Benefits of Teaching Online

Teaching online can be reinvigorating for faculty members and their careers, writes Audrey Heinesen, who encourages more professors to take the leap.

September 20, 2013

The confluence of technology and education is undoubtedly significant. As we navigate through intense change in education delivery and access, the road ahead can seem uncertain.

In my role at Udemy, an online platform for teaching and learning, I work every day with a diverse group of individuals creating online courses. Our instructors come from universities, companies and organizations, and arrive at online education for myriad reasons: a new challenge, new students, new opportunities, new income; and, sometimes, out of fear of staying current.

Online Learning Needs More Educators

Whatever the reason, online education has reached a broader population, and I see many businesses and entrepreneurs taking advantage of online teaching for greater reach and additional revenue. While it’s exciting to see such varied audiences creating online courses, the truth is that we acutely need more individual educators to help shape online teaching.

Make no mistake, teaching online demands a willingness to try new things. You’ll test new tools, topics, and ways to communicate. For subject matter experts, it’s sometimes off-putting to fumble through cords and cables on your way to your first online lesson. Yet, I’ve seen time and again a profound sense of freedom and accomplishment wash over instructors when courses hit the Web. I’ve also witnessed online teaching reinvigorate a joy and passion for teaching.

Margaret Soltan, associate professor of English at George Washington University, teaches a MOOC on Udemy that extends her reach to thousands of students from around the world. Her video lectures have ignited a global community connected by a passion for poetry. Joseph Caserto, adjunct assistant professor at New York University, offers several free and for-fee courses on Udemy that balances with his offline teaching. Using video, he lets students see from his eyes how to navigate design tools. Chris Impey, professor at the University of Arizona, uses his MOOC to share up-to-date astronomy news and discoveries. Next year, he plans to offer it as part of a flipped classroom experiment that will allow for more in-class lab time. These are the higher-ed pioneers of popular online education, but imagine if there were more of us.

A Newfound Freedom

Online instructors can revel in a newfound ability to defy some of the most fundamental aspects of a typical classroom. The whiteboard is no longer erased at the end of the day. Your best moments reach beyond students in your physical presence. Your teaching can be set free in your online classroom.

You’re free to structure content in new ways to reach your students. Try different types of content and multimodal teaching strategies that might not work in a traditional setting. Experiment with new course ideas that are harder to champion in more structured environments. Backward design, flipped classroom, video-based instruction? Instructors can return to a creative place by developing new ideas around curriculum and teaching.

Online teaching is particularly ripe for those outside the tenured world, like adjunct faculty and doctoral students. Adjuncts can enjoy the freedom of another medium, a new way to show their skills and gain a potential income stream. Doctoral students immersed in the latest thinking and research can share their expertise with those of us now outside the walls of academia.

Visible and Accessible Expertise

With online teaching, you, your ideas and your courses are instantly visible and accessible. You now have a three-dimensional way to introduce yourself and demonstrate knowledge to students, peers and other outside audiences. Showcase what you know and credibly claim yourself as an expert in a particular area. Refresh your course with new discoveries in your field. Beef up your C.V. with online teaching skills -- you’ll have a great answer when you’re asked about online teaching experience and familiarity with online teaching platforms.

Impact Learning Outcomes

For some topics, online teaching can have advantages over in-person teaching due to the unique nature of online courses and content consumption. Learning in topics as diverse as music, psychology and science may flourish with the aid of different camera angles and the ability to reach people in their comfort zone and on their terms.

Online learning can deliver on the promise of differentiated instruction. You can talk with students while sharing visual materials and auditory cues more seamlessly than in the classroom. For students you are already reaching in the classroom setting, you can experiment with a flipped classroom model where you share content in online lectures and reserve class time for individualized attention. See if these approaches lead to richer class discussion and increased learning outcomes.

Realistic Time and Resource Commitment

While the concept of online learning has been discussed for years, technology is now available to make teaching online realistic for those of us with limited time and technical skills.

With the help of some equipment you may already own (like your smartphone), you can create an online course and get your voice out into the world in an afternoon. I’ve seen online teaching move beyond instructors with technical expertise to subject-matter experts with only a willingness to spend some initial time getting up to speed with technology.

Shape the Conversation

I love classroom teaching and believe the reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. There will always be a place for learning and exchanging ideas in person, and online teaching can inform and strengthen these exchanges. My hope is that more educators with hands-on teaching experience will join the online education revolution to mold its future. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what is possible for online learning, and we need experienced educators to jump in and propel us forward.


Audrey Heinesen is director for teaching and learning at Udemy, an online platform. She was previously senior manager of the education division at The New York Times. Her Twitter handle is @audreyheinesen.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top