Online teaching and classroom teaching—How do they compare?

In their essay, “Teaching Time Investment: Does Online Really Take More Time than Face-to-Face? “ (, accessed June 27, 2014), Rebecca Van de Vord and Korolyn Pogue discuss the difficulty of trying to determine whether online teaching is more or less time intensive than conventional classroom teaching. They admit that variables for such an analysis do not lend themselves to a simple accounting—how does one compare the time involved in composing an email versus a conversation after class? I would also suggest that the comparison resist a simple accounting because time as experienced is not simply a matter of duration—i.e. quantity. Time has a quality dimension to it. For example, time spent on interesting projects is different from time spent in boredom. Be that as it may, the assumption underneath the essay is this: both online teaching and classroom teaching aim for essentially the same goals—and therefore a determination of how much time is involved is a problem of efficiency or productivity. Period.

I have noticed that many of the other essays also fall into this sort of apologetic tack. Online teaching and learning is (or is not) as good as (or better than) classroom teaching and learning. Or online teaching is better at some aspects of learning/teaching, but not as good at others. All of these essays seem to assume that teaching/learning is an identifiable good that is somehow distinct from the “delivery” system.

But what if the “goods” of online learning and classroom learning are not the same, even though they may have a “family resemblance”?

I propose an analogy. We often use the category “the arts” to talk about such diverse creative projects as painting a picture and composing a symphony. We can even imagine some loose aesthetic principles that might apply to these two very different sorts of activities. And both, well done, promote the flourishing of humanity. And yet, it would not make much sense to ask: “Is composing a symphony more time consuming that painting a picture?” Nor would it make sense to ask, “Is impressionist music a better (or more productive or less productive) way of accomplishing impressionist art than an impressionist painting?”

blue_paisely_backgroundsIn short, what if we simply give up comparing online and classroom teaching and start trying to identity the goods of online teaching on their own, in terms of the goods internal to computer-assisted communication?



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  1. Ed, I like your question concerning quality of time. You are correct that we experience time differently depending on how much we value what we are doing. You are also probably correct that comparing online and classroom is like apples and oranges. We have to decide if online is of value by itself. Thanks for the post.


  2. Ed (and all), I’ve also done a bit of reading on the differing perceptions of students and teachers of the experience of community, quality of learning/pedagogy, centrality of face-to-face student/faculty relationships, experience of time, etc. when comparing real and virtual classes. Often the teachers have an inflated perception of how the on-line experience was for students, and on rarer occasions, the students thought the learning in an on-line class was much more fruitful than that of the teacher or in a traditional classroom situation (and often for reasons we had never considered). It seems one of the most important resources we can identify will be the assessment tool. We can create good rubrics for grading and evaluating student work, but a thoughtful, insightful assessment tool for the entire learning experience, is another matter.
    David Jenkins

  3. Ed – an excellent perspective indeed! You raise some interesting points and propose very intriguing analogies (I love the symphony vs. painting!). I find myself agreeing with you and have thought many times this way about my own role at Emory in which I am tasked to develop our MOOCs.

    Looking at the larger end goal, do you feel is it important to compare these time differences?

  4. This is such a great conversation. I think that is the key — this is a different form altogether, and we clearly know that throwing our lecture notes online is not online teaching. This learner motivation, learner engagement is so critical and the designer’s ‘responsibility’ — if the learners aren’t getting it, it reveals a weakness in our design rather than the weakness in the learner. Accountability. Interesting. Leah, I think you were getting at this, too, in ‘Vision vs. Reality”.

  5. Hello Ed and all – I really appreciated your analogy of the music vs. painting – it was like a lightbulb going off for me!. As I was reading your post, I also was thinking about assessment. I think people are very quick to criticize online courses for some of the reasons many of us outlined in our posts as being challenges (lack of relationships; management; etc.) However, assessment of f2f courses also remains a bit of a mystery. Maybe we need to develop some best practices for assessment of different kinds of content, then apply them to both online and traditional courses. Ann

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