Online Teaching Is Improving In-Person Instruction on Campus

Since the earliest days of colleges experimenting with teaching over the internet, the goal has been to replicate as closely as possible the physical classroom experience. After all, in-person was seen as the gold standard, and the question was whether that could be faithfully reproduced online.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic forced instructors around the world to try online education, something unexpected has happened: Professors have found that there are some online teaching methods that work better than what can be done in the limits of a physical classroom. And now that campuses are back from pandemic restrictions, many instructors are trying to incorporate those remote practices into their in-person teaching.

Actually, the phenomenon predates the pandemic. Even back in 2001, an in-depth study of an online-education effort at the State University of New York reported that most faculty who taught remotely found the techniques they discovered online positively impacted their campus instruction when they returned to the classroom. In fact a slew of research over the past two decades has found that teaching online makes professors better teachers in their classrooms, so much so that one 2009 study recommended that “faculty should be trained in distance education methods and technologies and should be encouraged to use those methods back in the classroom.”

It’s a message I’ve been arguing for a while. But now that so many educators and students have had direct experience with online formats, it’s a narrative that seems to be sinking in.

Now is the time to fully embrace how physical classrooms can be improved by online techniques.

Making Learning Active

Students, in particular, seem sold on the upsides of techniques they encountered during online learning. A recent Titan Partners survey found that students are eager to participate in on-campus courses with digitally embedded exercises. Students greatly favored hybrid options, and they preferred digital course materials over print textbooks.

“The online experience has changed student expectations, especially of time spent in class,” says Whitney Kilgore, chief academic officer at iDesign, a higher education service provider specializing in instructional design. “Many are busy adults who don’t want their time wasted.”

After teaching online in the pandemic, many savvy faculty members have recognized that students like the option of being able to watch a video of a lecture if they missed it — or if they just wanted to rewatch sections to review. And that has led more professors to experiment with flipped classrooms, where they can record short lecture videos that they ask students to watch as homework, leaving more class time for more active learning such as working in groups.

My own experience teaching at The New School, a small Manhattan college, supports this style of instruction. Each week, I’d assign several lectures I’d recorded earlier on video. Then, in real time, students and I would engage in extended discussions of the themes I’d covered in my recordings. None of our class time was given to me delivering lectures.

When professors teaching face-to-face adopt online pedagogy, the classroom is transformed into a “blended” experience, moving from conventional to active learning. And that helps students turn from passive to engaged participants in their own intellectual excursions.

Other industries have experienced similar histories as new technologies rolled in. Just think back to the fierce battles between movies and television in the 1950s, when Hollywood worried that TV would put it out of business. Today’s streaming services have led to an unexpected blurring between movies and television, and there’s less concern about which medium is more authentic or “better.”

These days, attitudes are similarly shifting when it comes to teaching.

“Face-to-face instruction is no longer the gold standard,” says Steven Goss, chair of Management and Technology in the business programs at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, where he teaches blended courses. “Faculty who say, ‘I only teach on campus,’ are doing themselves a disservice. Teachers who aren’t thinking about the variety of ways there are to teach aren’t thinking about their full capacity.”

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