Confessions of an online teacher

11/27/2011  |  SHANNON C’de BACA
Technology and Learning

Remember when you could call an office and expect a real live human being to answer? Schools were among the last hold-outs — but now many have resorted to automated systems. My school’s recorded message instructs the caller to punch several numbers indicating his or her language preference and call objective. Many parents become confused and hang up, or get the sense that our school is impersonal. Automated phone systems may be expedient technologies — but this “efficiency” comes with a social cost. 

Similarly, we cannot expect a press-one-for-more-information system to teach our children. Some schools have invested in “online courses” that are software-driven modules requiring no teacher involvement. These online courses are considered particularly appropriate for at-risk students or those who cannot take part in face-to-face learning with a qualified teacher, due to constraints of geography or time.

One popular stand-alone science course incorporates colorful pictures and provides slightly different pathways depending on student responses. Some of my students have used this and similar programs in the past. They report that they simply guessed until they got a question right, or gave up and moved on. They did not dig in and learn the information. No one asked questions to clarify their thinking. No one broke the material into discrete and manageable chunks. No system gave them great personal analogies or metaphors that helped them link new content to what they already knew. And I have yet to encounter technology that can sense when a student is about to give up or break through. Such interventions and modifications require the diagnostic capabilities of a human teacher.

Applying My Classroom Expertise Online

You may be thinking that some of the functions of a teacher could be accomplished by more sophisticated software, that better design could help. You’re right. I look forward to seeing the technology improve. But even if technology could automate some of what we as teachers do, wouldn’t many needs of students still go unmet? Isn’t there a social cost to that lack of personal connection? Research on effective online learning suggests this is the case. Students in online courses benefit from frequent teacher-student interaction.

Many states and school districts are developing courses that use up-to-the-minute technology and sophisticated software but also rely upon teachers’ expertise to help students meet challenging learning goals.  

I teach chemistry online to students at schools across the state of Iowa. I teach a range of students, from gifted learners to those who are taking the course for credit recovery. I help to fill instructional gaps — supporting students at schools where there is no teacher who is qualified to teach chemistry or supporting students who may be learning from juvenile institutions, hospitals, or at home. I have worked with Iowa Learning Online to develop lesson plans and modules around state science standards. Students fit my class into their schedules. You may be wondering about the experiments necessitated by chemistry and other science classes — those are conducted at certain times by a face-to-face science teacher whom I support and communicate with regularly, by a rich virtual laboratory program, and by face-to-face full day labs with me four times a year. 

My role as a teacher has changed a bit as I have moved from face-to-face to online instruction, but the needs of my students have not. The curricula is more individualized. The big ideas do not change, but the paths towards understanding those ideas can be as diverse as our students, and teaching online helps me take advantage of that. But online, as in the face-to-face classroom, students need someone to curate material, to ask the right question at the right moment, to motivate them, and to help them build connections. They need someone to guide them with a signpost, a gentle nudge, or even stronger interventions. And that’s what I do.

I do not lecture as much as I did 10 years ago. In fact my lectures today seldom last more than four or five minutes. I watch for opportunities to ask a probing question or insert some guidance into each student’s path towards understanding. This requires that I pay attention to data but also to subtle human cues. I doubt that any analytics will be available to tell us when to push, ease up, redirect, calm, caution, coach, mother, or even chastise a student. We do that as teachers because we know kids and how they learn — we have learned specific behaviors and skills from our successful and unsuccessful experiences in the classroom. It is as much an art as it is a science. 

When my students log on to my online course, they see an e-mail that details the information I would give to a face-to-face class as we began the day. Students work at slightly different paces, so I personalize each e-mail. After reading this message, students explore the online content -— including brief lectures — and work on assignments I have carefully designed. Each day, there is a lot of back-and-forth with each student via SKYPE, text chat, e-mail or other means. Just as when I taught face-to-face, I can tell a parent at any time where their student is in the course, what material they are mastering, and what concepts are proving difficult.

Ironically, even as I customize the learning experience, my online students are actually exploring the content with less interference from me. Looking back on my face-to-face teaching, I can see that my need to interject some wisdom or information while my students were working was not always productive — and often was relevant only to a small group or an individual student. Online, I am able to monitor, direct, differentiate and stay involved in the process but out of the way of independent learning. Students do not have to wait while I deal with misbehavior. A student with a specific learning need is addressed individually, while the rest of the class proceeds, unimpeded. A gifted student can move beyond the curricula and ask in-depth questions, without taking other students off track.

Importance of Relationships

Many fear that teachers will be replaced by the technology we design today to deliver content. My fear is not of the technology: I thrive in my role as an online teacher and witness students thriving as online learners every day. My fear is that some districts will make poor decisions about using technology. My fear is that — as is the case with automated phone answering systems — some schools, districts, and states will look to the technology as the efficient solution, without considering whether that solution, by itself, can meet students’ needs.


Technology is only as powerful as the teachers who use it. It is only as powerful as the human guidance that engages students in opportunities to think, question, reflect, share, relate and collaborate.

If a child is expected to master content in school, he or she deserves to have access to an adult whose responsibility it is to help him or her navigate that content. Absent this daily assistance, current standalone online courses tell a child that he or she has made a wrong turn somewhere. The next step: go back and try again. And as students do so, over and over, they become less — rather than more — connected with the content and their questions about it. Not to stretch the comparison, but it’s like calling an office with a question, pressing five or six buttons, then being prompted to leave a voice mail. By then you may be so lost in the bureaucracy that you barely even remember your question.

Student learning is time-specific: if we lose the immediacy of teachers, we lose “teachable moments” — the moments that occur before the student is exhausted, when the question or problem is fresh. And students lose an opportunity to learn — perhaps even the motivation to do so. That is too high a social cost.

One aspect of this cost is the possibility — perhaps I should say certainty — that students will not be adequately challenged. All learners need people who can push our thinking, who can help us get beyond what we think we know so that we can reach more nuanced understandings about the world. This takes human contact — whether through e-mail, chats, SKYPE, phone calls, or face-to-face interaction. Learning depends on relationships.

I know my online students as well as, if not better than, I knew my face-to-face students. To be honest, connecting to them online removes some of the filters in face-to-face conversations. When I get a glimpse of their raw, in-the-moment thinking, their conceptual understanding is exposed — and I can respond in powerful ways. I feel I can address their frustration and confusion with more focused and immediate attention.

I remember students in face-to-face classes who were deathly afraid to ask questions. Despite my best efforts to make the classroom a safe place, many questions went unasked, even in rich lessons. Online, there is a raw trust that questions are acceptable. We adults can see this in our social media networks, in the often illusory sense of anonymity we witness in online conversations. Of course, online teachers do not interact with students anonymously — instead we are developing the relationships required by real learning. The very essence of human learning is the push and pull of questions that move our thinking out of the ruts we naturally create. These questions force us to think from a new perspective. A screen and a set of buttons cannot accomplish this, even when powered by the most sophisticated algorithms.

Shannon C’de Baca is a 31-year teaching veteran (K–12 science) who moved from face-to-face teaching to teaching online six years ago. She has done extensive work with public television and national and state education initiatives. She is one of the co-authors of “TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools ... Now and in the Future.”
Comments & Ratings

  12/5/2011 12:05:09 PM
Steve Murphy 

Online Teaching Questions (3 of 3) 
Online is a tough stretch for some kids who have a really diminished work ethic (I can name more than a few kids in this category). It is not that they do not want to learn but that they have never learned how to sustain and persevere and self direct. For that I have front loaded some of that work in the course too.
The largest negative is with kids who have some comprehension difficulties with print material. So much of the stuff on the web has reading attached that it is difficult for a student with some comprehension problems to excel. I am adding more video explanations to the course each year and eventually those will be in place for the course content but with e-mails and online chats ... those are still tough for any student with any reading issues. I try to get on these early and get folks with special training to help with this early and often. I am using SKYPE with those kids a lot more than with any others as they work through the reading difficulties.
Hope this answered your questions. I see a lot more positives than negatives with online but the key is still a skilled compassionalte teacher (or teachers) guiding the whole process.
  12/5/2011 12:02:17 PM
Steve Murphy 

Online Teaching Questions (cont) 
in your article. Are there any positives that are also being replaced or lost?"

The student to student interaction is tough. Kids in my class love to interact with another student or students at their school if there are more than two in the class from one location. That often makes those students a bit more reluctant to work with others at a distance. However, this year that seems to be changing. Kids are used to working online with others in social media and seem to be Ok with sharing files, chatting online and having richer conversatins on the platform.
I monitor all e-mail and the kids do ask eachother for help on crunchy subjects more this year than in the past. I think that is because I spent a lot of time front loading some community building. The social aspect is alive and well....and not a lot different than the face to face class except that the kids are using writing skills a LOT more to communicate across distances. That is not all bad.

The positives that are lost are generally in the social realm. It ttakes a LOT of work in the first unit to build a community. I was two months into the course before that community building began to show up in increased interactions that directly related to chemistry.
We have online coaches at each building. These folks are the teachers in the building who proctor tests, help the kids with tech issues and check in with the students (or have them in a class) each and every day. I use these folks to help me motivate and monitor progress that I cannot see. Likewise they help to locate equipment for the kitchen chem labs the kids do at home or in theirhome school. They are my eyes and ears for the social aspect I cannot monitor from online. If I have a good teacher in that post the oline is all positive, if I have someone who does not take this role seriously or who does not have good relationship or communication skills this can be an issue that negatively impacts the social aspects.
Online is a tough stretc
  12/5/2011 9:31:10 AM
Shannon Cde Baca 

Online Teaching Questions 
You asked: "Two sets of questions come to mind. One revolves around time: how many students are you responsible for, and are there specific hours when you are available to them?"
I am responsible for about 45 students and I take on 4 teachers as well to help them become certified in chemistry or to get them to a level of comfort with the content and pedagogy if they are already certified.
I try to make myself available during the general times the kids work on the class each day or at least 3 4 days each week. Most have time set aside in their schedule to accommodate that. When I have a student who is working outside the school day I schedule regular times to be online for them. This is pretty easy with a smart phone. I do make certain I am not working 18 hour days. I still stick to a pretty regular day to day schedule. My schedule for this week is Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I am online and available from about 8:30 till 3:30. Wednesday I am online in the evening from about 6:30 till about 8:30 and online in the AM too. Friday I am online for a session in the morning and one in the afternoon (about 2 hours each) and I will log on Sunday night to help one of my students who is so overscheduled with extracurricular stuff she has no time.

You also asked: “I wonder how long it takes to generate those daily personal messages described in the article."
I archive everything by unit and big idea. So, many of the nuts and bolts of my messages can be a simple cut and paste.
I do generate personal messages because I think that is important. Often I group the kids. One general message to a group of about 12 to 18 and then I add a short personal bit to the message as I sent it out. My software helps this a ton.

"My other set of questions relates to the social aspect of learning. Do you students interact with each other at all in the process of learning chemistry? Negative aspects of the classroom experience, such as waiting time, are addressed
  12/4/2011 4:30:29 AM
Tina Bessias 

English Teacher 
This article unpacks elements often hidden in the classroom; I love the descriptions of the teacher-learner interaction. I also find the comparison to automated answering systems, to which you return several times, very helpful. You have a valuable, broad perspective!
Two sets of questions come to mind. One revolves around time: how many students are you responsible for, and are there specific hours when you are available to them? I wonder how long it takes to generate those daily personal messages described in the article.
My other set of questions relates to the social aspect of learning. Do you students interact with each other at all in the process of learning chemistry? Negative aspects of the classroom experience, such as waiting time, are addressed in your article. Are there any positives that are also being replaced or lost?