What Really Makes Teaching Online Unique?

Online education is often framed in terms of its potential for scale. But what if we’re thinking about that all wrong? Learners have high expectations in online settings: if something isn’t engaging or isn’t working, they are all too ready to give up or drop out. It takes a lot of work to create excellent online learning experiences that hook learners and keep them engaged. Given the effort required, scale might be the only way to ensure that the juice is worth the squeeze.


This problem pre-dates the internet. As a field, education is caught in a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle: we don’t prioritize it, we don’t treat it as a serious career, and we pretend that it’s easy. We also don’t expect too much in terms of outcomes. Education is dogged by the psychology of low expectations. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are belatedly realizing that it requires skill, planning, and expertise to keep people engaged in learning experiences. Teaching online pushes us to ask uncomfortable questions about quality and engagement that we should be asking about in-person learning as well. 

I think a focus on attendance is one root cause of this problem. When we teach in-person, one of our primary indicators is whether or not our students show up! I know attendance isn’t the only thing we care about – consider the decades-long debate over standardized tests in the US – but it certainly is one. If learning is our ultimate goal, attendance is a crude – almost primitive – metric. Attendance allows us to side-step the most important question: are my students learning anything? When we teach online, we can’t fall back on attendance because so many of our learners drop out or don’t show up at all. The shaky attendance-based foundation of our mental model collapses. Online learning isn’t automatically worse than in-person learning, but I would argue that it makes us more sensitive to the needs of our learners.

What’s Unique Online

This brings me back to our null hypothesis when we teach online: “My learners aren’t engaged, they aren’t interested, and they aren’t learning.” We probably should be starting from this hypothesis when we teach in-person as well, but that’s a separate discussion. Let’s briefly go over some of the things that are truly unique to online learning, relative to learning in-person:

  • Transactional distance is greater. Basically, we’re more comfortable ghosting on each other online than in person. While it might be awkward to get up and walk out of a lecture, it’s not awkward at all to exit out of a Zoom webinar. The social norms that exist in-person just don’t apply online.
  • Real-time and personalized feedback is harder to give. The “look over the shoulder” interactions that iron out so many wrinkles in-person are just harder to replicate online. Feedback – with all of the context that comes with tone and delivery – is harder to deliver online than in-person.
  • Personal connections are harder to establish and maintain. I don’t think this needs any explaining!
  • We have extremely high expectations for usability. Most of us routinely use a handful of web applications (such as Google, Twitter, and Netflix) created by small armies of engineers, UX designers, and product experts with millions of dollars in investment. We are anchored to this level of quality and we feel entitled to organized, dead-simple online user experiences. 

These unique features of online education don’t automatically make for a worse learning experience, but they do make it more challenging to engage and retain our learners.

The Solution

To create an excellent, engaging online learning experience, you’ve got to be extremely organized and deliberate. I’m going to assume you already have a great online learning strategy. That means you have a clear sense of your audience and your objectives, you know how you are going to meet your audience where they are, and you are making maximal use of evidence-backed teaching approaches. However, a great strategy is nothing without great execution.

Here are some specific things you should be thinking about as you start to enact your strategy.

  • Simplify: every step in the process – including the steps that happen before learning (like user registration) – should be as seamless as possible. Aim to reduce the amount of clicking required to move around, minimize the number of accounts your learners have to create, and maximize the findability of everything within the learning experience. 
  • Focus on the details: Make sure every step in your users’ path through learning is crystal clear. Use consistent language throughout and be thoughtful about how the learning experience is suited to your learners’ cultural contexts. 
  • Implement quality control and testing: Think through everything that could possibly go wrong and rigorously test it out. This usually can’t be done by just one person, because you need to systematically find bugs and squash them. Does everything work on the devices your learners are most likely to use? Do emails land in their primary inbox? Does every link work? What parts of the learning experience are confusing? These are questions you can only answer with a lot of testing.
  • Provide robust support: You can’t be physically present with your learners to help them troubleshoot, so you need to be ready to provide support that is responsive and easy to use.

This requires a huge amount of work, and the only way to get there is to achieve operational excellence: robust processes, seamless communication, strong teamwork, and sound execution of your project plan. Routines that build toward operational excellence for live (synchronous) events include creating a detailed run-of-show, holding practice sessions, and testing all interactions in advance. Self-paced online learning has different routines, including a procedure for beta-testing, simple and well-structured review and approval processes, a way to keep content fresh, and mechanisms for catching and eliminating bugs. Regardless of the learning experience, team roles and communication norms should be clear. Remember that excellence is fractal: great products are backed up by great teams that have mastered the logistics of teaching online. 

All of this brings me back to my original point: what is truly unique about online learning is that it takes a lot more effort to achieve excellence. I believe that scale is necessary to justify that effort. “Scale” is situational: in one setting, it might mean reaching as many learners as possible, in another, it could mean having a big impact on a few people. If you are just getting started online, think about how you can achieve the level of scale commensurate with your energy expenditure. By embracing this quality-oriented mindset, we can replace a vicious cycle defined by low expectations with a virtuous cycle driven by high expectations.