Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/ 7/2009

Willingham: An online teaching surprise

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don't Students Like School?" For more Willingham, click here.

By Daniel Willingham
The benefits of online schooling have always seemed obvious to me: A student can work at his or her own pace and desired time and will likely have a larger selection of courses from which to choose.

The chief drawback of online schooling was equally obvious to me: The teacher-student relationship, funneled through an Internet connection, would necessarily suffer. How could a teacher really get to know students when all of the interactions were via email and webcams?

That disadvantage was obvious to me until I mentioned it, in passing, to a friend who is an online teacher. Her experience was the just the opposite. She felt that she knew her students better in an online environment than she had in a bricks-and-mortar school.

I was intrigued enough that I tracked down five other online teachers at different grade levels, all of whom had taught in traditional schools. They all reported the same feelings.

Once they explained the reasons, it seemed not only plausible, but obvious.

First, their interactions with their students are very rarely about discipline or behavior.

For younger students, a caretaker (usually the mother) is on hand, and so the teacher does not need to do a lot of prompting to keep the child on task. For older children, the chief distraction of the classroom—other students—is not present. Teachers don’t have to nag students.

Second, although it is a virtual environment, the teacher is in the student’s home. The living room or family room is visible in the background during web chats. Siblings (or the family dog) wander in. And for younger children, mothers are usually present and so teachers get to know them much better than they ever did in a traditional classroom.

Third, teachers tell me that older students were more willing to share their personal lives than they were in a regular classroom. Perhaps because there are no classmates to overhear the conversations, teenagers seem less reluctant to open up.

One teacher actually suggested that the nature of online learning made students feel more responsible for their own progress, which led to greater openess.

They would more readily admit to not understanding something, for example. When they failed to complete an assignment, they would not only own up to it, they were more straightforward about the circumstances that led to the tardiness.

Now these are just the impressions of six teachers I spoke to. There are not, so far as I know, systematic studies that compare student-teacher relationships in online learning environments and in traditional classrooms.

We’d need better data before we could draw conclusions. But I was surprised by the consistency of the impressions of the teachers that I spoke to. If online learning is an inevitable part of the future landscape of American education, the student-teacher relationship may not be a drawback, and may even be a boon.

For more Willingham, click here.

Follow Valerie’s blog all day, every day at

For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | December 7, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  online learning, teachers  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Debating the value of the SAT, ACT
Next: An education job you may want


On-line schools are a real vision of the future.

Almost from birth children can be ensconced in an electronic capsule. There is a computer, a cell phone, iPod, television and electronic games of every description.

All social interaction is via Facebook, twitter and cell phone. No human contact is necessary.

Physical education, art, sports and, most important, learning socialization are no longer necessary.

They never have to move and most likely could not move if they wanted too.

Posted by: drdouglar | December 8, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

The teacher comments seem to deal with elementary students supervised by their mothers at home.

For five years, I taught a college-credit online literature course. Except for the few who contacted me or came to my office, I knew virtually nothing about any student. The washout rate was usually about 50%. I had no relationship whatsoever with most students despite my attempts to involve them. Perhaps online education works best in disciplines that are largely factual or the basic foundations provided at the elementary level. How many mothers are still at home to keep the kids in order?

My students ranged from those who would succeed anywhere but whose circumstances prevented class attendance in a traditional setting to those who just wanted a way NOT to attend class; the latter often disappeared in the course of the term. None of the students received from me what they would have received in the classroom. No webcam, everything online completely cut and dried. If my personality and perspective have helped my traditional students, the online students received none of this due to the inherent limitations of the form. And no student learned from another student's questions or observations.

Posted by: Latania1 | December 8, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

It sounds like running a course the way Latania1's school did it is insufficient. If you have live webcam connections though, you don't miss much.

The key driver here is obvious to me, and shouldn't be limited to online schooling at home- each student gets to work at his or her own pace. You get the lesson when you are ready for the lesson. There's no reason you couldn't do the same thing in a regular classroom. I used to dream of system like this when I was young, sitting bored in classes that moved too slowly, watching people ask questions that indicated that had no idea what was going on and hadn't studied. Similarly, in classes where I struggled, such as foreign languages, I would sit there glazed over as the teacher spent time covering material where I literally couldn't understand a word she was saying. I spent two years in a math program that worked this way, concept by concept, and I made 5 years of progress in those two years.

Posted by: mattmcknight | December 8, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

My experience through the University of Phoenix (MBA) was a mix. The online program doesn't use webcams, but does teach small groups. The curricula required team projects through virtual teams. Since leadership is important for an MBA, the challenges of working virtual teams was good training for what I think is becoming a more common work practice.
Every instructor shared some of their personal and professional interests and accomplishments, as did the students. As a result, I think many of the students and teachers would say they know each other better than if they just showed up for a college class.

Posted by: will4567 | December 8, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Like some of the previous postings, my experience in teaching on-line has been in college courses (freshman history).

Perhaps when students have to attend and interested parents are around to make sure it happens, on-line works better. In the college courses I taught, things went pretty much as they did for Latania1 (the second posting). Working at one's own pace is great--when the student is motivated enough to work.

Someday the on-line delivery may be the norm, but that day isn't here yet. Many of the students I get have never had a teacher passionate enough to get in their faces and press them to learn. Or maybe the school system, focused on standardized tests, smothered the teacher's passion.

Either way, teachers have been around for a long time. We are not obsolete yet.

Posted by: guitar1 | December 8, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

For those interested in more discussion / research results on on-line learning, I highly recommend Clayton Christensen's "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns".

There is a place for in-class learning, and there is a place for online learning. Arguing against the quality of on-line learning is like arguing that nobody should use an iPod because it will never compare to the quality of a real orchestra performance - the argument fundamentally misses the point of what the technology enables.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | December 8, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Recently, I wrote a piece titled "Is some form of homeschooling a necessity in Montgomery County, Maryland?" Available at:

It is sometimes the case that homeschooling is more of a necessity than an option.

Posted by: DC_Gifted_Education_Examiner | December 8, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

By Daniel Willingham
"The benefits of online schooling have always seemed obvious to me: A student can work at his or her own pace and desired time and will likely have a larger selection of courses from which to choose."

Hahahahaha, this brings me back to my high school days in the early 1970s. Students could apply to participate in a novel program called "Project In Education", or PIE. They could pick their courses and work at their own pace. They did not have to attend class, they had rooms with comfy couches where they could study at their own pace. Well, all we saw was kids asleep in the PIE room. The "PIE" project was eventually canceled.

Kids are rarely self motivated. Ask any parent that has one. What motivates them is avoiding adminishments from an authority figure, and seeking praise from an authority figure. If you take that away from high schoolers or younger and you will have the same result as PIE did. What seems to work in the online examples you gave is heavy parental involvement, a known important factor, and one-on-one with the teacher, another known factor that helps students. But this type of online teaching is not as efficient as the brick and mortar teaching environment. Kids need to know they did better or worse than others, they need the competition. They also need the social interactions and the occassional project to be done with other students. How else will they learn to work productively with others when learning online?

All I am saying is be careful. Many ideas have been tried to modify education from the traditional classroom environment and many have failed. Like cooking turkeys in microwave ovens instead of conventional ovens, the new technologies are not always a replacement for what it seems they obviously can replace.

Posted by: Fate1 | December 8, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I completed an online M.A. degree in liberal studies at the age of 83. Although there are several universities where I live, my mobility was not up to speed for walking to and from classes.

All my teachers were helpful; discussions were 20% of the grade and I completed the course in 3 years with a 3.75 GPA. Many courses require no lab work, only reading and writing essays and the discussions are all graded for the extent of knowledge. I highly recommend online classes for the student who is self-motivated and bored in the classroom.

Posted by: ageis7 | December 8, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

"Like cooking turkeys in microwave ovens instead of conventional ovens, the new technologies are not always a replacement for what it seems they obviously can replace."

As the parent of a middle school student who has completed online courses in the Johns Hopkins CTY program, I have to say that I've found their instructional quality (and level of teacher interaction) to be very high. I would much rather my children have the option to take online electives than sit through some of their current middle school electives.

Nearly 40% of US high schools do not offer a single AP class to their students. For those students, the choice is either an online version of an AP course or no AP course at all. Given those realities, we can expect to continue to see a solid expansion of online course technology.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | December 8, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

My problem with the online learning experience is that many teachers rely *way* too much on the "students should teach each other" approach. The idea is that through discussion groups--the students can learn more from each other than from their teachers.

This is the ideal, but to be honest, I'm much more interested in what the teacher has to say than some random student that is posting to the group just to get credit. The teacher/professor needs to be actively engaged and too often the online model is used just to allow teachers/professors to participate in and run *more* classes it seems.

Posted by: Sneeje | December 8, 2009 10:35 PM | Report abuse

In the Australian outback, the "School of the Air" has been running a virtual elementary school for over 50 years, first over 2-way radio hookups, and now using webcams. All the reports I've read about the experience have been uniformly positive.

Posted by: DupontJay | December 8, 2009 11:47 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company