Teaching Online


Introduction to Teaching Online

The way that we teach and learn is continually being impacted by the proliferation of technology in our society. The development of the Internet has made it possible to create dynamic courses and make them available to students located around the world. Numerous universities, colleges, schools, and organizations have taken advantage of the opportunities made available through distance education. Distance learning has become a viable choice for instructional programs. It has been argued that distance education is a growing phenomenon that is here to stay (Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

Defining Distance Education
There are a variety of ways to define distance education. In the most general sense the term distance education simply means that instruction is created in one place and delivered to students in a different place. Correspondence courses are considered to be a form of distance education due to the separation of teacher and student (Cohen, 1999). Online instruction is another type of distance education involving the use of computer technology to deliver courses through the Internet. In the online course instructional materials are developed and posted online for students to access at various locations. Through this process the boundaries of the classroom essentially disappear.

Types of Distance Courses Involving Online Instruction
Teaching online involves using the Internet as the conduit for instruction. The extent to which a course is housed online can vary depending on the course design. The spectrum of online course designs ranges from minimal use of web-based resources to courses taught entire online as shown in Figure 1. A web supported course is taught in a face to face classroom and has supporting materials posted on a class web site. A blended course is taught partially online and partially face to face. An online course is taught entirely, or almost entirely, through the Internet. Typically, the fully online course is taught asynchronously meaning that students access the course at different times.


Figure 1: Spectrum of Online Course Designs
(Note: Roll your mouse over Figure 1 above.)

Growing Opportunities for Online Learning
The number of instructional programs offering distance education including online courses is on the rise. In a study conducted for the National Center for Educational Statistics, Waits and Lewis (2003) reported that during the academic year of 2000–2001 56% of 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting post secondary institutions offered some form of distance education. Another 12% planned to offer distance education within the next three years. Internet based online courses were offered more often than any other distance delivery method. In fact, 90% of the distance programs available during 2000-2001 offered asynchronous online courses.

Students are actively taking advantage of these opportunities to complete part or all of their coursework online. In the fall semester of 2002 there were 1.6 million students taking courses online. One third of those students (578,986) took all of their courses online (Allen & Seamen, 2003). This may be due in part to the benefits of online instruction, which include:

  • Flexibility: Students are free to learn when it fits their schedules.
  • Accessibility: Students have greater access to instructional programs.
  • Time and Cost Efficiency: Students are free from the need to drive, find parking, or employ childcare.

Effectiveness of Online Courses
The effectiveness of distance education has been the focus of a vast quantity of research literature. Despite this no clear consensus has been reached about what effectiveness really means. A review of distance education research conducted by Phipps and Merisotis (1999) reported three broad measures used to identify effectiveness. These measures were:

  • Student outcomes, such as grades and test scores;
  • Student attitudes about learning through distance education; and
  • Overall student satisfaction toward distance learning. (p. 13)

The majority of the studies reviewed by Phipps and Merisotis indicated that distance learning compared favorably to traditional instruction. Yet, these results should be interpreted with prudence as the quality of some of the research has been called into question.

The real issue regarding effectiveness of distance education may be related more to teaching methodology than it is to the delivery method. From this perspective the technology used to support distance education becomes a tool rather than the source of course effectiveness. Good teaching appears to be the central factor that makes a course effective. Phipps and Merisotis (1999) articulated this point in the conclusion of their research review when stating, “The irony is that the bulk of the research on technology ends up addressing an activity that is fundamental to the academy, namely pedagogy—the art of teaching” (p. 8). Carol Twigg (2001) expressed related ideas when describing the nature of effective online courses. She has argued that a paradigm shift needs to occur in order to focus on making distance courses better rather than simply as good as face to face instruction. New models of online instruction can be combined with technology to teach in new and innovative ways.


Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J (2003). Sizing the opportunity: The quality and extent of online education in the United States , 2002 and 2003. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

Cohen, Avi (1999). Instructional technology and distance learning through the Internet. Educational Media International, 36 (3), 218-229.

Milheim, W. (2001). Faculty and administrative strategies for the effective implementation of distance education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (5), 535-542.

Phipps, R. & Merisotis, J. (1999). What's the difference? A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Palloff, R.M & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Waits, T. & Lewis L. (2003). Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2000–2001 ( NCES No. 2003-017). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.