Backwards and in High Heels: Teaching (Well) Online

Online teaching is an important tool for teachers and students, but in order for it to be used correctly, teachers must go through rigorous training.

December 18, 2013 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
12 minutes read
Figure 1: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Swing Time (1936) (1)

Why online teaching requires rigorous training

I am presently working in South America—a continent of gente amable, stunning vistas, and an exploding online learning environment.  In my work with the Government of Ecuador’s National Education University (helping to conceptualize and design its online and blended programs), I have had numerous conversations with various representatives from universities, governments, and online learning programs—in Europe and North and South America—about online learning.

One impression continues to nag at me from these conversations — there seems to be a lack of concern for preparing instructors to teach online.  We know that good teaching matters in the classroom.

But if a great teacher is to the classroom what Fred Astaire was to dancing, then an online teacher must be even better because teaching online is far more challenging than teaching face-to-face.

Like Ginger Rogers, the online teacher has to do everything Astaire does—but backwards and in high heels (By the way, if you are not up on Fred and Ginger, click here).

Online learning goes global

This is no longer just a wealthy or middle-income country concern. Online learning is advancing everywhere—in so-called fragile contexts, such as refugee camps in Kenya, and in geographically remote areas of Pakistan. Online learning for adults is expanding in every emerging region on the globe—particularly in Asia and Latin America—but also in Sub-Saharan Africa. Four current trends portend continued growth in online learning in developing regions: the proliferation of mobile technologies; the desire of donors and governments to create lower-cost delivery models for tertiary and teacher education; increasing government investment in broadband; and the popularity of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) (2).

Good Teachers Matter

The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher. This is true in wealthy countries—and it is especially true in low-income countries (3). It is true whether the student is 8 or 18 or 28. And it is true whether the teacher is teaching face-to-face or online.

Good teachers demonstrate mastery in their content area. They know how to use content-specific pedagogical practices; they use multiple forms of assessment and offer useful feedback for student learning. They tailor types of instruction and the pace and levels of difficulty to individual learner needs. They are effective and clear communicators. They set clear learning goals and expectations, establish a positive classroom climate, possess high degrees of efficacy, and involve all students in sharing ideas and in the learning process (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Burns & Strategic Planning Development Team, 2012).

As anyone who has been a teacher knows, teaching well in a face-to-face environment is hard, but I would argue that teaching well online is even harder. A good online teacher must enact all of the above skills—but she must do it through technology—and she faces challenges that elude face-to-face teachers because everything is different online. Communication is different, instruction is different, assessment is different, the social dynamic is different, and learning is different.

Backwards and in High Heels

Two areas are particularly challenging for the online teacher. One is establishing a sense of emotional, cognitive, and instructional “presence.” Face-to-face teachers can do this because they are physically present with their students. Online teachers are separated from their students in space and time and must rely on technology for all interaction and communication.  Research (Akyol & Garrison, 2008) confirms that “presence”— strong and skilled facilitation of knowledge, of the learning process, and of learners, and helping learners become socially and academically integrated in the course—is one of the most important factors in the online learner’s success. Learner attrition from an online program—arguably the Achilles Heel of online learning—is often driven by learners’ negative perceptions of the instructor’s responsiveness; incomplete, unclear or ineffective instructor communication; or the lack of, or late, instructor communication with and feedback to learners (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).  My own research (Burns, 2013) on online learning in Indonesia suggests that, as in a face-to-face classroom, the presence of a caring and knowledgeable online instructor is a major retention factor for teachers taking an online course.

A second challenge the online instructor faces is blending pedagogy, technology and content.

It is far easier to lecture online; it is much harder to explicitly use cognitive teaching and learning and collaborative pedagogies online.

This is why we tend to see, especially in MOOCs, almost uniformly traditional lecture-based, direct instruction—a pedagogical model that ill-serves learning and a pedagogical model from which almost every educational system in the world is trying to move its teachers away.

Technology is not magic

So, why don’t we better prepare online instructors to teach online (4)? I might suggest two reasons. First, despite protests to the contrary, we often seem to unwittingly behave as if technology is indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, “indistinguishable from magic.” And if technology is indeed magical, we certainly needn’t concern ourselves with something as mundane as teaching human beings to teach well online because the mystery of technology alone will transform teaching and learning. We already hear such incantations vis-à vis MOOCs from many technology high priests—the “new pedagogical models” and the “innovativeness” of MOOCs. I love MOOCs, but lecturing into a camera is not a new pedagogical model. It is not innovative. And it is not magical. It is old wine in new bottles.

Second, it appears that when we talk about “teaching online,” we suddenly forget about “teaching” and focus only on the “online” part—overlooking the complexity and challenging of teaching well via technology (5).   Every mode of distance education presents its own unique set of instructional challenges. The challenge in online learning is developing a paradigm of teaching and learning that moves away from passive content delivery (like so many MOOCs) to a collaborative model in which instructors and learners interact with a set of experiences and materials. In such a model online instructors encourage and facilitate active learning and inquiry and skillfully manage, support, and model effective instruction for their online learners (Burns, 2011). Doing this via technology means that online instructors will need intensive ongoing professional development and support—as much—certainly not less, than their face-to-face counterparts.


(1)  This image was obtained under Advanced Search Google Licensing agreement (Share and modify) and can also be found in Bing’s Public Domain images search. It originally appears on this web site:

(2)  Witness the US State Department’s MOOC Camp Initiative in which it has partnered with EdX, Coursera and Open Yale to offer free MOOCs throughout the globe.

(3)  See, for example the chart on page 130 of Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods, where I encapsulate some of the data outlining differences on the impact of a good teacher in wealthy and poor countries.

(4)  EdTech Leaders Online developed by EDC was one of the earliest programs that prepared instructors in the online medium in which the instructor is supposed to teach. It is still one of the most successful online instructor programs around.

(5)  For more information on competencies and skills needed by online instructors, go to Chapter 14: Preparing Distance Instructors (p. 176) of this guide.


Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D.R. (2011, March). Understanding cognitive presence in an online and blended community of inquiry: Assessing outcomes and processes for deep approaches to learning. In The British Journal of Educational Technology, 42 (2): 233–250.

Aragon, S. R. & Johnson, E. S. (2008). Factors influencing completion and non-completion of community college online courses. The American Journal of Distance Education, 22 (3):146-158.

Burns, M. (2013, December). Staying or leaving? Designing for persistence in an online educator training program in Indonesia. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 28, (2). DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2013.851023

Burns, M. & Strategic Planning Development Team: Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (2012). Teaching and learning in the Digital Age: Lebanon’s national educational technology strategic plan. Retrieved from

Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Retrieved from

Clarke, A.C. (1964). Profiles of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

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