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Can Online Teaching Improve Face to Face Instruction?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In general, online courses require greater planning, more extensive resources, more formalized communication, and more detailed organization than do face to face courses. But, the work that goes into creating an online course, and the insights forthcoming from comparison of online and face to face versions of the course, can make the face to face course better in many ways.



The posting below looks at how the teaching of online courses can have a positive impact on the teaching of face to face courses.  It is by Michael L. Rodgers and Mary Harriet Talbut Southeast Missouri State University and is #69 in a series of selected excerpts from The NT&LF reproduced here as part of our \"Shared Mission Partnership.\" NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, December, 2013, Volume 22, No. 7. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission. 


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Concerns and Opportunities for Online Student Retention



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Can Online Teaching Improve Face to Face Instruction?


As part of my job,[1] as directed by Faculty Senate, I meet with every faculty member when a course is taught online for the first time or if the instructor is teaching online for the first time. A faculty member came to the program with a reputation as a poor teacher in his face to face class, so I wasn't sure what to expect when working with him. Even after classes began, I was unable to get him to meet with me. In fact, he had not even put anything in his online course website for students to read! Indeed, there was nothing in the online course to foster any sort of communication with the class. After many tries, I finally met with him. I employed as much pressure as my position at the University allowed, and I was at last able to get him to put something online, including an introduction of himself to his students, a reading assignment, and a list of questions about the assignment in a discussion forum. A few days later, he returned to my office, and I helped him grade the forum posts.

In the process of setting up the initial discussion forum and content, it became clear that the instructor had given little thought to his students' need to know what they were to do for the rest of the semester. He had not thought about due dates. He obviously had not considered how a student taking a class online might differ from one who takes the class face to face. I asked him how he gave information to his face to face class, and how students in his face to face class would know what was important. The expression on his face registered complete surprise. Although his content expertise was laudable, his disengagement from good teaching practices prevented him from serving as an effective teacher. The assignment to teach online required him to think about pedagogy in the online context, and in doing so, created an opportunity to think about teaching in his face to face class. After he came back several more times, and we had more discussions about teaching online, he mentioned that he was implementing some of what he had learned about teaching online in his face to face class: a breakthrough!

I Never Taught This Way in Grad School!

Most faculty have had at least some training on how to teach in the traditional classroom setting. Some institutions offer pre-service training to new hires. As graduate assistants, future faculty members may have gained experience grading assignments, facilitating recitation sections, or supervising laboratories. Some graduate students have taught entire courses solo. But, experience teaching online is less common. Skewing graduate assistant experience toward face to face instruction may have some benefits, insofar as face to face instruction remains a largely self-contained enterprise in which the instructor personally experiences all aspects of the course, from design to implementation to assessment. If the goal is to provide the graduate student with end-to-end responsibility for a course, face to face teaching is probably the way to go. A face to face instructor typically sets up the course and after a semester or two, merely tweaks the course for a new edition of a text, or perhaps a new discovery in the discipline. The course is created from notes taken when the instructor was a student in the same (or a similar) course. As Lortie long ago noted when describing the apprenticeship of observation, teachers teach as they were taught.[2]

It might seem that experience with online teaching would not improve face to face teaching. New faculty are likely to have very limited experience with online teaching, and opportunities for mentoring may be limited. Online students differ from face to face students in important ways. Online course development tends to follow very different processes than those used to develop face to face courses. As it has evolved, online pedagogy frequently involves consultation and close collaboration with a host of support personnel; among the collaborators are instructional designers (project managers), e-producers (web programmers, graphic designers, for example), and librarians, many of whom provide design and implementation assistance to instructors or subject-specific research assistance to online students. In effect, they help create an instructional system. This collaboration is very different from that found in face to face courses, in which the roles of instructional designer, organizer, and teacher fall almost solely to the instructor in a face to face classroom.

Despite the differences, experience with online teaching can provide the instructor with an alternative expression of the course that reveals much upon comparison. The relative dearth of experience with online teaching (including a lack of mentors) requires the instructor to construct a workable pedagogy, or face numerous negative consequences. Few instructors prefer a teaching environment in which students are confused and discontented, and where students rate instruction as poor. The more highly collaborative course development process for online courses puts the instructor in contact with experts and established good practices, along with either explicit or implicit accountability for the quality of teaching. People generally perform better when others are watching.

Basic Lessons from Teaching Online that Make Better Face to Face Teachers

Many features of online courses that are deemed to be indispensable are also highly desirable and beneficial in face to face courses.

Organization - Without common sense and consistent organization of both content (such as learning objectives and chapter readings), and administrative components (such as assignment due dates and grade displays), an online course will almost certainly lapse into a confusing, demoralizing state. Every activity, assignment, quiz and forum should tie back to the course big ideas in a more deliberate way online than in a face to face course, primarily because online courses lack the immediacy of classroom questions and answers, and the richer sense of context available in face to face communication. Careful organization in an online class can't help but carry over to the face to face class.

Comprehensive Materials - Much of the popularity of online courses among students derives from their perceived convenience. Convenience arises from the Internet's \"anytime/anywhere\" accessibility, but also from the aggregation of course materials into an ordered listing, typically with hyperlinks to take the student directly to the materials. Such a listing is mandatory in an online course, but after producing it for the online course, the same materials can also serve the face to face class. A comprehensive listing can serve as a content-rich course outline, and it can remediate content coverage for students who missed class.

Tools - Instructors who teach online may find that essential software, simulations, and administrative tools are also useful in the face to face classroom. Forum discussions, Voicethread, online homework systems, assignment dropboxes (which timestamp and track submitted work), and anti-plagiarism services, all support multiple strategies of assessment,[3] delivery of materials, and methods of coursework submission, which are all necessary in a quality online course. These same tools can be used to good effect in a face to face course. For example, students in an online chemistry course at our institution must visualize three-dimensional molecular shapes in their study of the relationships between structure and properties. However, the students have no access to traditional molecular modeling kits. Instead, they use \"Molecular Playground,\"a free online tool developed at Ohio State University, [4] to create easily manipulated pseudo three-dimensional \"Jmol\" structures. Unlike the online students, those in the face to face course have some access to traditional modeling kits. Even so, students use the online tool to create Jmol structures at times and locations for which the traditional kits are not available. Additionally, the instructor uses the tool during class to support discussions, by creating structures much more rapidly than can be done with traditional ball-and-stick kits. Distinct from the structures created from ball-and-stick kits, Jmol images are resizable to be visible in any classroom. The need to implement the Molecular Playground in the online course sensitized the instructor to benefits that the tool could bring to the face to face course.

Student-Student Interaction - Good online teaching encourages the instructor to create a place where students can introduce themselves to the class. As part of the introduction the instructor may ask students to share their favorite website, something for which they are proud, or an obstacle they had to overcome. Such activities improve civility and reduce resistance to collaboration. An instructor in a face to face class uses the same activity because he found that students who knew something personal about the other students in the room treated one another better in classroom discussions and debates.

Formative Assessment - The absence of body language and other subtle cues and clues about student understanding in the online environment puts a premium on quizzes, forum posts, and peer evaluations when looking for signs of student progress. The same examples and tools can also be used in the face to face class. Students may faithfully attend class, but attendance does not indicate understanding. By providing online opportunities to get feedback, the instructor can gain better understanding of student progress prior to exams or other summative assessments.


In general, online courses require greater planning, more extensive resources, more formalized communication, and more detailed organization than do face to face courses. But, the work that goes into creating an online course, and the insights forthcoming from comparison of online and face to face versions of the course, can make the face to face course better in many ways.

CONTACT:Michael L. Rodgers, PhD Director, Advanced Placement Teacher Development and Professor of Chemistry Southeast Missouri State University Cape Girardeau, MO 63701E-mail: Telephone: (573) 651-2360 Web:


1.Actual events; narrative by Mary Harriet Talbut, Instructional Design Specialist at Southeast Missouri State University. 

2. Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study by Dan C. Lortie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

3. See, for example, the Quality MattersTM Higher Education Rubric, https://www.