Lesson from the last week of my first online class: don’t try to duplicate the in-person experience teaching Note

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in May 2018

600 words / 3 min.
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The key takeway: online classes are nothing like in-person classes, and we should treat them that way.

Please note that this post is from 2018. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

This upcoming week is the last one of my first online class (U.S. History, covering Reconstruction to the present day).

At this point, I’ve decided on a key takeaway:

Fundamentally, asynchronous online classes are simply not the same thing as in-person classes. This seems obvious… but many people, myself included, have been trying to replicate the core aspects of in-person classes (especially teaching people to think critically, challenging preconceptions, encouraging analysis over summary, and so on) through technology, extra work by the prof, etc. I’ve decided none of it works. Without a real-time, synchronous element—full-out live videochat with a full class—online education will never duplicate most in-person classes.


Because online classes are best at one aspect of teaching and learning: factual knowledge transfer. That’s it.

Many people seem surprised that factual knowledge transfer isn’t what I do when I teach in person, and these are likely the people who keep pushing online classes are perfect replacements. And for certain kinds of material—into science classes, maybe, especially when taught as vast lectures—that may be true. But that’s not what I teach.

So I’ve decided to simply accept this and reframe the class accordingly. I push out readings, lots of short exercises, lots of routine multiple-choice questions that push students to look over the material, and generally emphasize learning and regurgitating facts. And I select good (in the sense that I’ve done the checking of validity, sources, etc.), challenging, informative factual material.

And that’s, well, OK, in a real-world pragmatic sense (if imperfect and problematic and a whole other story about what happens when history is misused…). Actually, such an emphasize-the-facts history class creates a certain (imperfect) baseline level of factual knowledge that it would be really nice for my in-person students to already have (they usually don’t).

I’m left with the nagging feeling that the two classes—which are given the same number and identical descriptions in the catalog—should actually be two entirely different catalog entries. They both have value, but they are in no way equivalent.

In any case, this realization fundamentally changes my approach to creating and running such classes. I will focus on careful selection of material, careful structuring in advance, maximum automation, maximum pegagogical repetition and recurring small-scale quizzes and testing, and all the kinds of things tools like, say, Duolingo have pioneered. And that’s fine (imperfect, but fine). It just doesn’t produce better thinkers, improved analysis, or more effective communicatiors. (One-way video lectures are a poor substitue, though they have their uses.)

But it does provide students with facts that can hopefully be useful for them in critically analyzing the present in light of the past… as long as they are taught how to do this in some other class (regardless of the discipline).