Remote Teaching vs. Online Learning in Higher Education Today

By Brandon Swenson April 15, 2020

Many higher education institutions have suddenly needed to transition from in-person instruction to remote teaching. Students may feel they’re getting a taste of what it’s like to take online classes, but in reality, this new remote learning experience may not be similar to structured online courses at all.

Online courses are created with completely different methodologies and tools than traditional classroom courses. These virtual courses are carefully designed to deliver a learning experience that does not depend on being face-to-face with the instructor. Classroom courses, however, are designed to capitalize on real-time interaction between the students and the instructor in a group setting.

Emergency Remote Teaching

When the COVID-19 virus shut down campuses across the nation, classroom instructors heroically rose to the challenge of continuing to teach and support their students. With little notice, they scrambled to reimagine their classes, creatively using readily available tools to create emergency remote “classrooms.” These converted classrooms are a superb display of ingenuity and commitment to continue serving students until the crisis passes.

Students may wonder how their current emergency classroom experience compares to online schooling—and it is likely quite different. Creating an online course requires specific planning and expertise. Posting videos of lectures and collecting assignments online is a start, but many features will be missing in emergency remote teaching.

We asked two of Grantham University’s online learning experts, Alli Lindemann, MAT, MS, Chair of Instruction Design, and Nancy Miller, PhD, Dean, Engineering & Computer Science, for insights on how today’s emergency remote teaching might differ from classes that are truly designed as online courses. They discussed a number of elements that define the differences.

Planning and Intent

Online courses are specifically designed to serve nontraditional students who do not have the ability to attend regularly scheduled classes, and who often juggle other time-intensive responsibilities like full-time jobs, military service or parenthood. Online courses provide flexibility and convenience that enable these students to thrive.

Classroom teaching is designed to provide face-to-face instruction on a set schedule, leveraging techniques such as class discussions, live question and answer sessions, group exercises and guided demonstrations. This is well-suited to traditional students whose main focus is pursuing education.

Today’s rapid conversion to emergency remote teaching poses challenges to instructors who planned to teach in the traditional classroom format. Courses expertly designed for classrooms will not easily adapt to remote learning because the group interaction element is lost. While online course designers are skilled at reimagining interactive learning for an online format, traditional classroom instructors will likely not have the experience or bandwidth to teach the curriculum remotely.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

Online courses are specifically designed for asynchronous learning, in which the material is delivered to students at different times. The courses are created with flexibility and the idea that different students have different schedules in mind. Some students may work a little bit each evening, while others will devote weekend stretches to their studies. Online courses accommodate asynchronous learning by engaging students in ways that do not depend on real-time interaction.

Professors who teach face-to-face leverage synchronous learning opportunities with their students. All students experience the class together, interacting with the instructor as well as each other. Lively class discussions, working through problems on a whiteboard, and instructors responding to questions as they arise are all part of synchronous teaching. Instructors design their classes relying on real-time interaction.

Accessibility, discussion, technology and engagement factors complicate emergency remote teaching efforts. Instructors may attempt to recreate a synchronous learning experience through video conferencing, or they may try to accommodate asynchronous materials by posting video lectures to convey the lessons. Either option may present challenges for both instructors and students.

Course Design

In an online course, the materials drive the flow of the class. Materials are presented systematically and are organized to walk a student through the learning process. Online simulations, embedded quizzes, provided materials such as lab exercises, and directed online forum discussions are all set up ahead of time and placed at key checkpoints to enhance the understanding of the curriculum.

The flow of classroom learning is driven by the instructor. Instructors might break up a lecture with knowledge checks, question and answer sessions, extra resources such as videos, or group activities such as solving a problem on a whiteboard with class input. Since the whole class experiences the material at the same time, these interactions allow for deep and thorough understanding of the materials.

When converting a class to emergency remote teaching, instructors will find ways to deliver the lectures and materials, but without the normal interactivity of the classroom. At this point, they will likely find holes in their usual teaching methods. For instance, an instructor may schedule one-on-one discussions with students to respond to questions, but other students will lose out on hearing that discussion. Anticipating and accommodating these needs takes foresight and experience.

Available Tools

Online courses usually follow an established template and format. A framework has been built to organize the course, provide access to the required resources, and standardize methods for collecting classwork, testing, and exams. The consistent format makes each course easy to navigate. Tools such as online simulations, class videos, etc. have been pre-vetted and instructors are comfortable with the technology. And, once the course has been designed, it can be reused and continuously improved.

Classroom instructors often repurpose their material while making on-the-fly changes to their delivery based on interaction with students. They may utilize minimal technology in their courses, relying instead on discussion and handwritten testing completed under their watch.

Unfortunately, instructors who have had to quickly convert to emergency remote teaching are starting from scratch. They may not have the technological expertise or be aware of the best learning platforms for online education. The learning curve is steep for instructors and students alike, and student learning experiences may be vastly inconsistent.

Support Resources and Logistics

Online universities offer support resources designed to provide an excellent student experience while allowing the student to focus on what’s most important: learning. Students find convenience in things like online tutoring and writing resources, live help desks and easy-to-contact student advisors and instructors who schedule office hours in the evenings when students need them most.

Traditional campus support is designed with on-site attendance in mind. Office hours allow for face-to-face meetings with instructors and student advisors. Technology support is focused on supplemental technological student needs.

Full online support takes time to develop, and unfortunately, campuses suddenly thrust into emergency remote teaching will likely not have adequate support resources available. Student advisors may be harder to access, and help desk staff demands will be far greater. Even when best efforts are made by all involved, technology is likely to pose difficulties.

The pandemonium created by COVID-19 extends far into every facet of society—especially education. This unprecedented crisis is riddled with challenges, including the personal trials of students and instructors who may be facing financial and health crises, added employment and childcare responsibilities, or excess stress. The learning curve to deliver courses remotely is steep, and will unfortunately result in less-than-optimal experiences for many. However, some will find the flexibility of studying from home to be an advantage, and may wish to explore the advantages of true online programs.

Grantham University is an established and respected virtual learning hub, having provided distance education to students for nearly 70 years. Explore our 40 online degree and certificate programs and learn more about making the switch to proven online learning.

About the Author

Brandon Swenson
Brandon Swenson, communications manager, is on University of Arkansas Grantham’s editorial board. A veteran and college graduate himself, he understands the benefits and intricacies of government education programs, such as veteran education benefits. Brandon earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City toward the end of his nearly two-decade tour in the United States Marine Corps.
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