Taking Your Course Online? Think Before You Leap

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa discusses whether online learning compares favourably with traditional teaching practices: Part One⎮2 min 30 sec read

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Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa begins this five part series by reviewing the factors teachers should consider before transitioning to online courses in Part One


Some of you have recently asked if there were any studies establishing the quality of online learning as compared with face-to-face. There is, and the evidence suggests six big ideas that should be taken into account before taking your classes online: (a) teacher factors, (b) student factors, (c) use of materials, (d) communication, (e) online learning beyond MOOCs, and (f) change management. Below is a brief summary of the literature followed by some recommendations including the role of worked models and support systems. 

Teacher Factors

First, online is a modality. This does not magically make a “bad” teacher a “good” one or vice versa. The quality of the teacher remains the single greatest determining factor in positive learning outcomes (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). That is, it is not the tool or modality that matters, it is the competence of the instructor that determines if students report they learn well or not. Central to quality teaching is the teacher’s own self-efficacy, and even more important is the group self-efficacy (Hattie & Clark, 2018; McCarty, 2018). When multiple faculty members send the same message to the student about their potential to learn, the student’s own self-perception as a learner changes and outcomes are affected, for better or worse.

There is an inverse curve in educational levels and adaptation to what we know about modern learning; early childhood educators generally appear to embrace novelty, while university professors are often the most adverse to change (Tagg, 2012). There is generally a high level of self-critique and monitoring that occurs in the early childhood classroom and a relative openness to instructional novelty that appears to decrease on the part of teachers as students move into higher levels of education. Tertiary education has been the slowest to adjust to the demands of the modern learner, often ignoring progress in educational technology and discoveries about how the brain learns, despite the fact that these same discoveries are often made within universities themselves (Keeling & Hersh, 2016). Most university professors have never had a class on how to teach. While erudite in specialised fields of knowledge, few university professors know the benefits of one teaching tool or strategy over another and prioritise their life experience as a guide. This can have both positive and negative outcomes, though usually the latter, as teachers do not up-date their pedagogical knowledge base.


In Part Two, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa explores student attitude toward online learning and the quality of materials available to teachers. 

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

Professor, Harvard University Extension School

1 Comments

Go to the profile of David Matta
David Matta 7 months ago

Thank you. I am delivering my first two courses online and needed every bit of advice. I  have found the articles you have written useful.