Calling it what it is: Remote vs. online learning in the time of Coronavirus

Kallie Hagel / CC BY-SA (

On March 10, Jonathan Zimmerman, an education and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in the Chronicle Review that the coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to generate evidence about the efficacy of online instruction.  Dr. Zimmerman asserts that we owe it to our students to find out whether online truly provides a viable educational environment–and this is true. However, we should not treat this crisis as an opportunity to evaluate online education because we are not turning the face-to-face courses offered across the country into true online courses–we are doing something very different.  Indeed, we should be hesitant to embrace any argument that suggests a traditional course that has been shoehorned into remote delivery within a matter of weeks (even days) is equivalent to an online course that has been carefully and intentionally designed to take advantage of the technology and unique opportunities for student engagement and collaboration that online learning systems provide.

 Broadly speaking, the term online course is generally used to describe any course that is delivered through the internet. Functionally, the delivery can take on many forms and engage students in a wide variety of ways. However, as online education has grown and evolved over the last decade, the pedagogical and technological practices that go into online courses have developed into something more than just internet-based distance education.   Seasoned online instructors have long known that creating an online course entails more than just putting a few PowerPoint slides, readings, or videos into a learning management system such as Canvas or Blackboard. A decade ago in the Handbook of Online Learning, Rudestam and Schoenholtz-Read (2010) pointed out that “although the transfer of classroom-based learning into cyberspace at first appeared to be deceptively simple, we have discovered that doing so without an appreciation for the nuances and implications of learning online ignores not only its potential but also the inevitable realities of entering it.”  Research and conventional wisdom developed over years of online teaching and learning tells us a lot about these nuances and how they can contribute – and detract from – the learning environment of a good online course.  A good online course uses the communication and collaboration tools made possible through technology to approach learning in a specific, intentional way.  Content is organized, interactive, and engaging and student mastery is appropriately and effectively assessed. Equitable design is essential in a good online course, ensuring that students of all learning abilities, including those with disabilities or those using assistive technologies, can access and engage with course content.  A good online course builds a learning community through carefully selected content, a carefully maintained social climate, and supportive discourse that empowers learners.  

This is a high bar that we simply cannot expect all faculty to reach when responding to an urgent, crisis-driven need to find a rapid alternative to on-campus classes.  Online courses are intentionally planned for online delivery and are designed with the nuances and realities of that delivery method firmly in mind. Universities and colleges across the country are asking faculty to do something extraordinary, but different.  Faculty are being asked to find a way to teach remotely that works for them, in their specific situation, and with little time to prepare. Likely this will result in courses that replace in-person lectures and discussions with remote alternatives like video conferencing without changing other aspects of the course like activities and assessments–and that is a practical approach.  These courses will be remote versions of face-to-face courses rather than courses that are designed intentionally for online with all that entails. As a temporary solution to an immediate crisis, that should be fine. The conversation would be different if the concern is that we will never be returning to our classrooms.

 Internally, some institutions have been careful about throwing the term online around indiscriminately and instead are opting for more descriptive terms like remote delivery or distance education to distinguish intentionally designed online classes from those forced into remote delivery by the coronavirus crisis.  DePaul University’s curated list of resources for Universities is careful to use the term Remote Teaching–as are quite a few of the universities on the list.  While online is still a term that many are more familiar with, and one that has long been popular with the media,  the educational community needs to be more careful in our communication. Let’s make sure faculty know what is expected and students know what to expect, but let’s not give the false impression we are giving students purposefully designed online courses when we are not. 

Those faculty who, like me, teach a large portion of our classes online, are well positioned to make the most of the online tools and instructional approaches that can support remote learning until we return to our physical classrooms.  Many of us already teach our on-campus classes with high reliance on Canvas, Blackboard, or some other learning system for student engagement and course organization, but that reflects our vision of education.  For those faculty colleagues who are anxious to return to lectures and discussions and the type of in-person interactions that take place there, the temporary shift to remote delivery must be a reflection of their pedagogical approach and their vision of education.  We should not be asking a faculty member who is not comfortable with asynchronous discussions to try to incorporate one–we should be making use of the technology resources that we have to more closely mimic the type pedagogy they are comfortable with.  Current conferencing platforms are perfectly capable of delivering a 200-person lecture, just as they are of creating small group discussions. True, this doesn’t match an in-person environment exactly, but it gets close. We should be helping faculty see this as an extension of their current approach to teaching, not as a forced march to online.  

We should be careful to recognize the response to the coronavirus crisis for what it is–an attempt to maintain instructional continuity.  Remote instruction may not be the right strategy for many instructors in the long term, but it will help get the immediate job done. Right now that’s all we can ask.   This widespread cancellation of on-campus classes and subsequent shift to remote instruction does create the type of natural experiment that Prof. Zimmerman describes, but it is a bad natural experiment at best.  A good natural experiment imposes a standard treatment that allows a researcher to evaluate the impact of that treatment before and after a specific cutpoint. The instructional changes resulting from this crisis will be inconsistent at best, with no standard online learning treatment. So, let’s not assume the crisis response represents the best of what online education has to offer, or even typical online education, just because we have an unprecedented natural experiment for rigorous evaluation–we may not be measuring what we think we are.  With that said, there are numerous qualitative and phenomenological approaches that can provide us with rich insight into how students engage and learn in a variety of unique settings that don’t need an experimental or quasi-experimental design. We will learn a lot over the coming months–but we will not definitively answer the efficacy question.

March 13, 2020

One response to “Calling it what it is: Remote vs. online learning in the time of Coronavirus”

  1. […] As long as physical distancing lasts, schools should arrange for all lectures to be video-recorded and (along with lecture notes) uploaded, so that students can access them asynchronously rather than having everyone pile in to a Zoom session. This should be done at least semi-professionally, with good audio, lighting and framing. Each lecture should be 20-30 minutes maximum. The designated course professor need not deliver them all. We need to shift away from “remote teaching” to online learning. […]

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