Image: OISE Education Commons

Back to the classroom model

I was recently struck by a comment my former colleague Diana Laurillard made in a podcast for Mark Nichols’ excellent podcast series, Leaders and Legends of Online Learning. She said she thought online learning had gone backwards as a result of the pandemic.

I think I agree. Sure, the pandemic exposed many teachers and instructors to online learning for the first time, some teachers, instructors and students found that it could work for them with relatively minor adaptations, we learned a lot about the possibilities of synchronous online learning, but overall, the majority of teachers and instructors have not changed their method of teaching. It is still mainly lectures or teachers talking to students, sometimes for six hours or more consecutively, all online.

Why the lecture model is a backward step for online learning

This has led the National Council for Online Education to complain that emergency remote learning is not quality online learning. They rightly point out that in quality online learning, there is more planning and preparation. In particular it is important to re-design the teaching to take account of the different learning environment from classroom teaching. In online learning, students are not physically together in a group with other students and the instructor or teacher, at the same time, but are dispersed and working in isolation. In particular trying to replicate the classroom method for online learners fails to take advantage of the affordances or strengths of online learning, in particular the ability of students to study in their own time and anywhere and not be constrained by the need to be at the same place, at the same time, as all the other students and instructors.

Image: Planet eStream, 2019

Even more importantly, there was often pre-pandemic a different educational philosophy in the design of online learning from the standard lecture. Lectures are a didactic form of teaching, where the instructor decides the content, organises it, and delivers it to the student, whose main role is to understand and remember it (a more objectivist approach, for you theorists). In asynchronous online learning, the instructor is more of a guide, certainly choosing and directing students to content, but because of the isolation of online students, the design makes great efforts to create the three ‘presences’ of the Community of Inquiry model: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence (a more constructivist approach). In other words, interaction between students and the instructor are an essential part of the design, as are directed student activities.

So going back to video lectures is at least a pedagogical step backwards for online learning.

Teaching methods fit for the future

Why does this matter? If lectures are good enough for classroom teaching, why do instructors need to change their method when teaching online? The answer is that it is not just a case of the effectiveness in teaching remote students. The lecture method does not facilitate the development of core 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, independent learning, knowledge management, and problem-solving. We need to accept that content is not the issue for 21st learners. There is more than enough content ‘out there’ on the Internet. What matters is knowing where to find it, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. This is all more easily done online than in a classroom setting (although it is possible).


What needs to be done

First, we have to recognise that there are potential educational benefits (affordances) of synchronous online teaching. The traditional asynchronous online learning design needs to accommodate this mainly technological development (cheap video-conferencing). This means identifying the specific educational affordances of synchronous learning, in particular learning contexts, such as ‘thinking-on-your feet’ in arguments, specific language teaching, or instructor moderated group student discussion, and embedding this within a broader design that includes and prioritises asynchronous learning for online learners.

At the same time, we need to retain past best practices in online learning, such as flexible delivery, clear structure and student learning activities, basing student work on overall hours per week of study, including all activities, use of specific online assessment methods such as formative and continuous assessment and the use of e-portfolios, with a focus specifically on soft skills development. Above all, the design must accommodate the three presences of the Community of Inquiry.

Next, we need to think about appropriate learning designs and contexts for blended learning. In particular, when students can do either or both, what is best done in-person and what is best done online? This will mean paying special attention to the affordances of each in specific contexts. It will also mean paying attention to how new technologies such as serious games or virtual reality can enhance or replace in-person practical work. We have to get away from the stale argument that in-person is always better than online; they both have potential value, depending on the context.

Finally, and this is the most difficult challenge, we need to find more nimble methods for developing and delivering quality blended and fully online courses than the lengthy, team-based approach of the past. This was fine when only 10% of all teaching was fully online, but it is not scalable when all instructors will be teaching either a blended or a fully online class. This will require short courses on design for instructors, on-demand resources such as how to make a good online video, and more systematic and more pervasive professional development.

Some institutions and instructors are beginning to recognise that online and blended learning need different teaching approaches, but while the majority of teachers and instructors are still basing their online teaching on the standard, in-class teaching model, then yes, we have gone backward with online learning due to the pandemic.

Once again, I would love to hear from readers of this blog their views on whether online learning is advancing or going backwards due to the pandemic. Please use the comment box at the end of this page or send me an email at


  1. Online learning is not going backwards Tony….only because of hasty and poor practices we have seen lately in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Think of it this way…We have been hit by a massive cyclone (or some such disaster). Houses have been burned down, torn apart and some washed away completely. Folks have hastily tried to patch up and fix what’s left to try to survive.

    That’s what has just happened to the education sector–to teaching and learning. In time, with more resources, and more support we will rebuild, bigger and better…. let’s hope so. There is no need to despair….but to plan for the future so that we are not as vulnerable as we have been. And there is no need to reinvent the wheel either–no need to talk about “Remote Teaching” as something uniquely different–it is nothing but an emergency response. Much of it will not be that great for starters we know…but it will get better…with more resources and support–we know how to do this and do this well.

  2. News Bulletin: Does Anyone Really Work Here?

    Leaving the Academic Bunker for the Online Playing Field: A retrospective on how the online learning victory celebration was premature

    A few weeks ago, a former student made an interesting comment to me about the ‘experts’ of open and distance education. We were discussing the Covid-19 response by educators worldwide. She said ‘the field seems to have a lot of experts that have spent most of their careers in their offices [academic bunkers] – lol – I had never heard that term; or at conferences writing and talking about open and distance learning, but little recent experience in distance teaching or ever as a distance student; and limited if any experience as a distance education leader inside a major institution.’ She was essentially using ‘expert’ as a euphemism for someone who can consult, keynote, and write mind-blowing articles with enough references to fill Royal Albert Hall. The paradox of course is they have limited real experience and that fact usually becomes self-evident.

    Indeed, I was immediately reminded of my golden rule – there is no substitute for experience. You can write and talk about things for years and still be oblivious to the real context and experience of actually doing something To this day, if you haven’t managed an ODL program from within the caverns of a major university, then you just haven’t lived. It’s the equivalent of playing a rugby match every day and hoping you will survive and stagger back tomorrow. You have no power, only your own ability to influence and the desire to build alliances and partnerships inside and outside the university. Now, although the experience is different from the perspective of single-mode versus dual mode institutions, I will not follow nor listen very attentively to any leader who hasn’t been on the playing field

    Meanwhile, my visit with my former student continued. Getting the keys to the kingdom back from her was going to take some effort. She continued, ‘many [experts-consultants] have made a living consulting in areas they have very little practical experience. We recently had an expert in to advise our university on going online during the pandemic and it was clear this expert had no recent ‘practical’ understanding or grasp of how a real university and its faculty’ work or how to begin really leading the change process to scale-up online delivery. This was embarrassing for her and for us.’

    I asked, ‘are you suggesting we have more consultants and experts offering advice rather than people actually doing the work?’ She replied, ‘Not exactly, though it feels like it at times and during this crisis it has felt like these experts have all come out of their academic bunkers to give us advice and then they disappear unless they get a consulting contract. She knew what I knew that consultants are not the gamechangers of the next new normal in education.’ I also suggested to her there will be many new normals across all sectors of society, not simply one. The experts have gotten this wrong too!

    As I listened, I felt a little on the defensive and yet also sensed what she was really saying was the experts were out of touch with what this pandemic meant for the teachers sent into the trenches. Was sending these teachers, university and K-12, into the trenches to teach online with little training, experience, support and virtually no leadership the equivalent of sending soldiers on to the Normandie beaches on 6 June 1944, D-Day, without any weapons? Yes, this was exactly what was done. C’est la vie.

    And, we resurrected the demeaning, insulting term ‘remote learning’ or ‘remote teaching’ which we buried thirty years ago because of its negative labelling implications. These are demeaning terms. Now we were bringing them back to assign blame to our pandemic teachers to showcase this was not really high-quality online teaching and learning. We should be ashamed that the only response to the pandemic was online and then the same leaders who failed to have their institutions prepared and ready to respond sacrificed the people we asked to do this job. A best practice in throwing one’s colleagues under the bus.

    Back to my former student. Indeed, after nearly four decades of living and working (inside and outside the trenches), I’m not usually at a loss for words. I tried to convey the politically correct spins on her views, but she was having none of it. I could sense she didn’t think I was very convincing nor genuine. I don’t think I even convinced myself.

    I suggested to her that you will always have some professionals who will over-emphasise their own importance and expertise. We must try to ensure our vetting processes of those we hire for their expertise and experience are valid and legitimate. We must always consider fit – expertise is important but just like hiring key employees, fit becomes even more important for the overall organisation and its success, even in consultancies.

    In retrospect, I wondered if the Covid-19 pandemic had precipitated more of these types of experts invading educational institutions? I honestly don’t know. The answer is probably yes and they are probably lining up for a repeat encore invasion as this is being written in 2022. What I do know is the so-called experts threw so much so fast in so many forms at K-12 and university teachers (worldwide) who tried to convert their teaching, these teachers were just overwhelmed and exhausted. Leadership did not raise its game in this crisis in many quarters despite some examples of extraordinary leadership in universities and government. And, it should be noted many of these transformational leaders were women. Who would have known gentlemen!

    Indeed, I concur with my colleagues across our field that quality is vital in online teaching and learning. At the same time, displaying a little empathy for those we asked to take on an impossible task under impossible circumstances (no time for training, no time to practice, just go do it with the only option available) was the compassionate and right thing to do. There’s a time to critique quality and there is a time to be fair . . . this was a time to be fair, nurturing, compassionate, and empathetic. The blame game for the response was simply bad manners. And yes, I concede I have been a consultant at times and these experts do bring immense value in many instances for institutions. The pandemi is just not one of those times.
    If schools had completely closed for the rest of the first year, the same critics would have been criticising schools for doing nothing. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other colleagues in the trenches were simply exasperated by the ‘Mission Impossible’ demands that were made on them during this crisis?

    The experts and consultants were celebrating success and victory. Leadership had failed miserably on many fronts (not all) but that lesson seemed to have been lost in the celebrations. And, the celebrations have not subsided. There is a flurry of new experts with their blogs, weekly online quick fix commentaries, more empty academic bunkers than at any time in history all with the answers despite not knowing most of the questions. There may be a new normal on the way but on-one has defined it clearly yet because as noted above, there will be many new normals. We should start using the plural of this reality.

    The reality, however, is the real work has only just begun on the leadership front and transformations that last are going to take time, probably years not months. What was readily apparent was quality matters; leadership matters; and paradoxically we learned the digital divide is actually greater than any of us thought and it exists in developed countries not just developing nations (Buzkurt et al., 2020).

    Interestingly, for the rest of the day I kept coming back to this issue in my mind. It’s hard to look in the mirror sometimes because we may not like the reflection looking back at us. If I’m perfectly honest, many of us do drift away from our previous roles in the trenches with our fellow faculty members, students, parents, and the assimilation of new digital toys. This is often a natural function of one’s career trajectory. At least that is what many will try to convince themselves when they draft another keynote, send in another manuscript, or accept another consultancy from their academic bunkers – and yes, even on topics which they know little about.

    I did note that for a profession that has quite a predilection for terminology, the term ‘academic bunker’ from my former student was an innovative new term. 😊 Is Don here today? No, he’s working remotely from his academic bunker! But he is here in spirit!

    All the same time, however, it was a good reminder for all of us to keep our virtual feet in the online classroom, talk with ODL leaders and hear first hand what their days are really like in the trenches. Moreover, sitting down with students and asking about their online experiences is very revealing as well.

    When we do, all that dormant knowledge with echoes of interaction, transactional distance, community of inquiry theory, and student empathy start weaving their way back in to our memory banks. Holy pedagogy Batman, do you mean if we are engaged our students are more likely to be engaged and stay the course? That’s the idea Robin.’

    Indeed, there is good news for all of us – on the field and in the bunker. If you have been out of the asylum for awhile chasing other pursuits, you can re-join the living and teach an online course, design an OER; give a free f2f lecture to aspiring high school online teachers, and/or take some PD courses online and talk to leaders in the trenches. Indeed, you may just put some fun and new talking points back in your game plan. So dust off your playbook, and no don’t’ pivot – walk out your bunker door and engage.

    In the final analysis, regardless of the charging quality pundits, the fact that online instruction was not good in many venues was no revelation. There was only one option – try to respond online or close down institutions which perhaps should have actually been given more consideration. The real lasting revelation is online learning advocates declared victory too early, started their celebration that online learning will be for all eternity. A brave new world had finally arrived.

    Today is 7 February 2022, and the backlash that we thought would never emerge is front and centre – across the world educators, parents, and students are rebelling against online learning and angry about educators putting people in front of computer screens 6-8 hours per day. In fact, some are charging the educational mainstream with a complete disregard for children’s mental health and welfare. Another leadership lesson that real change has to truly be managed not just hope a pandemid or related story will do your work for you. The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for; refrain from holding victory celebrations until real systemic change has been embedded in the institutional and professional culture; and once again in a profession that thrives on new buzz words and acronyms, pay attention to language, context and culture. We can argue whether online learning lost ground during the pandemic but I am actually more dismayed that we lost ground supporting our fellow colleagues in the trenchs and when move came to shove, the blame was laid at their doorstep. Indeed, not this profession’s finest hour.

    Now, will someone please tell me who really works here! 😊

  3. An interesting provocation, Tony. Binary questions usually divide opinion but can also be useful for delving deeper. The link to Diana Laurillard’s comment really had me thinking too — gee, if Diana is saying such a thing then there’s probably something in it! But on reflection I find myself pushing back … I get what is being said, but Som Naidu provides a great analogy in characterising what’s just happened. In my experience as a student & a teacher I’ve witnessed quality teaching both on & offline for decades. The idea that there is one kind of ‘online learning’ or one experience of it does not align with the real world. And in the wonderful world of ‘blended learning’ there exists a lot of diversity that includes creative & stupid practices.

    The lecture model? It has it’s place, even online. But replicating what is done in large lecture theatres online is not smart or fit for purpose. But neither is the relentless talking head.

    I recall Professor Alan Gilbert — 25 years ago as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne at the time — advocating for ‘mainstreaming the digital revolution’ in education because universal virtual education was imminent. In a way, the pandemic has been a catalyst for this to happen. Who knows, we still might stall. The result may not be what the experts argue is possible but the hands-on at least is a signal that we need to engage in conversation & share resources — just like you do, Tony!

  4. Years of work by experts in educational technology led to one question by many teachers — does it work? Or how effective is online learning? Majority of teachers never bothered to adopt ICTs or consider online/blended learning. Those who used new technologies did it because of their personal interest and convictions. They are the ones who experimented and innovated new techniques. The pandemic forced most teachers to have a taste of online learning irrespective of whether they liked it or not. So, video conference came as the immediate response or close to the classroom instruction aligning with what the teachers normally do. The problem came when the assessment was to be done. Here again many new innovations happened. Overall,  the pandemic provided bad examples of online learning, but there were also pockets of innovations. The sliver lining is that most teachers have had some new experience. My personal assessment is that once the situation becomes normal, some people will go back to business as usual. But there will be another group, who would rethink their emergency teaching practice, learn from and improvise their designs to teach. Bigger question is when the situation will become normal?

  5. A fascinating exchange where there is much to agree and disagree with but I would like to note that Tony erred in his opening remarks. The conversation with Diana was recorded in April 2019, thus before the pandemic. Diana does comment about online learning ‘almost’ going backwards which she relates to the educational profession, educational research and educational policy not fully embracing what digital technologies can do for education. She then goes on to explain , in effect, that experience and practice by teachers is critical. It is almost certain that the pandemic has changed how digital technologies are being embraced but that that embrace is variable and varied. But to be fair to Diana I believe she would agree to much of what has been said here given what she said back then.

  6. Online education is in regression, primarily because of the hegemony of the ‘AMGAF’ “big tech” monopolists and questionable management. As society, education is rampant with various discriminatory practices. Attempts to apply the SAMR model were dismissed in spite of the opportunities that arose.

  7. Tony, thanks for the podcast endorsement and for the insightful comments. Diana is not the first or only interviewee to hint that ERT, though admirable, is hardly representative of ‘online’. I think that distinguishing synchronous and asynchronous as you have done explains exactly why.
    ‘Online’ is for education what ‘vehicle’ is for transport. The latter includes all forms of car, truck, helicopter, plane, cycle, bulldozer and train (at least my Google Images search did!) To say that my bulldozer is not fun to drive doesn’t make a representative comment across all vehicles.
    I don’t want to drive the metaphor too far, but my point is that ‘online’ is a terrible descriptor for a form of education. Putting ‘quality’ in front of it might just mean that the bulldozer must be clean; it does nothing to add to the meaningfulness of the term. And, yes, I say that as the host of a podcast “Leaders and Legends of Online Learning”!
    Asynchronous and synchronous is a very helpful means of adding a helpful dimension to ‘online’ precisely as you’ve suggested. Whether “online learning is advancing or going backwards due to the pandemic”, I suspect it is merely highlighting the variability of what lies beneath the term ‘online learning’.

  8. Limitations in online learning are there, insofar as asynchronous learning models do remove the conversational aspect of learning where reiteration among classmates and the ability to ask questions about the content in the moment exist. However, I would never throw that baby out with the bathwater. I have recently achieved straight A grades in my continuing work on my bachelor’s degree, my recent BIDA certificate, and the completion of my Diploma in Arts and Science. I would never have been able to do any of this (except the certificate) were it not for asynchronous online learning. What makes for exceptional learning under these situations is:

    – Reading and familiarizing yourself with the materials prior to watching/listening to your lecture. Basically, don’t expect to fully comprehend everything from the lecture alone and be sure to watch/listen to the lecture by taking responsibility for your preparation beforehand so that you can ask good questions in the moment.
    – Slides with separate audio which one prof did was great as you could listen to the audio in the car while driving. The opportunity to “transcribe” the content was an advantage to attending an in-person lecture as writing things out is associated with more robust brain activation in multiple areas, enhancing better memory recall. There are at least five different areas in the brain associated with memory and the physical act of writing engages some of those subcortical areas. To have the ability to pause what you’re hearing and write it down accurately far surpassed the old lecture style of scribbling notes like crazy.
    – Professors who are able to tell stories which are engaging and which highlight the material being learned, using emotional intelligence and again, accessing more than one brain region engaged in memory. This is a key component that when used, makes learning easier to remember by utilizing emotional memory in the telling of an engaging and relatable story demonstrating the concept being learned.
    – Some profs are better at the creation of online material than others. Most of them will create slides from the textbook; some will record synchronous lectures they’ve given previously. Of course, it is much easier to be engaged in a synchronous online learning environment as long as profs keep the aspect of “raise hand” or using the chat for questions and be mindful of allowing time for discussion such as that. In other words, being familiar as a prof with the capabilities of tools such as Zoom is beneficial in synchronized online learning.

    Learning online has great benefit for a working person. If synchronous, you are able to book vacation time to attend an hour and a half lecture offered online rather than requiring more time from vacation to cover transportation to and from the site of learning. Many learners are wanting to better their work opportunities without being able to take time off and remove themselves from a steady paycheque.

    When taking synchronous learning in R programming, one of the most essential things the instructor did for us was to have weekly after work hours tutorials that students were able to attend. This was an exceptional thing to offer for those of us who work full-time while taking studies. One of my current profs offers tutorials during the hours of noon to 1PM which is also very helpful and accommodating to those who are working.

    I don’t disagree that there definitely are some learning experiences where teaching style has relied on “backwards” styles of stagnant lectures with less than optimal ability to interact in a manner which enhances learning. In my experience I have found some really good profs and instructors who are able to navigate the potential difficulties of online learning. They do so by being accessible, by using storytelling to highlight content, using audio to the benefit of the student, and being knowledgeable in the medium in which they are producing their lectures. If a person can go a step further and make the learning online interactive, even better.

    I would like to add… breakout rooms are not useful. In order for them to work, the instructor pretty much needs to be there with the group otherwise there is a lot of “did anyone write down what we’re supposed to do?”, “does anyone understand this?” and they generally fail to provide what the learner needs, which is the focus or attention of the instructor. It is much better to have Q&A style discussion.

    I would have to disagree that critical thinking, independent learning, knowledge management, and problem-solving are not taught well online. In fact, one often needs to become even more adept at independent learning and knowledge management when learning online and many profs and instructors put more effort into developing these skills as they recognize online learning may have some disadvantages in aspects of communication. Critical thinking and problem solving are areas of education which universities desire to develop and whether online or not, these are very well covered with instructors often referring students to websites, videos and other resource materials. As with all learning situations there are gifted educators who have adapted very well to online teaching. We are taught within our online learning framework how to evaluate good content and sources from bad content and sources, and to use it in our assignments with forethought, achieving higher grades for indications of critical thinking demonstrated.

    I agree that there is risk of falling back into traditional lecture styles with online learning, however, this is due to the individual style of the professor and does not appear to change from in-person to online. I would hire a person who has done well online over another as the online learner will have managed to come up with solutions to obstacles on their own merit rather than having someone guide them from A through B to C, etc. They will know how to apply critical thinking, demonstrate independent learning, manage their knowledge especially with adherence to time management skills, and will have solved many problems either on their own or by organizing class groups through Discord or other mediums and by utilizing instructor access effectively. These are highly transferable skills needed in the workforce.

    • Many thanks, Micha, for a very thoughtful comment. It is valuable to have your reflections on what worked and what didn’t as you and your instructors worked through the pandemic.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here