March 24, 2017

Desperately seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching

Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus? Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus?
Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

This is the fourth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for my online open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age. The post questions the specific advantages of face-to-face teaching over online teaching.

Identifying the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching in a digital world

Sanjay Sarma, Director of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, made an attempt at MIT’s LINC 2013 conference to identify the difference between campus-based and online learning, and in particular MOOCs. He made the distinction between MOOCs as open courses available to anyone, reflecting the highest level of knowledge in particular subject areas, and the ‘magic’ of the on-campus experience, which he claimed is distinctly different from the online experience. He argued that it is difficult to define or pin down the magic that takes place on-campus, but referred to ‘in-the-corridor’ conversations between faculty and staff, hands-on engineering with other students outside of lectures and scheduled labs, and the informal learning that takes place between students in close proximity to one another. Not mentioned but implicit was also the very high standard of students admitted to MIT, and the impact of continuous contact on campus between student and professor, none of which of course is available to MOOC students.

This is a useful starting point in trying to identify the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. In doing so, it may be helpful to identify whether or not this can or has been done equally well online. Sharma makes the following claims for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching, or what he called ‘the magic of the campus’:

  • informal, random conversations between students
  • informal, random conversations between faculty and students
  • lab work with access outside school hours

There are a couple of other characteristics that Sharma hinted at but did not mention explicitly in his presentation:

  • the very high standard of the students admitted to MIT, who ‘push’ each other to even higher standards
  • the importance of the social networks developed by students at MIT that provide opportunities later in life.

I leave it to you to judge whether these are unique features of face-to-face teaching. Those of us who have taught extensively online are aware that there are also opportunities online for informal, random conversations between students, and also between students and faculty, through online discussion forums, Facebook or other media. The issue is: are they of the same quality?

Easy and frequent access to laboratories is a much more serious contender for uniqueness, as this is difficult to provide online, although there is an increasing number of developments in remote labs and the use of simulations.

In the absence of specific research on the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching, we can look at some of the more general characteristics of media discussed in Chapter 8, and see where face-to-face teaching fits. Table 10.5.1 is my personal attempt at analysis along these dimensions.


Table 10.2.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching

Table 10.5.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching


  • This level of analysis unfortunately does not get us very far. These are not necessarily unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. Discussion can be managed just as easily online, and social media may provide even richer means of networking, for instance. It doesn’t really get to unique pedagogical advantages in the way we have seen with text, audio, video, computing and social media.

In the end, an analysis of the unique pedagogical advantages of face-to-face teaching over the use of other media all comes down to personal experience and opinions, and even more so, personal experience strongly influenced by working within one mode rather than another. We do not have good guidelines for distinguishing between what is best done face-to-face on purely pedagogical criteria, and we certainly have no research on this. Indeed, it would be hard to design such research. For instance let’s suppose that somehow we found that face-to-face conversations are more academically challenging than online conversations between students. But if the students  who want to take this course cannot get to campus, what’s the value of this finding to them? Even more likely, we would find that under the right circumstances, either mode can work just as well. The important thing then is to ensure the right circumstances are present for each mode of delivery. In other words, student needs and the available resources are going to be much stronger discriminators in determining whether to use face-to-face teaching than pedagogical advantages – unless someone can come up with evidence-based, convincing arguments for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching..

Nevertheless, if for other reasons the decision is made to choose blended learning as the mode of delivery, and this is likely to become more and more common, we are still left with the very practical dilemma of deciding what, in a blended learning context, is best done online and what face-to-face. I will suggest a method to do this in the next section.


Now this is where I really need input, especially from enthusiasts for face-to-face teaching. I have found no convincing evidence-based research that points to clear advantages for face-to-face teaching over online teaching. I’ve taught quite a bit in classrooms across a relatively wide range of ages, but most of my teaching in the last twenty years has been mainly online at a post-secondary level. I really find it difficult to identify many areas outside lab and practical work where there is a clear advantage for face-to-face teaching. I’m not implying there are not any advantages; I just want them identified, and I suspect these are likely to be very subject specific.

So given what we know can be done very well online, such as online discussion, presentation of content, and many areas of intellectual skills development, what are the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, what can it do much better than online learning?

Next up

A methodology for determining what to do face to face, and what to do online, in a blended learning context. So this post and the next – indeed all five on this topic – really need to be read together.


  1. James Mitchell says:

    I’ve argued on my campus for ten years or more that understanding what happens in a campus learning environment is critical to the future of 2nd tier and lower institutions – like mine. Like Tony I’ve not encountered any evidence that such an environment is “better”, just an assumption that it is – hardly a convincing argument. My belief is that there is a difference. Here’s what I’d add to Tony’s list:
    * Facilities – yes – not just labs, but dorm rooms, gyms, cafeterias, libraries, empty classrooms where social interaction occurs.
    * Focus provided by the environment – removing the “outside world” temporarily, not just from sight, but from psychological space
    * Attitude provided by the social milieu in which a student and professor exist – similar to the focus ingredient.
    * Full-senses engagement – the difference between live theater and film – each has its place
    * The opportunity (sadly not available to all) for a mentorship with an extraordinary teacher – again depending on full senses

    What these ought to mean is that “Student Life” or whatever it’s called on your campus ought to be in full partnership with the academic siderather than the servant provider of games, housekeeping and punishment.

    Possibly relevant information – I’m a full, tenured professor in engineering. I’d expect many of my colleagues to be thoroughly dismissive of these views.

  2. I will be very curious to see what comments people offer here! I appreciate what James Mitchell is saying, but I don’t see any of those bullet points as exclusive to face to face, or even more natural face to face than online (except for facilities beyond scheduled class time, and that’s really a separate question anyway). In particular, I have a much stronger sense of social milieu of coexistence online at virtual spaces where the students and I can interact without all the power trappings of the classroom where I am in charge, stand at the front of the room, am the constant object of attention, etc. In the real world of the blogosphere, Twitter, Google+, etc. (and yes, I consider those part of the real world… in what sense are they unreal? or, to put it another way, less real than a classroom?), my students and I are much more equal… even if the university wants to put me in this extraordinary position of power and my students are rendered, accordingly, powerless. Moving to an online teaching environment has thankfully freed me from a lot of that baggage and, I hope, allowed the students to have much more productive (albeit less worshipful) relationships with me than they had when I taught in the classroom and was available only during office hours (which rarely coincided with their schedules). More of my thoughts based on 10+ years of teaching fully online courses here:
    Devotedly Digital
    Why I Love Teaching Online

    • Many thanks for this, Laura. I recommend all my readers to read Laura’s post ‘Why I Love Teaching Online.’ I hear you, Laura!

      Now can someone do the same for classroom teaching? This might open up some unique characteristics that we can then compare and contrast

  3. Hi Tony, we’re not a secondary/higher education institution, but make extensive use of online learning for continuing education. I think one could make an argument that there is a psychosocial aspect to an in-person connection of face to face classes/sessions. We have some courses that are in a face to face format, with class size of around 20-30 people. One is a Psychosocial Education workshop that helps healthcare providers address the emotional aspects of cancer care. We’ve been looking at moving it online but have had doubts, as the course involves sharing some emotional stories and connections that we feel would not have the same impact when replicated online or in a video.

    This type of direct human/emotional bond that you can get in a face to face in-person workshop may not be possible to replicate online.. things as subtle as body language, tone of voice, etc. We’ve done video conferencing sessions but people behave differently and especially when the course matter is on emotional and human contact it just does not have the same impact.

    James Mitchell mentioned full-senses engagement in his comment, and I think that is a good succinct way to describe it. It’s not really applicable in hard science courses which do not need to have any, and indeed strive to not have any emotional component to the course work.. But could you teach an acting class online for example?

    • Great comments, Mathew and I completely agree. This is exactly the kind of example I was hoping for.

      Also, I think age is another variable. What will work well online for a working professional may not be appropriate for a nine year old. In a recent seminar with Athabasca University Ph.D. students,the point was made that young children need the social experience of inter-personal interactions in school in terms of learning to live with other people and the need for security and emotional support that a caring teacher can provide.

      Can anyone provide other examples that I could include regarding the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching?

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