My Reservations about Teaching Online Courses (Asynchronous)

There has been a growing demand for online and other nonlocal platforms for higher education. Increasing online course availability and degrees offered is an expressed mission statement at many universities, including my own.


I am divided about this development. I am of course grateful that college is now an option for those prospective students whose parenting and work responsibilities, or whose geographic location would have otherwise kept them from attending. But I also worry that the online environment is not very well suited to the significant learning or growing that I am most interested in. This means that the kind of college that we offer these now fortunate students is a poor replacement to the in-person version. It is my opinion that online courses capture much of the downside and little of the upside of higher education. I do think, however, that it is possible to facilitate significant learning online. But there are at least three hurdles for doing so.

Below I describe my reservations concerning asynchronous online courses. Asynchronous online courses are courses where students and instructor never meet in real time. Students and instructor can arrange to meet, of course, but meeting is not a necessary part of asynchronous courses. Throughout what follows, I will simply refer to asynchronous online courses as online courses. Such online courses operate like internet forums, where resources and course expectations are provided by the instructor, and students complete the work they are asked to do.

As the reader will see, an online course is an excellent candidate for an organized program of learning. Organized programs of learning are tested methods for bringing about certain and predetermined learning objectives. If a behavior or skill can be operationalized—that is, if it can be reliably reduced to a series of carefully described steps and procedures—then a learning program can be designed to produce those behaviors or skills. For example, I could design a learning program for performing an oil change on an American automobile or conducting an adult-onset ADHD assessment. To this end, online courses are ideal for faculty and administration who view college education as a collection of predetermined skills, behaviors, and competencies.

But I do not think learning programs facilitate significant learning. In particular, this is because the objectives of such learning programs are determined without student input. Doing so requires predicting what students might be interested in, or what an instructor or department feels that students ought to know. And so on. This would be sort of like choosing to build one style of house for 35 different families. This practice occurs to some extent with giant neighborhoods that have only two to three styles of home. But buyers still choose which neighborhood to live in based on their needs and interests. In order for significant learning to occur, I think students must have input on what their learning objectives will be. This method is introduced here and here.

Learning programs are great provided students have decided on their own that the target learning objective is important to them. In my experience, however, few students are prepared to identify personal goals for learning. I suspect this is because, throughout their life, learning has been something that is decided for students in advance.

In the online courses I teach, I use lots of abbreviated learning programs. These serve as samples of what students might be interested in. Each provides an opportunity to go deeper with instructions for how to do so, but nothing is compulsory. The courses would be much easier to develop were I to choose two or three programs that all students were required to do. But easier for me does not mean more beneficial for students.

A second downside of online learning is the kind of motivation it elicits from students. Research shows that students choose face-to-face courses because students feel these courses will best support their learning styles (Harris & Martin, 2012; Clayton, Blumberg, & Auld, 2010; Roblyer 1999). That is to say, in-person courses are chosen with personal styles of learning in mind. Few students choose face-to-face courses because they are convenient. This tells us that students are willing to sacrifice convenience for learning.

The opposite is true for online courses. The same studies show that students choose online courses out of scheduling convenience, and few report doing so because they feel it is best for their learning style. This comparison between classroom formats is provided in the table below.


Student Motivation Style by Course Delivery Format


It is difficult to blame students for choosing online courses due to the flexibility and convenience such courses allow. This is particularly true when the option is between convenience and nothing. But it is enough to make me think twice about what online students are missing out on.

My biggest concern about online courses, however, is that they make interaction with students much more difficult. Online courses provide a small fraction of the total number of human-human encounters that I typically find in my face-to-face courses. This is a problem because it is only through these interactions that a I can communicate congruence, trust, and empathy, and thereby create a learning facilitative environment. 

I can find three main reasons that may be helpful for understanding why online courses provide far fewer opportunities for instructor – student interaction. They are as follows:

1.     Sharing time and space increases the likelihood for interaction.

2.     Students will observe others interact and participate vicariously.

3.     Sharing time and space allows for nonverbal interaction.

Imagine that a student has read my brief summary of what the course topic is all about. We’ll say it is my description of what health psychology means, how it is used, and how it might be of interest to students. Our imaginary student reads this and it makes them think about their dad’s Type-II diabetes. But the student feels that their thought is unrelated, and they keep it to themselves. In an online course, this bit of student interest stops right there.

In a face-to-face course, however, and especially in one that is facilitated using the attitudes I have advocated, students are confronted with a period of silence after reading a course description. They don’t know this, but this silence is an opportunity for them to share whatever comes to mind—however tangential it might seem. The awkward and uncomfortable silence is eventually broken by a student, and then more students chime in. They interact first with their instructor, because that is how they are used to participating. But eventually they begin responding to one another. Maybe the imaginary student will keep the bit about diabetes to themselves, but they will observe how others shared their own tangential comments and how they were not criticized or embarrassed for doing so.

That last part—the part where a student learns about the climate of the classroom by watching how others interact—is an example of vicarious learning. This is learning that occurs by observing the behavior of another person along with the consequences of that behavior. Vicarious learning is always occurring when people are together, and this occurs online, too, although there aren’t as many opportunities for it because there aren’t as many public interactions. 

Imagine now that a student sighs at the beginning of class. Everybody in the class, including the instructor, hears this student’s proclamation of disinterest or boredom. The instructor’s response, even the act of noticing it and ignoring it, will also be noticed by everybody in the class. The student who sighed will experience first-hand that it is okay to be bored or indifferent—to be who they are on this particular day. But the other students will experience it too, albeit secondhand. This sort of nonverbal and vicarious interaction might occur 100 times in an hour-long class period. None of it would be experienced online. 

When a student sighs, they are expressing some of themselves, but they are doing so in an incongruent way. A more congruent version would be to announce, “I am bored with this class.” Such an announcement would take great courage. But were this courageous act to occur online, such as in an e-mail to the instructor, nobody else would be able to participate vicariously in the interaction. Furthermore, the sighing incident probably wouldn’t occur at all in an online course, unless the instructor has provided regular opportunities for students to share their displeasure. E-mails, discussion posts, chats, and uploaded essays provide opportunities for students to communicate their feelings between the lines. We all know how easy it is to craft a snarky or passive-aggressive e-mail without saying anything that is explicitly snarky or aggressive. Students will do so provided there are opportunities for them to interact with their instructors. But, at least in my experiences, it is far more difficult to interpret student feeling and so on through a semantic analysis of text than it is to feel all of this in a human-human interaction.

Taken together, these reasons make it far more difficult to build meaningful relationships with my students. Indeed, this is not generally what students are expecting or even looking for in their online courses. They come prepared to work on their own and without the support of a facilitator. They are often surprised to find that the person on the other side of the computer is interested in more than compliance and rule-following. 

That brings the upside. Because students are not expecting a human interaction when they take an online course, they are gobsmacked when human interaction is what they find. Therefore it is essential to communicate congruence, trust, and empathy in each of the opportunities you have to interact with students--during your weekly course updates, feedback of student work, discussion post moderation, and so on. It is particularly important in the typically formal and impersonal e-mail correspondence.

I will describe what this might look like in a later post.