Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face


Experiencing a huge demand for college courses taught over the Web and not wanting to be swept aside by competitors from the commercial sector, universities are often pressuring faculty to teach courses online. Many faculty members have never taught online, and therefore wonder what they are getting themselves into. What are the differences between teaching online and teaching face-to-face? What can faculty members expect from the experience of teaching college courses on the Web?

Other faculty members have some experience teaching online, but haven't shared their experiences, nor have they read the literature on distance education. Their knowledge remains fragmentary. Are faculty experiences with teaching online specific to their content areas, or representative of the larger experience of teaching over the Web? This study seeks to integrate the experiences of professors currently teaching online into a qualitative description.


Literature Search

Before embarking on the research, we were aware of and influenced by a number of research-based notions of distance education. The first was that it requires a considerable amount of time to design and develop an online class. The instructor must shift from the role of content provider to content facilitator, gain comfort and proficiency in using the Web as the primary teacher-student link, and learn to teach effectively without the visual control provided by direct eye contact (Williams & Peters 1997).

Moore (1993) suggests that there are three types of interaction necessary for successful distance education: 1) learner-content interaction, 2) learner-instructor interaction, and 3) learner-learner interaction. Distance learning instructors need to ensure that all three forms of interaction are maximized in their course structure.

Peters (1993) criticizes distance education, saying that it reduces education to a kind of industrial production process, lacking the human dimension of group interaction, and even alienating learners from teachers. He compares distance education to a mass-production assembly line process where a division of labor (educators and communications specialists) replaces the more craft-oriented approach of traditional face-to-face education. However, Peters' article predates the current Web-based boom in distance education. His notions, like the computer themes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, sound slightly like industrial age paranoia toward computers. The personal computer and the Internet have probably been a greater force towards individualization than mass production.



We interviewed 21 instructors who had taught both in the distance and the face-to-face format. The instructors ranged from assistant professors to adjunct professors. Fifteen of the 21 instructors taught in the context of the SUNY Learning Network, a non-profit, grant-funded organization that provides the State Universities of New York (SUNY) with an infrastructure, software, Web space and templates for instructors to create their online course. The Learning Network also provides workshops on developing and teaching online courses, a help desk and other technical support for Web-based distance education. The remaining six informants taught Web-based distance education courses in similarly supported situations at state universities in California and Indiana.

Four of the interviews were conducted over the telephone and 18 were done via e-mail. The four telephone interviews occurred first and were used to develop a set of open-ended questions for e-mail interviews. Since e-mail interviewing did not require the laborious process of transcription, the e-mail interview process allowed the gathering of data from a much larger number of participants than was possible from telephone or face-to-face interviews alone.

By reading over the transcriptions of the telephone interviews, the investigators found emerging themes that were converted into 27 open-ended essay questions comprising the "e-mail interview." The e-mail interview, as it is used in this study, is differentiated from a questionnaire on several counts. It uses open-ended, essay-style questions as opposed to the Likert style, fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice items common to questionnaires. The informants averaged approximately 45 minutes to complete the e-mail interview. The initial questions included some "chit-chat" and informal questions designed to put the interviewee at ease. It also involved some degree of interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewers sometimes e-mailed participants follow-up questions to particularly interesting responses.

The investigators read over all the interviews at least two times, looking for trends and consistencies and generating 39 categories of responses and mnemonic codes to symbolize these categories. Some typical coding categories include ">WK," meaning that the online classes require more work, and "N FUNNY," meaning that humor was problematic in the online environment.

Three investigators coded the interviews and then counted how many times each type of response occurred (not the number of informants who said or wrote a particular response). So if one informant wrote at three different times in the interview that online classes required more work, that interview contributed three occurrences of the ">WK" category, not one occurrence. The coding system was not done to be objective (this type of ethnographic research is by its nature non-objective), but rather to uncover trends in the data.

Data Sources

Some of the most important, most emphasized and most frequent responses made points we had not directly asked about. A lot of issues related to bandwidth limitations and the dominance of text in Web-based classes. Some instructors feel as if a lifetime of teaching skills g'es by the wayside. They can not use their presence and their classroom skills to get their point across. Nor can they use their oral skills to improvise on the spot to deal with behavior problems or educational opportunities.

Because of the reliance on text-based communication and a lack of visual cues, every aspect of the course has to be laid out in meticulous detail to avoid misunderstandings. Every lecture must be converted to a typed document. Directions for every assignment must be spelled out in a logical, self-contained way. Therefore, Web-based distance classes require considerably more work, often including hundreds of hours of up-front work to set up the course. On the other hand, the development of an online class, especially one that began as a face-to-face course, makes the instructor confront and analyze the material in new and different ways.

Once the course begins, the long hours continue. Online instructors must log on to the course Web site at least three or four times a week for a number of hours each session. They respond to threaded discussion questions, evaluate assignments, and above all answer questions clearing up ambiguities, often spending an inordinate amount of time communicating by e-mail. The many instructor hours spent online create an "online presence," a psychological perception for students that the instructor is out there and is responding to them. Without this, students quickly become insecure and tend to drop the class.

This great amount of work sounds intimidating; however, most online instructors looked forward to their time spent online as time away from their hectic face-to-face jobs. One respondent commented: "This is why I like the online environment. It's kind of a purified atmosphere. I only know the students to the extent of their work. Obviously their work is revealing about them."

The Web environment presents a number of educational opportunities and advantages over traditional classes, such as many informational resources that can be seamlessly integrated into the class. Instructors can assign Web pages as required reading, or have students do research projects using online databases. However, it is important that the instructor encourage the students to learn the skills to differentiate valid and useful information from the dregs, as the Internet is largely unregulated.

Some instructors also had online guests in their classes (authors, experts in their field, etc.) residing at a distance, yet participating in online threaded discussions with the students in the class. All these things could theoretically be accomplished in a traditional class by adding an online component; however, because online classes are already on the Web, these opportunities are integrated far more naturally.

Other advantages of online classes result from psychological aspects of the medium itself. The emphasis on the written word encourages a deeper level of thinking in online classes. A common feature in online classes is the threaded discussion. The fact that students must write their thoughts down, and the realization that those thoughts will be exposed semi-permanently to others in the class seem to result in a deeper level of discourse. Another response stated:

"The learning appears more profound as the discussions seemed both broader and deeper. The students are more willing to engage both their peers and the professor more actively. Each student is more completely exposed and can not simply sit quietly throughout the semester. Just as the participating students are noticeable by their presence, the non-participating students are noticeable by their absence. The quality of students' contributions can be more refined as they have time to mull concepts over as they write, prior to posting."

The asynchronous nature of the environment means that the student (or professor) can read a posting and consider their response for a day before posting it. Every student can and, for the most part, d'es participate in the threaded discussions. In online classes, the instructor usually makes class participation a higher percentage of the class grade, since instructor access to the permanent archive of threaded discussions allows more objective grading (by both quantity and quality). This differs from face-to-face classes where, because of time constraints, a relatively small percentage of the students can participate in the discussions during one class session. Because of the lack of physical presence and absence of many of the usual in-person cues to personality, there is an initial feeling of anonymity, which allows students who are usually shy in the face-to-face classroom to participate in the online classroom. Therefore it is possible and quite typical for all the students to participate in the threaded discussions common to Web-based classes.

This same feeling of anonymity creates some political differences, such as more equality between the students and professor in an online class. The lack of a face-to-face persona seems to divest the professor of some authority. Students feel free to debate intellectual ideas and even challenge the instructor. One respondent stated that "In a face-to-face class the instructor initiates the action; meeting the class, handing out the syllabus, etc. In online instruction the student initiates the action by going to the Web site, posting a message, or doing something. Also, I think that students and instructors communicate on a more equal footing where all of the power dynamics of the traditional face-to-face classroom are absent."

Students are sometimes aggressive and questioning of authority in ways not seen face-to-face. With the apparent anonymity of the Internet, students feel much freer to talk. "Students tended to get strident with me online when they felt frustrated, something that never happened in face-to-face classes because I could work with them, empathize and problem solve before they reached that level of frustration," noted one respondent.

In the opening weeks of distance courses, there is an anonymity and lack of identity which comes with the loss of various channels of communication. Ironically, as the class progresses, a different type of identity emerges. Consistencies in written communication, ideas and attitudes create a personality that the instructor feels he or she knows.

"Recently I had printed out a number of student papers to grade on a plane. Most had forgotten to type their names into their electronically submitted papers. I went ahead and graded and then guessed who wrote each one. When I was later able to match the papers with the names, I was right each time. Why? Because I knew their writing styles and interests. When all of your communication is written, you figure out these things quickly."

This emergence of online identity may make the whole worry of online cheating a moot point. Often stronger one-to-one relationships (instructor-student and student-student) are formed in online courses than in face-to-face classes.


Contrary to intuition, current Web-based online college courses are not an alienating, mass-produced product. They are a labor-intensive, highly text-based, intellectually challenging forum which elicits deeper thinking on the part of the students and which presents, for better or worse, more equality between instructor and student. Initial feelings of anonymity notwithstanding, over the course of the semester, one-to-one relationships may be emphasized more in online classes than in more traditional face-to-face settings.

With the proliferation of online college classes, it is important for the professor to understand the flavor of online education and to be reassured as to the intellectual and academic integrity of this teaching environment.


Glenn Gordon Smith is a professor in the Department of Technology & Society within the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He teaches courses in educational technology and conducts research on the effects of computer technology on human spatial visualization, and on the differences between distance education and face-to-face education. In August 1998, Glenn received his Ph.D. from Arizona State University, where his dissertation research examined the effects of computers and computer games on spatial visualization. Prior to that, he worked as a computer programmer, specializing in computer graphics for entertainment and aerospace industries.

E-mail: [email protected]

David L. Ferguson is a professor of Technology and Society and Applied Math at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has been director and co-director of numerous projects, including NSF and FIPSE grants, for the improvement of undergraduate education in science, engineering and mathematics. His publications include articles on the use of advanced technologies in the learning and teaching of mathematics and science. He has given numerous conference presentations on the learning and teaching of problem solving. Currently, he is director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Stony Brook.


Aldegonda (Mieke) Caris received her M.A. in Teacher Education at the Moller Institute in Holland. She founded the Institute of Electronic Fashion & Design in Almelo, Netherlands. She developed multimedia products and taught classes in linear and hyper media at the University of Twente, Enschede in the Netherlands for the department of Educational Science and Technology. She was directorof Technology for the College of the Arts in Kompen and has been involved in distance education since 1997. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Stony Brook, NY and a full-ime member of the Faculty Development Center for Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.


Moore, M. 1993. "Three Types of Interaction." Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. K. Harry , M. Hohn and D. Keegan. London: Routledge.

Peters, O. 1993. "Understanding Distance Education." Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. K. Harry , M. Hohn and D. Keegan. London: Routledge.

Williams, V. & Peters, K. 1997. "Faculty Incentives for the Preparations of Web-Based Instruction." Web-based Instruction, ed. B. H. Khan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.