationships instructors establish with students pave a path into academic disciplines, while a sense of social obligation makes students feel accountable to one another and helps to ensure that they meet deadlines, contribute to discussion… simply show up. Certain emotions—curiosity, excitement, puzzlement, frustration, surprise—can lead to cognitive breakthroughs, while other emotions—nxiety and fear—can shut down cognitive processes [16, 17]. Another complex of emotions, motivation, drives behaviors that lead to deeper learning [1]. And of course, influencing everything else are the physical issues: Can you hear the instructor; can you see your classmates; is the place you're in so hot or cold you can't concentrate?

For many years, learning research has focused on the cognitive factors in learning. But there is a rich and growing scholarship on the social and emotional components of learning as well. Researchers have noted the profound impact of stereotype threat on members of stereotyped groups—and found surprisingly simple ways to alleviate its effects [18] . They've investigated techniques, such as expressive writing [19] and reappraisal [20] to mitigate the damaging effects of anxiety on performance. And they've explored the importance of "mindsets" or the beliefs about learning and intelligence that powerfully affect students' willingness to take intellectual risks and their ability to withstand and learn from failure [21].

Because of the potential for loneliness and disengagement when students are not co-located [22] online educators have given considerable thought and attention to the social and emotional components in learning. It's widely understood—and supported by abundant research [23, 24] that a strong sense of "presence" is essential in online courses: Students must feel connected to one another and to their instructor. It's also understood that presence doesn't happen automatically; instructors must deliberately build and foster a sense of community [25]. In other words, online instructors—who can't actually see their students—have to make a point of "seeing" every student and helping students see one another.

Online teachers have found creative and resourceful ways to create this sense of presence. In the end—and to many people's surprise—students and faculty often report feeling more connected to one another in online courses than they do in face-to-face courses.

Online education reminds us that the communities we create in our classrooms matter, whether those classrooms are physical or digital. The critical need for social presence online amplifies and extends the idea that our job as instructors is to build an environment in which students feel connected, welcome, and supported. This doesn't, of course, mean that we shouldn't sometimes unsettle students or push them outside their comfort zone—that's also our job. But if students don't feel they belong in the arena where ideas are contested and debated, if they don't feel safe taking intellectual risks, if they don't feel that their presence matters—then all other bets are off.

No. 5: Multi-Sensory Learning

Here's a fifth reason online education can make us better teachers: Online education makes better use of multi-sensory learning.

My discipline is cultural anthropology, a field that is packed with sensory information: color, flavor, sounds, and smells. By rights, anthropology courses should be as richly sensory as they are intellectual. Yet the way students experience cultural anthropology in most traditional classes is largely through books and articles.


We know from personal experience, as well as from research, how important the senses are in learning. Engaging multiple senses in a given learning experience creates more connections between new information and prior knowledge and strengthens our ability to remember and retrieve it [26]. When we use more senses, new learning becomes more meaningful and "sticky."

Done right, education should be highly sensory. Yet traditional education so often isn't.

While universities tend to be beautiful places and frequently host events (concerts, art exhibitions, plays) that engage the senses, these experiences are not always integrated in any meaningful way with classroom learning, nor do classrooms themselves have any particular sensory richness. In fact, classrooms are intentionally impersonal and blank, designed to serve a rotation of instructors from different fields, not to ignite student curiosity.

Teaching online we have ready access to the multimedia resources of the web. A simple Google search can bring students into the world of Hmong shamanism, Maasai initiations, or Gullah basket weaving.

Perhaps even more importantly, online students participate from their own homes and workplaces, where well-designed assignments can prompt them to use their senses to do disciplined observations of social, economic, political, and natural phenomena, analyze their observations according to the concepts they're learning, and write about or discuss their experiences.


There is, of course, no reason that onsite courses can't incorporate more multi-sensory learning than they do. In fact, there's no reason onsite courses can't do everything I've written about here: reduce reliance on lecture, consider student motivation more seriously, leverage the Protégé Effect, and give more thought to the social and emotional components of learning.

There's no reason—other than inertia and a sense of how it's been done in the past—that we can't apply the research on learning to improve the way we teach in any modality: onsite, hybrid, or online. Teaching online simply presents new constraints and possibilities that can, if we allow them to, push us in the direction we already need to go.

Can online education make us better teachers? I think so. Will it? That depends on us.

[Originally published as a series of blog posts on Medium.]


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About the Author

Dr. Marie Norman is associate professor at the Institute for Clinical Research Education at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the book How Learning Works: Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010). She has taught in higher education for 20 years, worked in faculty development for 12, and in educational technology for four She's love it if you followed her on Medium and/or shared your creative approaches to online teaching and other tales from the trenches.

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