Online Teaching Tuesdays: What It’s Like to Teach Online

Got Wi-Fi? Online Teaching Tuesday is a series of resources for teachers who want to transfer their skills to an online classroom setting. Whether you’re interested in full-time or part-time online teaching, explore this rapidly growing field with us every week!

Education is quickly moving into the digital realm. There are apps for everything teachers and students need—from lesson planning to flashcards to behavior monitoring. Whole classrooms are getting flipped; lessons are taking place online, while practice and remediation are happening in person. High schools are offering online courses for graduation credit and, once a student graduates, they can earn certain college degrees without ever stepping foot on campus.

Teaching online may seem like it’s the wave of the future, but it’s happening now. You’ve probably even considered making the switch from teaching traditionally to teaching online. But maybe not knowing what it’s really like has stopped you from moving forward any further than just thinking about it. There’s a lot to learn about online teaching. It’s not a matter of teaching your go-to lesson plans in front of a video camera and pressing send.

Here are a few insights into what it’s like to teach online.

Content delivery can be live or prerecorded.

How and what you teach will vary depending on your online teaching situation. Some online-only or blended schools teach synchronously, meaning you’re online and interacting with students in real time. Other programs are asynchronous, meaning you upload the curriculum materials and students log in on their own schedules. You usually communicate via email, discussion board, or internal messaging system.

You aren’t always in charge of the curriculum.

Some online programs hand you a fully developed curriculum and you teach the lessons and skills in a prescribed order. Others offer more flexibility and rely on you, the credentialed teacher, to design and implement online lessons. Some programs or online schools fall somewhere in between—they offer a specific set of assessments or assignments that happen on certain dates, leaving you to design the curriculum in between.

Technical systems range from simple to bulky.

The behind-the-scenes program that you’ll need to learn to get teaching online is called a Learning Management System (LMS). There are many popular, streamlined systems used by various schools and programs. However, many companies design their own LMSs in order to customize how they distribute content and curriculum. You’ll have to learn how to get your teaching materials to work with the system in order to deliver lessons to students.

It takes a lot of time, especially at first.

If you work with a company that hands you a curriculum, you’ll have less upfront work to do. In other cases, you’ll still need to plan lessons and assessments, as you would in the traditional classroom. However, you also have to consider how those lessons need to be adapted for online use and if they can be done in synchronous or asynchronous environments. Lessons that work in your traditional classroom don’t always translate directly to the online environment. You’ll need to consider how students will work together, when you’ll require cooperative work, how you’ll receive information from students, and how you’ll informally assess students.

Communication becomes a lot trickier in the online classroom. If you’re working with students live, you might still receive email questions or issues that come up on the discussion board at any time during the day, evening, and night. Communication in asynchronous classrooms can be especially time-consuming as students work at completely different times of day and ask for help outside of normal work hours.

Feedback is key.

Timely feedback from the teacher is important in traditional classrooms but it is vital in online learning situations. Students working in online courses do a lot of the work independently. If they have misunderstandings, they might go off and do hours of work without being corrected. You need to build in many checks for understanding when teaching online.

In addition, you need to figure out ways to get feedback from students. In the classroom, you can see their faces, expressions, and body language to know when the lesson is going south. Unless you’re teaching via video, you don’t have these cues as an online teacher. Consider including surveys and ways to see how students are progressing throughout the lessons. 

Students need help adapting to online learning.

Most children have grown up using technology for reasons other than learning and schooling. They need to make a shift and view laptops and devices as school tools, rather than gaming and TV consoles. This can be a difficult habit to break, and many students may get easily distracted while learning online.

Students especially need help connecting with peers and teachers. The online schooling experience can be lonely if there are not collaboration activities built into the lessons. This can impact motivation and time management. A student working alone on a course doesn’t have the traditional classroom support of peers. In person, students can see other people working on task and completing assignments. Online, students need to see this in other ways. Badging and micro-credentialing systems are great ways to address issues with motivation. 

Whether you’re a veteran classroom teacher or just coming out of college with your teaching credential, online teaching may seem like a great next step. If you’re comfortable with technology and easily able to adapt to the latest and greatest new online tools, you’re probably a great candidate for becoming an online teacher. But it takes more than just knowing how to teach in a traditional classroom and being proficient with technology to teach online. You have to understand and accept that online classrooms require different skills and mindsets about teaching and learning.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children’s fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.