What Is Different about Teaching Online?

Even though the online environment is fundamentally different from a traditional on-the-ground classroom, the role of the teacher remains the same, regardless of the educational model we subscribe to:

to facilitate the students' learning process, to provide a context for transforming information into knowledge, and to create a learning community.

Transforming a course to an online format may require more than simply transferring what you are doing in the classroom onto the Web, especially if your class is teacher-centered. Many teacher-centered courses follow a lecture model: the teacher organizes learning material, transmits it to the students via lecture and in a linear format, supports learning in class via discussion, and provides activities to individuals and groups of students to extend the learning. The online environment lends itself more to a student-centered approach where the teacher’s role is more like a coach who facilitates the students’ learning. As the online instructor, you will need to decide how you construct your students' learning process.

Let's review where teaching online may differ most from a traditional lecture course:

Preparation and planning

  • course organization, learning objectives, rules of the road, course materials must be resolved before the course starts

Teaching tools

  • Web pages
  • email
  • discussion boards
  • chat rooms
  • streaming audio and video

Different technique

  • in a face-to-face class, a teacher has physical presence (voice, body language, expressions, gestures, intonation) and can rely on visual cues for feedback
  • online, it is mostly written word

Instructional role

  • in a traditional approach, a teacher is an expert/lecturer -- "sage on the stage"
  • online, a teacher becomes a facilitator or moderator -- "guide on the side"

Student role

  • in a traditional classroom -- recipient of knowledge
  • online -- participant in the construction of meaning

Learning process

  • in a traditional classroom -- transfer of knowledge to a group of students in a linear mode
  • online -- hypertext environment, individualized pace and sequence, flexibility and student control, collaboration and cooperation

Building community

  • online students need to know that their input will be recognized and valued
  • online students need to feel a part of the group as a whole
  • online students need to feel comfortable helping others to work together for a mutual cause 


  • most communication on the Web is done by the written word
    • This can be a benefit for those students who are shy or who have to gather their thoughts before speaking. 
    • It can also be a determent to those students who have poor writing skills.
  • the weakness of online learning is that most communication is through writing
  • strength is the use of reading and writing skills

Adapted from Online Teaching Institute at American River College, developed by Dr. Marsha Leeman-Conley

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