Online Learning and Teaching: Why Teachers Are Still Critical to Students’ Success

[aesop_content color=”#ffffff” background=”#333333″ columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” – Bill Gates

“There can be infinite uses of the computer and of new age technology, but if teachers themselves are not able to bring it into the classroom and make it work, then it fails.” – Nancy Kassebaum


Thank you to Aditi Rao for providing the preceding quotes at this URL.

This post was recently reposted on at this URL:

As another MOOC comes to a close, I have been thinking about the impact of technology on teaching and learning.  Back in the early days of my online learning journey, teachers were afraid that moving education efforts online would eliminate the need for teachers.  Some professors were hesitant to “teach online” because they felt they were teaching themselves out of a job, somehow proving that they were nothing more than grading machines and forum monitors.  Some online instructors actually did nothing more than that and kept their jobs, which only made other teachers more fearful of the trend to move classes online.

CBT (Computer Based Training) (or perhaps we should call it CBE for Computer Based Education) took the teacher out of the learning activity, although the teacher could be the designer of the learning activity itself.  Instead of interacting with another human being, learners could load an eLearning activity and work through it at their own pace and convenience.  I thank the academic genius who came up with MyMathLab.  Without it, College Algebra would never have made sense.  In that case, CBT (CBE) was the best option to help me learn, and the teacher was just a grade collector and forum monitor.  None of us used the forum much, so his job was pretty easy, I daresay.

On the other hand, the Statistics class I took online would have been impossible if not for the caring, available, and brilliant professor who helped us all understand how to gather and interpret data.  Her online sessions were full every week.  She helped us make sense of the topic and to use Microsoft Excel for our calculations by showing us things she’d learned over the years as a professional statistician.  Granted, none of us undergraduates were ready for the real statistics tools, but she managed to use the tools in Excel to help us learn.

I took both online classes at the same university.  I was impressed by how differently they were run, yet how effective they both were.  It turns out that whoever designed the courses was probably aware of how technology will or will not affect learner outcomes, and employed the appropriate tools as needed to ensure student success.

Still, computer-based (and usually online) education is not for everyone.

The problem with a computer-based education?  It’s a lonely experience.  If you are interested in some of the research about online education, I suggest going to Google Scholar and looking up “social presence.”  From the literature you will learn that if students felt they were in a community of some sort, they were quite satisfied with the online learning experience.  However, if they felt they were alone and uncared for, they tended to drop out of the course or leave school altogether.  It’s hard to be a self-directed learner, to push oneself when no one seems to care.  I did it for a long time.  Then, I experienced a different kind of online education when I entered my Master’s program at USC.  Later, when I tried to return to an online learning environment in which I was on my own again, I could not stand it.  I left the program, and feel no remorse whatsoever for doing so.

K-12 Online Education

K-12 distance education has been around for many years.  High school programs, facilitated by correspondence study, started in the 1920s, for example (Clark, n.d.).  Online schools came into existence in the mid-1990s; one example is the Florida Virtual High School (which is now called the Florida Virtual School) (Clark, n.d.).  Now there are numerous K-12 schools that operate either partly or entirely online.  There are many districts that use online courses for credit recovery, too, which helps students stay in their regular school while also catching up.  For instance, Midland Public Schools uses Edgenuity to deliver credit recovery courses to students.  The student goes to the counselor when the need arises, and the counselor enrolls the student.  They also offer credit protection courses.  A teacher recommends a student for these courses, once it is determined the student needs extra help with course content.   For example, if a student has a failing grade for the marking period, the teacher can recommend that he or she enroll in the credit protection program.  The student works on the content at home with an eLearning facilitator.  If the student is successful, the teacher can convert the grade to a passing grade (such as a D-), which helps the student earn credit for the marking period.

In a full-time online environment, students often interact with eLearning modules in their day-to-day studies, and meet with their teachers and classmates via web conference rather than in a brick-and-mortar classroom.  Some of the schools have labs and classrooms in a central location.  Students travel there to see their classmates and teachers in person and do work they could not do as well at home.  One school I know of has a mobile classroom, which is a converted bus that is parked in various locations throughout the month.  Students come to the mobile classroom to see classmates and teachers, and do work.  Otherwise, they work at home with their learning coach, who is often their parent.

There are many reasons why families decide that online education is the best choice for the child.  Some families may feel that the curriculum of their LEA is not rigorous enough, and that the child needs a challenge.  Perhaps the child needs a more flexible schedule and an online environment because they travel for athletic events or work.  Other families may feel that the student needs to learn at a different pace to be successful.  Still others may decide to enroll in an online school for safety reasons.  There are many other reasons why families choose to enroll in online schools, and they all have something to do with having a choice.

Having a choice is good, of course, as long as the choices provided are of equal quality and merit.  In my opinion, choosing between online education and brick-and-mortar education means deciding which will help the child be more successful.  That means evaluating the following items, among others.

  • Physical environment
  • Social environment
  • Faculty
  • Curriculum
  • Technology
  • Course offerings
  • Instructional rigor

Sometimes the choice is clear, and other times it is not.

Throughout all the preceding paragraphs, I’ve tried to weave the role of the teacher into the story.  In the quotes that opened this post, both indicated that it is the teacher who uses the technology well that will help students be most successful.  If the teacher does not use it effectively, the students suffer.  In K-12 online education today, successful teachers use the tools available to get to know their students, personalize learning, provide instruction, and help students find resources and materials in innovative and effective ways.

What the individuals quoted above might not have meant to say is that even if the teacher is actually the designer of eLearning, they are still under an obligation to use that technology to the best of their knowledge and ability when designing eLearning experiences.  One might infer that, however, when thinking about the quotes within the context of online and distance education.

The fact is that all learning experiences, even those which seem to be exclusive of other humans, are social experiences.  So said Lev Vygotsky many years ago, and so teachers have learned in their learning theories classes ever since his papers were first published in 1962 (Ormrod, 2008).  Luis Moll compiled and edited his research, and then published it in 1990.  If you are at all interested in Social Constructivism and Social Development Theory, you might want to pick up Moll’s work or read the web pages linked here.  No matter how far removed the teacher might seem, the teacher still influences the effect of the learning activity, and will always play a crucial role in education.


Clark, T. (n.d.). Virtual Schooling MOOC – history [Wikispaces]. Retrieved March 30, 2015, from

Ormrod, J. (2008). Educational psychology (Sixth Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


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