Why online teaching requires rigorous training (Mary Burns)

Mary Burns, Education Development Center


(All references appear in above link)

 December 18, 2013


I am presently working in South America—a continent of gente amable, stunning vistas, and an exploding online learning environment.  In my work with the Government of Ecuador’s National Education University (helping to conceptualize and design its online and blended programs), I have had numerous conversations with various representatives from universities, governments, and online learning programs—in Europe and North and South America—about online learning.

One impression continues to nag at me from these conversations — there seems to be a lack of concern for preparing instructors to teach online.  We know that good teaching matters in the classroom.

But if a great teacher is to the classroom what Fred Astaire was to dancing, then an online teacher must be even better because teaching online is far more challenging than teaching face-to-face.

Like Ginger Rogers, the online teacher has to do everything Astaire does—but backwards and in high heels (By the way, if you are not up on Fred and Ginger, click here).

Online learning goes global

This is no longer just a wealthy or middle-income country concern. Online learning is advancing everywhere—in so-called fragile contexts, such as refugee camps in Kenya, and in geographically remote areas of Pakistan. Online learning for adults is expanding in every emerging region on the globe—particularly in Asia and Latin America—but also in Sub-Saharan Africa. Four current trends portend continued growth in online learning in developing regions: the proliferation of mobile technologies; the desire of donors and governments to create lower-cost delivery models for tertiary and teacher education; increasing government investment in broadband; and the popularity of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) (2).

Good Teachers Matter

The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher. This is true in wealthy countries—and it is especially true in low-income countries (3). It is true whether the student is 8 or 18 or 28. And it is true whether the teacher is teaching face-to-face or online.

Good teachers demonstrate mastery in their content area. They know how to use content-specific pedagogical practices; they use multiple forms of assessment and offer useful feedback for student learning. They tailor types of instruction and the pace and levels of difficulty to individual learner needs. They are effective and clear communicators. They set clear learning goals and expectations, establish a positive classroom climate, possess high degrees of efficacy, and involve all students in sharing ideas and in the learning process (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Burns & Strategic Planning Development Team, 2012).

As anyone who has been a teacher knows, teaching well in a face-to-face environment is hard, but I would argue that teaching well online is even harder. A good online teacher must enact all of the above skills—but she must do it through technology—and she faces challenges that elude face-to-face teachers because everything is different online. Communication is different, instruction is different, assessment is different, the social dynamic is different, and learning is different.

Backwards and in High Heels

Two areas are particularly challenging for the online teacher. One is establishing a sense of emotional, cognitive, and instructional “presence.” Face-to-face teachers can do this because they are physically present with their students. Online teachers are separated from their students in space and time and must rely on technology for all interaction and communication.  Research (Akyol & Garrison, 2008) confirms that “presence”— strong and skilled facilitation of knowledge, of the learning process, and of learners, and helping learners become socially and academically integrated in the course—is one of the most important factors in the online learner’s success. Learner attrition from an online program—arguably the Achilles Heel of online learning—is often driven by learners’ negative perceptions of the instructor’s responsiveness; incomplete, unclear or ineffective instructor communication; or the lack of, or late, instructor communication with and feedback to learners (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).  My own research (Burns, 2013) on online learning in Indonesia suggests that, as in a face-to-face classroom, the presence of a caring and knowledgeable online instructor is a major retention factor for teachers taking an online course.

A second challenge the online instructor faces is blending pedagogy, technology and content.

It is far easier to lecture online; it is much harder to explicitly use cognitive teaching and learning and collaborative pedagogies online.

This is why we tend to see, especially in MOOCs, almost uniformly traditional lecture-based, direct instruction—a pedagogical model that ill-serves learning and a pedagogical model from which almost every educational system in the world is trying to move its teachers away.

Technology is not magic

So, why don’t we better prepare online instructors to teach online (4)? I might suggest two reasons. First, despite protests to the contrary, we often seem to unwittingly behave as if technology is indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, “indistinguishable from magic.” And if technology is indeed magical, we certainly needn’t concern ourselves with something as mundane as teaching human beings to teach well online because the mystery of technology alone will transform teaching and learning. We already hear such incantations vis-à vis MOOCs from many technology high priests—the “new pedagogical models” and the “innovativeness” of MOOCs. I love MOOCs, but lecturing into a camera is not a new pedagogical model. It is not innovative. And it is not magical. It is old wine in new bottles.

Second, it appears that when we talk about “teaching online,” we suddenly forget about “teaching” and focus only on the “online” part—overlooking the complexity and challenging of teaching well via technology (5).   Every mode of distance education presents its own unique set of instructional challenges. The challenge in online learning is developing a paradigm of teaching and learning that moves away from passive content delivery (like so many MOOCs) to a collaborative model in which instructors and learners interact with a set of experiences and materials. In such a model online instructors encourage and facilitate active learning and inquiry and skillfully manage, support, and model effective instruction for their online learners (Burns, 2011). Doing this via technology means that online instructors will need intensive ongoing professional development and support—as much—certainly not less, than their face-to-face counterparts.


(1)  This image was obtained under Advanced Search Google Licensing agreement (Share and modify) and can also be found in Bing’s Public Domain images search. It originally appears on this web site: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/fred-astaire/

(2)  Witness the US State Department’s MOOC Camp Initiative in which it has partnered with EdX, Coursera and Open Yale to offer free MOOCs throughout the globe.

(3)  See, for example the chart on page 130 of Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods, where I encapsulate some of the data outlining differences on the impact of a good teacher in wealthy and poor countries.

(4)  EdTech Leaders Online developed by EDC was one of the earliest programs that prepared instructors in the online medium in which the instructor is supposed to teach. It is still one of the most successful online instructor programs around.

(5)  For more information on competencies and skills needed by online instructors, go to Chapter 14: Preparing Distance Instructors (p. 176) of this guide.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

27 responses to “Why online teaching requires rigorous training (Mary Burns)

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  2. Gary Ravani

    An interesting article, but with some sloppy if common assumptions: “The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher.” The Educational Testing Service asserts that only about 1/3 of the variation in NAEP scores (one definition of “academic success”) can be attributed to school related factors which include teacher impacts. Linda Darling-Hammond asserts that teacher effects are around 10-14% of measured student achievement. Any way you look at it “effective teachers” impact on student success/achievement is the tail wagging the 85 to 90% of other impacts, the bulk of which are outside of school impacts that influence how well students achieve. Obviously, well trained teachers are vital in any educational setting, but to exaggerate or distort the potential for teachers’ influence on learning results in the kind of policies that treat symptoms rather than causes of achievement problems. And that pretty much sums up the kinds of policies educational “reformers” and policy makers have pursued for lo this past decade and more.

  3. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Although I know there is some merit in direct instruction, this is an interesting piece that Larry Cuban shared. Mary Burns is very right when she states: “The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher. This is true in wealthy countries—and it is especially true in low-income countries (3). It is true whether the student is 8 or 18 or 28. And it is true whether the teacher is teaching face-to-face or online.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for re-blogging the Mary Burns post, Pedro.

    • Gary Ravani

      I don’t think so. And the research seems to back up what I think.

      • larrycuban

        That the teacher is a crucial in-school factor you do not deny; you affirm it. I cannot answer for Mary Burns but, apart from the percentages you cite, she would agree. As I read her piece, however, I do not think she is exaggerating impact of teacher in the direction you assert.

  4. Gary Ravani

    She said: ““The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher.” Inserting “in-school” might have been less sloppy, but it is still misleading. I stand by my comments. Most of the research asserts school influences are about 1/3 of measured achievement (though, granted, am not a big fan of the obsession with “measured achievement”). It is pure speculation to suggest the teacher is the biggest part of the 1/3. There is the principal and other staff you know? There is allocation of resources by districts. There is parental and community support, or lack thereof. There is the adopted curriculum (typically not “adopted” by teachers). Again, Darling-Hammond proposes 1/3 to 1/2 of school influences can be attributed to the teacher. I don’t know of any good arguments to the contrary. And, yet again, the extreme focus on the teacher factor is mostly about finger-wagging and a distraction from the real causes of student failure. It is far past time “reform” efforts were focused on who and what needs to be reformed, not classroom teachers who have little/no control over the conditions their students live in and that create the real parameters for student success.

    Why so prickly?

  5. The Great Dickensian Lie, that poverty fuels crime and failure, is just as shamelessly scarlet a herring in this debate, as arguments over what percentage of academic success can be attributed to teachers or not.

    Where I would agree with Gary, is that in developed countries (not so elsewhere) the most intransigent problems many schools face are beyond their control. Politicians, educational policy makers and ardent school reformers would be far wiser to start by accepting that conventional schools are wholly pointless, even counter productive places for a significant proportion of children to attend.

    Schools are profoundly conventional tools that require a high level of co-operation between teacher and taught for them to work. That’s why in many impoverished, developing world circumstances, they work very well.

    What that “significant proportion of children” need we just don’t have yet, and someone needs to do some seriously creative thinking about what that might be…but “school” isn’t it.

      • A widespread assumption I’ve come across repeatedly in the profession, is that there is a simple causal link between poverty and educational failure. How badly Dickens is misread, interpreted and used, is an example of how this happens that most teachers I meet find easy to grasp. (The Great Dickensian Lie.) People who actually read him will find time and time again his characters display astounding moral and ethical integrity in spite of, not because of, the daily struggle they face just to survive. For every Bill Sykes there is a much more laudable Nancy.

        Regarding schools, teachers and their limited impact on social change, the first Times Educational Supplement article by me provides the detail.

        Interestingly, immediately after this piece was published the UK’s chief inspector of schools responding to tell me I was wrong, second link. http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6179246

        A few months on and you have the Chief Inspector’s own boss saying something very similar to me. Although admittedly, Baroness Morgan does stop short of understanding that conventional “school” isn’t the tool we need to handle this problem.

        Apologies for the UK focus and the lengthy urls, but it is genuinely interesting I think to see how this debate shifts.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for chiming in on the back-and-forth on the centrality of teachers in the ongoing U.S. debate over the public school’s role in lifting the poor out of poverty. The exchange between you and the Chief Inspector reminded me a great deal of the back-and-forth between “no excuses” reformers and those who call for schools to focus on academic achievement and social services. Thanks for the links.

      • Gary Ravani

        Yes, there is a causal link between poverty and educational failure, but it is hardly simple.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for commenting.

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  8. Mary Burns

    Hi all, Thanks, Larry, for re-posting. Thanks Gary for reading and commenting. Since a good bit of the discussion revolves around what I wrote, I will weigh in here.

    I taught for 10 years in very poor urban schools and in very poor schools overseas and saw the deleterious impacts of poverty, abuse, etc. on children’s academic achievement and performance in schools, so I certainly don’t wish to diminish non-academic factors on student achievement. I am simply reporting on the research I’ve read over the years in terms of the impact of teacher quality of student achievement. And it is pretty abundant. For instance, in a 10-year study of the same set of teachers, Rockoff (2004) estimated that differences in teacher quality account for 23 percent of the variation in student test scores. Sanders (1998) and Sanders & Rivers (1996) state that lower-achieving students are the most likely to benefit from increases in teacher effectiveness and that these effects are cumulative over time. And there is lots more besides what I cite here.

    My larger point in the blog post, “Backwards and in High Heels” is that lots of institutions (universities, NGOs, schools, tech companies) ignore how critical it is to adequately recruit and prepare teachers to teach online and they ignore the challenges of teaching well online. As I wrote, in terms of online teaching, they focus on the “online” part and ignore the teaching. We can argue about the extent, but I don’t think we can argue about that fact that a well-trained teacher–online or face-to-face–matters in terms of a learner’s experience and achievement.



    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Mary, for your comments on your experience and the post.

    • Gary Ravani


      I hope my rather cavalier reference to “sloppy” is not interpreted as a personal attack, That was not my intent.

      You mention the “research” done by Sanders and Rivers. This “research’ established Value added Methodology in the debate over what needs to happen to improve the education of disadvantaged students. I think it’s important to note it also established the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. (Commonly called VAM today.) What was the stimulus for this work? A lawsuit filed in Tennessee by rural districts to improve funding for education. TVAAS then was the attempt to deflect attention from the funding of education to a system of focusing blame on individual teachers. It was a success, at least in some circles. Eric Hanushek of the conservative Hoover Institution as well as various other conservatives and neo-liberals have picked up Sander’s ball and run with it ever since. There have been so many substantive critiques of VAM since I won’t bother with them here. Let me bring up just one, work done by the nation’s highest scientific body, the National Research Council, who asserted (in so many words) that: we don’t have a research base that would support using VAM in a fair valid and reliable way to evaluate teachers, and if we did, we still shouldn’t do it because it dangerously narrows curriculum. If VAM is debunked, then so too, is the idea of using it to “determine” teachers are the most important link in the learning chain. Sanders, or so i have read, originally focused on agricultural statistics. he should get back to that useful work. And I repeat that the work done by Darling-Hammond and ETS asserts individual teachers account for a “small” percentage of the effects that determine learning outcomes.

      I guess my main message is, we need to be careful how we phrase things. Words have consequences. And, yes, I need to take my own advice.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Gary, for your comments to Mary and all readers of this blog.

      • Mary Burns

        Hi Gary,

        Thanks for your comment. I apologize that I have not been checking this blog frequently. For the record, I don’t mind any criticism. I’m also thinking you may have meant “biased” instead of “sloppy” or maybe both? 🙂

        I’m aware of the critiques of a value added evaluation system. I enumerate some on page 161 in one of my own publications on technology and teacher PD: http://go.edc.org/07xd. However, even the work of researchers like John Hattie points to quality teaching as a critical determinant of student learning.

        I want to pres this point because of the world I work in. So much international educational development appears to be driven by an educational version of Henry Ford’s maxim, “We will fix the cities by leaving the cities behind.” So many folks have given up on improving teachers’ knowledge and skills in the countries that need these investments most, preferring to invest in online learning (forgetting there is a teacher there too) or in CAI or in programs that target the students and ignore teachers. We have offered teachers poor quality PD, then we blame them when they we don’t learn, and we justify subsequently ignoring them by implying them they don’t matter. I think this is a dangerous, but common enough, attitude. I know anecdotally from my own teaching in some really rough places that good teachers do matter–many of my students have come back to me over the years telling me what a difference I made. I know from my work with teachers and I have read enough research stating this is so.

        Thanks again. I learned a lot reading your comments and thanks again Larry for republishing my blog post.



      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Mary, for reply to Gary’s comments.

  9. Even in a classroom there’s but one teacher and 12 or 20 or 200 or online 200,000 students. In today’s age, students have to become teachers. We know teaching a subject is the best way to learn it.
    Part of the problem is teachers may feel they’ve lost control. But well designed combination of mini lectures, exercises for prompt feedback and discussion boards keep the teacher in control. That’s where good teaching, which means training new way of dancing is critical.

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  11. A very interesting article. We Have recently started a group on linked in called Video conferencing in UK Schools and I have posted the following piece as a means to producing some generally agreed shared practice initiatives.

    A recent article by Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom practice highlights the need for online teachers to undergo rigorous training;https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/why-online-teaching-requires-rigorous-training-mary-burns/

    I for one would advocate this, but if anyone knows of any teacher training courses that offer online teacher training courses, or even offer it as an option, I would be glad to hear from you.

    The article mentions the over reliance on traditional lecture-based delivery in online lessons, which is probably a good starting point for sharing some good practice initiatives that WeTeach have developed. We have always attempted to exploit the potential that video conferencing has to offer and by doing so make lessons as interactive as possible. In the process we address some of the difficulties that online teachers experience when attempting to incorporate collaborative pedagogies into their lessons.

    Environment – A ‘horse shoe’ type seating arrangement is preferable over a traditional theatre style seating arrangement. This overcomes the need for a microphone to be passed back and forth between desks. In addition the facility of students of being able to see each other often promotes interaction within the group.
    Questioning – Promoting whole group interaction by directing question to named students to ensure that all students have input into a lesson.
    Resources – Students have a student file with units of work to be completed between lessons. They also have a core textbook and access to an online learning platform. Issues and difficulties with online work can be monitored by the teacher and explained in the next lesson. Issues with activities in units of work can be addressed in the lesson directly with individuals, or groups of students.
    Variety – The facility to be able to share a laptop desktop screen has great advantages with certain subjects. Word documents, infographics, powerpoints and video clips can all be shared with students. In fact any resource that can be viewed on a laptop has the facility to be able to be shared with students. Although it is advisable to avoid text heavy documents

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