Q&A: How Online Teachers are Different

A: Your face.

I'm kidding, but only sort of. The human face is a complex signaling system. You can communicate subtle distinctions in mood with a slight shift in an eyebrow. In the traditional classroom, teachers can see a wave of boredom move through the class, a dozen brows wrinkle in confusion, or, more pleasantly, the lights go on as the third explanation they try really brings a difficult concept to life. Online, at least at most schools, that's missing.

When an active student goes silent in the traditional classroom, or when any student changes behavior markedly, good teachers notice. They look for reasons, they ask questions, and they adjust their behavior accordingly. After all, one definition of learning is changing behavior: If you "learn" something but learning it doesn't change your behavior in any way, did you really learn something? And monitoring behavior is intertwined with monitoring -- and fostering -- learning.

Online, if students go silent, that might mean they're confused or upset, but it might also mean a storm disrupted an Internet connection. Or a virus destroyed a computer. Or a cat crawled into a lap. The old signals are missing, and lots of false signals are produced.

To address this confusion, good online teachers check in more often than they might in person. They ask more process questions. They simulate likely activity. For example, they share descriptions of past classes being confused by concept X, and share the three most common areas of confusion, and ask if these are true for you, too.

As an online student, you can help your teachers. Remember your face is missing, and do things to make up for it. These might range from signing your emails to explaining why you were absent, silent, etc. This might not be required…but it helps.

Greg BeattyGreg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and over twenty years experience in higher education. He’s taught everything from standardized test prep courses and freshman orientation and composition courses on up to serving on doctoral committees. He’s taught in the traditional classroom, correspondence courses, online courses, and hybrid courses. He’s developed curriculum for several colleges (sometimes as sole author, sometimes working collaboratively), and served as a textbook manuscript reviewer for Longman. He’s won grants for course development, and awards for his teaching. Greg has mentored new teachers and co-taught workshops on teaching excellence. He’s also served on a range of committees and college advisory boards, and has served as an area chair for humanities.