Shutting your school? Teaching online is different to teaching face to face

March 12, 2020 10 MIN READ Eddie Blass

I was an early pioneer of online teaching, teaching through video conference to classrooms overseas before Zoom, Collaborate, Google Classrooms and Microsoft Teams existed. I’ve got over 10 years of experience teaching online in universities, and I have spent the last four years developing an online curriculum for high school children who, for whatever reason, have disengaged from the traditional classroom. I don’t start with this to boast, but to establish my credibility as someone who has been working with, developing and teaching online for well over a decade. So what?

Well, I was wondering what schools were doing to plan for shutdown due to the novel coronavirus. When I asked a senior teacher friend, they were not aware that their school was doing anything much – after all, they have Daymap and Google Classrooms. I then came across a Facebook group with over 17,000 members from all over the world. They are all teachers shifting online because their school was shut down. 

Their posts were both saddening and predictable, and I summarise the key messages here:

1.      Teachers are spending hours each day preparing and recording videos for their students.

2.      Teachers are exhausted from holding every ‘live class’ on a live platform and then dealing with individual questions, resulting in 12 hour days.

3.      Teachers are sharing things they have found ‘worked’ online, including lesson plans and resources.

4.      For those who have been doing this longer than two weeks, teachers are starting to ask questions about administration, motivation, sick leave and so forth.

Universities that started teaching online a decade ago are changing their online models as they have realised that just replicating what happens face-to-face in an online environment does not work. Online learning needs to be designed with the technology in mind. It is pedagogically different and as these teachers are finding out, it requires different classroom management skills.

At a minimum, online learning needs to use the ‘flipped classroom’. The flipped classroom is when students learn key content prior to the session, which is then spent building on that content and bringing it to life. The ‘tossed classroom’ is similar to the flipped classroom, but without set content. Students are invited to ‘toss’ in their own choice of content, and the class itself is process based. This sounds scary but it isn’t – and it makes for fantastic conversation!

Secondly, online group sessions require the teacher to talk about interesting things and ask interesting questions. If they don’t, everyone sits in silence and there can be little meaningful participation. This can be exhausting for the teacher – which is why the excitement of the ‘tossed’ classroom works so well. You provide the framework for a ‘salad’ and the class choose their ingredients and ‘toss it’ in the dressing of their choice. Because each student chose a different ‘dressing’, they need not fear repeating others or sounding less capable compared to their peers.

Thirdly, one hour online is much longer than one hour face-to-face. Don’t believe me? Try watching a YouTube video that lasts an hour and see if you can get through it without having to pause to go get a drink, go to the toilet or have a break. Online is much more intense, so you don’t want sessions to last for an hour unless you know you are going to have a good conversation going. One option is to set an hour’s session but only go for 30 minutes and deal with individual issues at the end, as you might in the traditional classroom. This can be done via email, online chat, video conferencing or any number of other media. If you leave individual issues to the end of the day, your workload can easily blow out to twelve hours.

Finally, classroom-based activities and resources do not translate well online (although interestingly, you can take online learning into the classroom without too much trouble). This is why teachers are sharing resources on Facebook. Resources that work will have been designed or adapted for the internet, and they will use the benefits of technology instead of sidelining it.

Trying to teach face-to-face in an online environment can be exhausting, disheartening and demotivating. It’s not sustainable for most teachers, and hence the focus is turning to administrative matters. Schools need to consider proper online resources to support their teachers. They also need to provide immediate online staff development to help them with the shift to a new modality.

Here are some quick tips for teachers adapting to the online environment (I posted these on the Facebook page and have had over 450 likes and over 120 comments of thanks):

1.      Do not pre-record video sessions for students. Either speak to them live and upload the recording or put the content in a written document. Pre-recording video is the biggest time-waster there is.

2.      Use YouTube! There are millions of great videos on YouTube. We use them extensively in our own online resource. The fact is that someone has probably already said what you want to say, and they have probably said it better than you would.

3.      Do not run one-hour sessions from start to finish. Plan for 30 minutes and then leave time for Q&A and less structured interaction. Use that hour to deal with individual student issues, as you would in the traditional classroom.

4.      Remember that listening to someone online for 30 minutes is hard work, so break the session down – ask students to talk or run a poll or get them do something and show you, but do not talk ‘at them’ like you might in a regular classroom. You don’t need fancy tech for this – be creative.

5.      Don’t get disheartened by a lack of response. Sit out the silence until someone talks. Once people start talking it builds – you just need someone brave to kick things off. Silence online feels much more uncomfortable for the facilitator than it does in a room where you can feel people thinking so to speak. You don’t get that energy online, so you need to hold the space differently.

6.      Try to use resources that were designed for online teaching – forums, Wikis, live chat and so on. Student posts can be a great starting point for discussion.

I’ve spent four years developing an online learning system called Inventorium. Here are some key design principles that highlight how it differs from the traditional classroom:

1.      Online learning doesn’t work when it’s too controlled. 

2.      Students can apply their learning to subject matter that interests them.

3.      Students can learn at their own pace. This allows students to be more reflective, which deepens the learning. Students can reveal a lot more in a discussion forum than they ever would in a live classroom, for example, because they have time to think about and refine what they’re going to post.

4.      Students need to understand why the learning is relevant to them. To this end, each YouTube video is followed by an activity that gets the student to find its meaning for them.

You’ll constantly be amazed at what students will do and the efforts they’ll go to once they appreciate the freedom that online learning can give them.
You can find out more about the Inventorium and access the demo site at You can also contact me at if you’d like to explore how our curriculum could help you or your school during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re a not-for-profit co-operative for Australian Schools and a social enterprise for everyone else, and we would love to help.