Prospective Online Faculty

How Does Online Teaching Work?

Teaching online requires many of the same skills and techniques instructors use in traditional classes, but there are some differences. In an online course, students access the course materials over the Web at any time of day or night. Often much of the information students acquire in the course comes from the class textbook (if one is assigned) and other readings, along with what they get from library research, Internet resources, CD-ROMs, and other resources.

Most importantly, students in an online course depend on conferencing software, email, and other asynchronous modes of communication for the interaction they have with each other and with the instructor. This interaction is the core of the course. In an online course, students cannot simply raise their hand to ask a question as they would in a classroom. Email and conferencing software more than make-up for this, since having to type out a question forces more reflection before posting it. In addition, thanks to the flexibility of the Web, students will never miss vital class discussions. They can log on and access class materials and discussions at virtually any time of day. Finally, the potential for collaborative work and small-group discussions among students who may never meet face-to-face is what makes Web-based courses so exciting and so powerful an educational format.

How does this all come together in practice? Here's a step by step example of what happens accompanied by a figure to illustrate the concepts being discussed:

  1. Students enroll in your online course(s) via the school's registration procedures.
  2. Students receive their usernames and passwords allowing them access to the course materials. They also purchase the textbook (if required) and other materials from the college bookstore or other sources.
  3. Each week, for the duration of the course, the instructor assigns units and materials from the course Web site, readings from the textbook and other print materials, writing assignments, group projects, and other activities. Students work on their own time, going over the online course material from any personal computer with Web access, whether it's at school, at home, at work, or in the library. They submit completed assignments via email.
  4. Students communicate electronically with each other and the instructor several times a week. Of course, email, voicemail, fax, and telephone are also viable means of communication, but the heart of an asynchronous Web-based course will take place in the online discussion room. Instructors use many strategies to promote communication online which help ensure student participation and achieve maximum effectiveness in online discussions.
  5. At appropriate times the instructor tests student retention of the material. Many Web-based courses have short online Self-Tests for each unit that students use to evaluate their own progress. Also, many textbook companies provide accompanying web quizzes as ancillary materials to the text. Usually, an instructor will give mid-term and final exams and/or assign projects. Depending on the school's examination policies, the instructor may need to make suitable arrangements for issuing and proctoring these exams.
  6. Students are assessed and graded on a combination of factors – test/quiz scores, individual and group project grades, homework, participation in class discussions, etc.

A comparison of interaction between online and face-to-face settings is listed here.




  • Discussions through text only can be  structured, dense, permanent, limited and  stark

  • Verbal discussions: a more  common mode, but impermanent

Sense of



  • Less sense of instructor control
  • easier for participants to ignore instructor

  • More sense of leadership from the  instructor
  • Not so easy to ignore instructor


  • Group contact continually maintained
  • Depth of analysis often increased
  • Discussion often stops for periods of time,  then  is picked up and restarted
  • Level of reflection is high
  • Able to reshape conversation on the basis  of ongoing understandings and reflection

  • Little group contact between meetings
  • Analysis varies, dependent on time  available
  • Discussions occur within a set of time  frame
  • Often little time for reflection during  meetings
  • Conversations are less likely being  shaped during the meeting



  • Less sense of anxiety
  • More equal participation
  • Fewer hierarchies
  • Dynamics are ‘hidden’ but traceable
  • No breaks, constantly in the meeting
  • Can be active listening without the  participation
  • Medium (technology) has an impact
  • Different expectation about participation
  • Slower, time delays in interactions or  discussions

  • Anxiety at beginning/during meetings
  • Participation unequal
  • More chance of hierarchies
  • Dynamics evident but lost after the  event
  • Breaks between meetings
  • Listening without participation may  be frowned upon
  • Medium (room) may have less impact
  • Certain expectations about participation
  • Quicker immediacy of interactions or  discussions


  • High psychological/emotional stress of  rejoining
  • Stress of rejoining not so high


  • Feedback on each individual’s piece of work  very detailed and focused
  • Whole group can see and read each other’s  feedback
  • Textual feedback only
  • No one can “hide” and not give feedback
  • Permanent record of feedback obtained by all
  • Delayed reactions to feedback
  • Sometimes little discussion after feedback
  • Group looks at all participants’ work at the  same time

  • Less likely to cover as much detail,  often more general discussion
  • Group hears feedback
  • Verbal/visual feedback
  • Possible to “free-ride” and avoid giving  feedback
  • No permanent record of feedback
  • Immediate reactions to feedback  possible
  • Usually, some discussion after  feedback, looking at wider issues
  • Group looks at one participant’s  work at  a time




  • Loose-bound nature encourages  divergent talk  and adventitious learning
  • Medium frees the sender but may restrict the   other participants (receivers) by increasing  their uncertainty

  • More tightly bound, requiring  adherence to accepted protocols
  • Uncertainty less likely due to  common understandings about how to  take part in discussions

For more details, you may access “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods” by Anna Ya Ni.

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