I have been a teacher, or watched teachers work, for nearly 35 years. I can tell you for certain that when done well, teaching online is harder than teaching face-to-face.
Online schools have gained some traction in recent years (even in the public sector) as some parents realize that in specific circumstances, it is the best choice for their children. Learning online, or “remote learning” as it is often called, does have some advantages. It can be asynchronous (done when the learner is ready), undertaken at the pace the learner prefers, and done without commuting, not to mention the safety factor currently at play during the pandemic.
I would argue that the benefits mostly end there. Learning is a social endeavor. It can be done in isolation, but it is usually less effective, less efficient, and less enjoyable. Apprenticeship was the way humans learned for centuries; that is, learning alongside an expert. After some months of remote learning, I think most can agree that we prefer face-to-face learning.
As famed educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people, and then, inside the child…All the higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.”
A second aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that the potential for cognitive development depends upon the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), a level of development attained when children engage in social behavior. Full development of the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. The range of skills that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.
Online instruction has advantages for teachers that are like those for students: namely, efficiency over effectiveness. But teaching remotely is also more time-intensive and fatiguing, at least at the PK-12 level. That is because the act of teaching, like acting, public speaking, and performing music, relies on audience feedback. Seeing the faces of the students, noting their body language, and picking up the nuances that indicate engagement are far more difficult online.
Teachers live off the energy students reflect to them. They also thrive on the collegial spirit of their peers and the socialization that schools bring to life. Important concepts such as “scaffolding,” “discovery,” and “inquiry learning,” as well as assessment, are more difficult and require more effort when done remotely.
Teachers are now teaching to a screen. To do that, significant preparation is required, perhaps even more than face-to-face teaching. Teachers often must adapt lessons first prepared for classroom learning to an online medium. Not everything is easily translated or has the same effect. Plus, it also means learning and utilizing new software and technology, some of which was invented just a few months ago. This means teachers, like students, must first learn online to prepare to teach online.
Lastly, teaching is also a learning endeavor, and just as it is better for students to learn face-to-face, the same goes for teachers. In our co-teacher model, often one teacher is observing the pedagogical techniques employed by another professional, then jumping in to help students requiring assistance or supplementing the lesson based on classroom observation. This is far more difficult to achieve outside of the classroom setting.
In short, I have no fear that online learning will replace brick and mortar classrooms. None of us really want it to because we recognize the social advantages of in-person schooling on learning and child development. At TASIS Portugal, our teachers cannot wait to get back into the school with their students because they have much yet to cover, and importantly because they miss them and enjoy being around them, sharing their knowledge face-to-face with our young people.