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Times are Changing: 4 Tips for Successful Online Teaching

The face of higher education is changing. In a recent meeting, I heard a member of a preeminent University leadership team remark that schools that try to go back to how things were before COVID -19 will miss the train on the future of education. Online learning has made some terrific inroads as a result of the pandemic that has created a great opportunity for students, faculty, and potential employers alike.

As we work to embrace the new face of education, there has been and will continue to be, debate over the value and quality of online education. Many people are convinced that online courses cannot be as good as the in-person experience and for some students and faculty this may be true, however, if there is one thing I have learned from teaching online for the last 6 years, it is that not all students learn in an identical fashion. There are some people that learn best when someone in person walks them through a concept, while others learn best studying on their own. It is like the quote that has often been attributed to Albert Einstein – “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it is stupid.” By embracing the online education platform, educators can provide a much personalized and diverse experience for their students.

I think it is important that we ask, how much of your apprehension is around your comfort level with online learning rather than that of your students? Deciding to move online is not an easy task. It takes thinking about the learning experience in a whole new way. It will require you to learn, prepare and interact in a way that you may never have before, but if you are willing to put in the effort to learn, the process can be a rewarding one for you and your students. I remember when I was first asked to teach online, I was doing it because it meant I could keep my job. Then, however, I started to work with our digital specialists, who opened me to a completely different way of thinking about learning. Developing an online course provides you the opportunity to clearly articulate what students should take from the experience as well as find innovative ways to deliver the material that embraces different learning styles.

A review of the education literature indicates a lack of consensus as to which teaching style reigns supreme. Some studies attempt to examine if a course or discipline should be taught using an online setting or a face-to-face setting1. For example, Sohn and Romal’ meta-analysis2 found that students in undergraduate economics courses provided with face-to-face instruction outperform students provided with online instruction but given their research design, they were unable to control for student-centric variables (e.g. gender, prior economics course(s) and mathematics ability) or instructor centric variables (e.g. experience teaching online, experience teaching face-to-face, preference for a using a specific mode of teaching, and training) which could have significantly impacted their findings. These findings were also in opposition to an earlier study, published in a leading learning journal in 2006, that looked of literature across fields that showed there was no difference in learning outcomes3.

Other academic research has investigated the impact mode of instruction on specific learning outcomes. Weir4, for example, found that clarity of instruction was significantly higher for the in-class setting but the improvement of analytical skills and appreciation for the field was significantly higher for students in an online setting. These findings, I believe, explain a lot of the apprehension that educators feel about online education. When you are in front of a class, you most likely feel more comfortable knowing when you need to explain more about a topic and when you need to move on. In the online setting, however, you may not think you have the same luxury, but tools like McGraw Hill’s Smartbook® allows you to get a pulse on how students are doing and provide material to address knowledge gaps. It may not be what we are traditionally used to, but your ability to see when students are struggling can be enhanced when using the right tools.

Other research that has investigated the online versus face-to-face debate in larger populations across degree types and disciplines5 shows that for structured material online learning was preferred but for more conceptual work face-to-face was preferred. If you are in an online setting, however, this can be easily amended through the blend of synchronous and asynchronous work. I personally have used tools like McGraw-Hill’s Connect®, to find tools such as videos, role-play scenarios, and practice assignments to introduce material, but then use synchronous sessions to help flush out the nuanced concepts.

So, as you consider your place and opinion of online learning, I would like for you to consider the following things:

  1. There are different styles of learning that traditional university classrooms do not always take into consideration. Whether you are following Fleming’s VARK model of learning styles or Gardner’s forms of intelligence, we know that the one size fits all education model is not as effective as providing options for students. Through your online learning course, provide your students with different options for taking in the required material. This diversity of delivery can help reach your students where they are.
  2. If you think of online learning as just voice-over PowerPoints and reading lists, then yes, in-class learning would probably be a better option for you and your students. Online learning, however, is so much more than that. Platforms, like Connect®, provide students with opportunities to interact with the subject content in a variety of ways. If you assign more innovative tools, such as the interactive McGraw Hill’s Smartbook®, your students will experience a much more personalized learning journey. You may find learning a new platform intimidating at first but reach out for assistance with your training process. There is a great number of resources available to help you become comfortable with using the platform.
  3. Today’s student is not the same student of 20 or even 10 years ago. Students have grown up with technology and large percentages of them are working either part-time or full-time while studying6. These two factors in combination with one another make students more interested in the flexibility and convenience provided to them with online learning. Research numbers in the US showed that 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students work3. One should keep this in mind as they are deciding on how to balance the synchronous and asynchronous components of a course.
  4. The role of social presence in online learning has been linked to motivation to participate and student performance7. Incorporating avenues for social presence such as comments8, individualized video feedback9, and personal profiles10 can help students overcome their apprehensions of online learning.

Overall, I think that online learning is like anything in life, there needs to be a balance. Consider the work of Smart and Cappel (2006), for example, who provide evidence that students’ learning experience in an online setting was more positive than students’ learning experience in an in-person setting when taking an elective topic, but provide evidence to the contrary when students are taking a core subject11. So perhaps having all courses online is not the way forward, but by not having an online presence you are perhaps also missing the opportunity to reach as many people as you potentially can. Maybe the best answer is to find the model that best works for you and your students.

1Morgan, J. D. (2015). Online versus face-to-face accounting education: A comparison of CPA exam outcomes across matched institutions. Journal of Education for Business, 90(8), 420-426.

Sohn, K., & Romal, J. B. (2015). Meta-Analysis of Student Performance in Micro and Macro Economics: Online Vs. Face-To-Face Instruction. Journal of Applied Business & Economics, 17(2).

2Sohn, K., & Romal, J. B. (2015). Meta-Analysis of Student Performance in Micro and Macro Economics: Online Vs. Face-To-Face Instruction. Journal of Applied Business & Economics, 17(2).

3Tallent-Runnels, M. K., Thomas, J. A., Lan, W. Y., Cooper, S., Ahern, T. C., Shaw, S. M., & Liu, X. (2006). Teaching courses online: A review of the research. Review of educational research, 76(1), 93-135.

4Weir, (2020). What did distant learning accomplish? Education and Covid 19 Special Report. American Psychological Society. Retrieved September 4, 2020

5Paechter, M., & Maier, B. (2010). Online or face-to-face? Students' experiences and preferences in e-learning. The internet and higher education, 13(4), 292-297.

6National Center for Educational Statistics (2020). College Student Employment. In The Condition of Education, Ch 2., Retrieved September 4, 2020

7Andel, S. A., de Vreede, T., Spector, P. E., Padmanabhan, B., Singh, V. K., & de Vreede, G. J. (2020). Do social features help in video-centric online learning platforms? A social presence perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 113, 106505.

Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous learning networks, 9(3), 115-136.

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & education, 49(2), 193-213.

Hughes, J. N., Luo, W., Kwok, O. M., & Loyd, L. K. (2008). Teacher-student support, effortful engagement, and achievement: A 3-year longitudinal study. Journal of educational psychology, 100(1), 1.

 8Andel, S. A., de Vreede, T., Spector, P. E., Padmanabhan, B., Singh, V. K., & de Vreede, G. J. (2020). Do social features help in video-centric online learning platforms? A social presence perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 113, 106505.

9Lowenthal, P. R., & Dunlap, J. C. (2018). Investigating students’ perceptions of instructional strategies to establish social presence. Distance Education, 39(3), 281-298.

10Kear, K., Chetwynd, F., & Jefferis, H. (2014). Social presence in online learning communities: The role of personal profiles. Research in Learning Technology, 22.

11Smart, K.L. & Cappel, J.J. (2006). Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning: A Comparative Study. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 5(1), 201-219. Informing Science Institute. Retrieved September 4, 2020 from

About the Author

Dr. Doreen MacAulay is a Principal Partner at SOF-ONE Inc and an Instructor at the Muma College of Business, University of South Florida. She is passionate about helping individuals and organizations learn how to be better versions of themselves. She teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and executive leadership at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her research focuses on identity, gender, and history of organizational studies. MacAulay has taught in both Canada and the US. She is a member of the Academy of Management Association, the Southern Academy of Management Association, and the Midwest Academy of Management Association. She has served as a reviewer for several conferences and journals. MacAulay earned a Ph.D. in management from St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia, an MBA from the University of New Brunswick, and a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

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