Principals on Board

Teaching Online: How Some Online Classes Can Be More Effective Than Offline Classes

Roshan Gandhi
Teaching Online: How Some Online Classes Can Be More Effective Than Offline Classes

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, teachers everywhere quickly adapted to online forms of teaching and learning. This transition took place with great willingness, effort, and skill on the part of teachers – but rarely with genuine enthusiasm, for understandable reasons. Online teaching was viewed mostly as a necessary obligation precipitated by the unprecedented circumstances; a burden to tolerate only for the duration of the crisis before returning to face-to-face lessons at the earliest opportunity.

Negative feelings towards online learning are perfectly valid. Teaching online classes requires working with different pedagogical approaches to what teachers are accustomed to in a physical classroom. Long hours behind a screen can cause fatigue, and it is difficult to maintain students’ attention when they are not physically in their teacher’s presence. Students also have variable connectivity and device access, and while learning online they miss out on the essential socio-emotional development that comes from being in a real-life environment with their peers and teachers.

However, it must also be recognised that certain elements of online teaching can actually be advantageous compared to offline teaching. In this article, I wish to elaborate upon some of the ways in which online classes can be viewed as pedagogically superior to offline classes. Recently, there has been a lot of talk of ‘hybrid learning’ being the future of education. By understanding the ways in which online classes can enhance the process of teaching and learning, it becomes clearer how hybrid learning can be a beneficial direction of travel for the education sector.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is an important part of quality teaching and learning. It enables teachers to quickly check the extent to which a class has understood a lesson, resolve misunderstandings quickly, and provide targeted feedback. For students, it keeps them alert and attentive in a low-stakes manner, improving their motivation and helping them with clearer learning goals and targets. In a physical classroom, teachers can perform quick checks for understanding in various ways: requesting a show of hands, having students write down an answer to a question in large writing and hold it up for the teacher’s view, or even more innovative methods such as the use of clicker devices through which students can respond to multiple-choice questions.

All of these methods have their limitations: the visual checks are rarely comprehensive or completely accurate, gathering formative assessment data is often a time-consuming manual process, and the classroom technology for formative assessment is often cumbersome and impractical to use, as well as expensive. In an online class, however, formative assessment can be both easier to conduct and more effective. Teachers have tools at their disposal through which they can have students complete a short quiz or type responses to a question. This generally takes up less class time, makes it easier to ensure participation by all students in a class, and yields more accurate data that is instantly presented to the teacher, which they can use to give feedback in real-time. For these reasons, formative assessment can be a more successful activity in online lessons as compared to physical lessons.

Content Integration

Another powerful feature of online teaching is the ability to seamlessly integrate learning content. In an offline class, too, it is of course possible to use content through a projector or interactive board. However, in an online class, there can be two layers to the content: the teacher and the students may view different panels simultaneously. It, therefore, becomes possible for a teacher to follow a lesson plan or script while delivering a lesson, in a manner that is hidden from the students – for example, a sidebar on the screen displaying text prompts to the teacher.

This may not be an advantage in higher-end schools, where pre-packaged or scripted lessons can limit the creativity and independence of teachers to plan their own lessons and incorporate innovative lesson ideas. However, in other strata of the education sector such as low-fee private schools, where it is not always possible to employ skilled, well-trained teachers, assisting teachers with a pre-scripted lesson can be the most effective way of improving the quality of lesson delivery. And even in higher-end schools, the method can be useful to support new and trainee teachers, underperforming teachers, or substitute teachers.

Metadata

The generation and collection of metadata – subtle background information about a class – is possible when conducting online classes on certain platforms. Analysis of this data can yield valuable insights about students and teachers, which are not possible to gain in a physical setting. For example, by storing data on microphone usage during classes it becomes possible to track the amount of ‘talk-time’ the teacher occupies versus individual students, how many times different students speak in a class and for how long, etc. When analysed over time, this data can reveal patterns about how interactive classes are, the extent to which different teachers encourage class participation, how much different students contribute to classes, and more – all highly valuable information that can be used for school improvement, and which would not exist in offline classes.

It is also possible to automatically monitor the type of device a student is using, how frequently they join a class late, how stable their internet connection is, etc. This is useful information for knowing about students’ home situations, and potentially even for understanding the root causes of behavioural problems students might be exhibiting. This data can enable schools and teachers to more accurately interpret problems and make necessary interventions to assist students who are struggling both academically and behaviourally.

Lesson Observations

In many good schools, lessons are frequently observed by a range of stakeholders: principals, middle-level leaders, peer teachers, or in larger school chains representatives from centralised departments. In less progressive contexts, the purpose of these observations is basic accountability, such as monitoring that a teacher is attending class and delivering the syllabus she or he is supposed to be. In more progressive schools, observations are an important element of school improvement: they are used to identify the professional development needs of teachers, are the basis of coaching cycles, are a mechanism through which teachers can support each other to implement shared practices, and are a data source used in the evaluation of teachers’ performance.

When a school is running its lessons online, it becomes possible to conduct far more frequent classroom observations. Busy school leaders who otherwise would not have time to visit a lot of classrooms can keep classes running in the background while they sign paperwork; observers can seamlessly hop between lessons without losing time in moving between physical classrooms, and the possibility is opened up of teachers and leaders across different schools in different locations observing each other and professionally developing collaboratively. In this way, learning opportunities for teachers are increased, and professional development can be made more individual-specific and actionable.

Parental Engagement

Ideally, education is not supposed to end with the school day but should be a continuous process that moves seamlessly between school, home, and other environments with parental support. In reality, unfortunately, this is rarely the case, as parents are not normally in a position to keep closely abreast of what is being taught in school and how their child is performing, and therefore are not easily equipped to directly support their child’s learning. Online classes, however, can help to shift this dynamic and make the ideal of continuity in education between home and school more likely to be achieved.

When a student attends an online class from home, the parent can observe from the background. Initially, when they gain the ability to witness classes, parents tend to develop a greater appreciation for the hard work teachers do and become more supportive. They also get to witness first-hand whether their child is engaging properly and how their child is performing in the class compared to other students. In offline classes, this is left entirely to the teacher, and parents can even be in denial if a teacher reports that their child is not engaged in class or not performing well. With online classes, parents get to see reality for themselves and are more likely to make appropriate interventions at home and be receptive to specific feedback and action points suggested by teachers.

By outlining these advantages of online teaching and learning, I do not at all mean to make the case that schools should move fully online. For all the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this article and more, online learning comes with a great number of disadvantages too and is often impractical. It will always be vitally important developmentally that children should spend the majority of time physically among their peer group.

However, I hope to have shown how online classes are not always just a burden imposed when schools have to close, but can actually be pedagogically advantageous, enhancing the teaching and learning process in certain ways. One of the motivations behind evolving a ‘hybrid’ model of schooling, in which some learning takes place face-to-face and other learning happens online, could be in order to spend a proportion of teaching time harnessing these advantages of online lessons that are unavailable in offline settings.

About the author:

Roshan Gandhi is the Chief Executive Officer, City Montessori School, Lucknow

As Chief Executive Officer at City Montessori School (CMS) – the world’s largest city-school with 57,000 students across 18 campuses in Lucknow – Roshan Gandhi is leading organisational transformation and modernisation, empowering CMS's 4,500-strong team to deliver a bold new vision for quality skills-based education at scale. He has also overseen the overhauling of CMS's infrastructure, business operations, and tech integration. A graduate of the University of Oxford with an MBA in Educational Leadership from University College London (UCL), Roshan is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at UCL. He has worked in and continues to consult for multiple educational technology companies, is a frequent keynote and panel speaker at educational conferences, and frequently publishes on educational topics.

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