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9 Ways Online Teaching Should be Different from Face-to-Face


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Listen to my interview with Melanie Kitchen (transcript):

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It’s a pretty safe bet that most teachers will be doing some form of online teaching in the coming year. Maybe you’ll do it full-time, maybe it will be some kind of hybrid model, but one thing is for sure: This time around you won’t be dropped into it without warning.

So with this chance to take a breath and do more thoughtful, intentional planning, the next question is What do we do differently? What shifts do we need to make in our face-to-face teaching practices to make the most of online learning?

To find out, I sought the help of Melanie Kitchen, a Coordinator of Instructional Technology and Staff Development serving 19 school districts in Western New York state. Melanie has years of experience working with teachers on developing blended learning and has now shifted to helping teachers develop best practices for remote learning

Melanie Kitchen

I asked Melanie to share some ways online teaching should be different from face-to-face teaching. She came up with nine: three that are specific to community building and communication, and six that focus on instructional design. Along with these differences, she also shared a few things that should stay exactly the same.

Community Building & Communication

1. The first weeks of school should be devoted to community building and digital competency.

Resist the temptation to dive right into curriculum at the start of the school year. Things will go more smoothly if you devote the early weeks to building community so students feel connected. Social emotional skills can be woven in during this time. On top of that, students need practice with whatever digital tools you’ll be using. So focus your lessons on those things, intertwining the two when possible. 

“If you are explicitly teaching persistence,” Kitchen says, “maybe I’m going to give you a challenge that’s not content-related, but something that you might have to kind of grapple with. But when I assign that, if I’m using Google Classroom, then I’m going to assign that through Google Classroom and teach you how you’re going to open an assignment, how you’re going to submit it, how you’ll be receiving feedback. So you are teaching these skills all at once, and it’s not something separate or extra. It’s just all done together.” 

Other good resources that can guide and inform the conversations you have in these early weeks are:

2. Communication with parents needs to be more thorough, streamlined, and predictable.

Parents are also adjusting to this new way of doing school. Because they are sometimes expected to play an even more prominent role in supporting student learning, they need more support from you. “We really need parents to be our partners in this learning community,” Kitchen says. 

Here are some guidelines:

3. Community and connection need to be a priority for teachers, too. 

“Teachers need to connect with each other now more than ever,” Kitchen says. Your school leadership should be building in regular opportunities for you to stay connected to your colleagues during this time. If they are not, create those opportunities for yourself. 

Instructional Design

4. Teacher collaboration is even more important.

Meeting the challenges of online learning gets easier when we work together. “As we’re all trying to get to know these students better,” Kitchen says, “we need to be working together to do that.” That means working more closely with specialists to make sure our lessons and materials meet the needs of all students, partnering with others in our content area to plan instruction, working together on cross-curricular projects, and dividing up the things all students need (like technology instruction) among teachers on a team or grade level so students aren’t doing the same lessons over and over and our work isn’t duplicated.

Fortunately, collaborating online can be even easier than trying to do it when we all teach in the same physical building. “This virtual environment has provided us the opportunity to break down those walls, to break down those silos,” Kitchen says. “Our schedules and time constraints that we may have had before will come down. We may have more opportunity to partner with people that we didn’t have the time or the space to be able to do that before.”

5. “Face-to-face” time should be used for active learning.

Online instruction is made up largely of asynchronous instruction, which students can access at any time. This is ideal, because requiring attendance for synchronous instruction puts some students at an immediate disadvantage if they don’t have the same access to technology, reliable internet, or a flexible home schedule. 

But you’re likely to offer “face-to-face” or synchronous opportunities at some point, and one way to make them happen more easily is to have students meet in small groups. While it’s nearly impossible to arrange for 30 students to attend a meeting at once, assigning four students to meet is much more manageable. Kitchen likes “campfire groups,” which are permanent groups of about four that stay together for long periods of time. This arrangement allows students to get to know each other better and establish more trust. Students might be rearranged for other activities to provide some variety, but the campfire groups would provide a stable base throughout the school term.

So what kind of instructional activities should be used for these different formats? 

What works best, Kitchen says, is to keep direct instruction—things like brief video lectures and readings—in asynchronous form, using checks for understanding like embedded questions or exit slips. 

You can then use synchronous meetings for more interactive, engaging work. “If we want students showing up, if we want them to know that this is worth their time,” Kitchen explains, “it really needs to be something active and engaging for them. Any time they can work with the material, categorize it, organize it, share further thoughts on it, have a discussion, all of those are great things to do in small groups.” 

Small group strategies she strongly recommends:

6. Content needs to be simplified and slowed down.

Online instruction is not conducive to covering large amounts of content, so you have to choose wisely, teaching the most important things at a slower pace. To make those choices, Kitchen recommends asking some key questions:

7. Instructions should be easy to find, explicit, and multimodal.

Because you are not in the same room with students, your instructions have to work a lot harder than they do in a brick-and-mortar setting. 

8. Traditional grading practices should take a backseat to feedback.

“We saw a transition during emergency remote teaching where each of us had different requirements about grades or no grades, pass and fail,” Kitchen says. “This whole environment really needs to be supported by communication and connection. If I’m to receive an A or a 95 or a 65, that doesn’t necessarily tell me as much as verbal feedback or print feedback to what I’m doing right, what I can improve on.”

So when teaching remotely, put the emphasis on formative feedback as students work through assignments and tasks, rather than simply grading them at the end. 

9. Summative assessment should focus on creation.

In online learning, Kitchen says, “There are so many ways that students can cheat, so if we’re giving them just the traditional quiz or test, it’s really easy for them to be able to just look up that information.”

A great solution to this problem is to have students create things. These can be videos, podcasts, digital or physical art, writing pieces, comics, and so on. “It’s a lot more difficult to cheat when you have to make something or do something. And it also integrates all of the areas and it builds up, all of that learning builds up into this creation that they will do.”

Image Credit: Bill Ferriter (CC BY-NC-ND)

What Stays the Same

Not everything in online teaching is different. Some aspects of good teaching should definitely stay the same.

The teaching environment may not be the same as we’re used to, but it’s important to remember that good teaching is still good teaching. “All of those things that we know are really good practices can still be done virtually,” Kitchen says. “It just might look a little bit different.”


You can find Melanie on her website,, or on Twitter at @MelKitchenEDU.


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  1. Pam Powell says:

    I truly appreciate this article on online teaching. It gives a few practical steps that guide some boundaries in how to structure the online, hybrid learning many schools will encounter. I am at a private school and we anticipate going back in person, but are making a plan b just in case.
    Thanks again,
    Pam Powell

    • Claire says:

      The article is a great read. I am enlightened as a teacher because this will help me and those who read the article too in preparing for our next online teaching. The points emhasized by Melanie Kitchen are clear and important.
      Thanks for sharing this, I really appreciate.

    • Magnus Caithness says:

      One of the really good ones! Affirmative or / and informative. This article is well worth the read.

  2. Cynthia Frankowiak says:

    I need to sit for a minute to digest the many helpful directions in your article. One which caught my attention the most is that of getting feedback from parents and students. I was unsuccessful in this aspect of online teaching, and definitely feel it made a difference in student engagement. I asked for information and input via both Class Dojo and with Google Forms, that were texted, emailed, or posted to Class Dojo. Can you share any methods that you’ve seen teachers use successfully to invite parents to connect and communicate? Thank you, Cynthia

    • June Marvin says:

      I’ve never personally used this tool, but I’m going to use Remind for this upcoming year! I have colleagues who have found it very helpful in the past.

      • Alexander says:

        This was the best resource I have found all summer in regards to the topic of education.

        I have been working on building teqcher community at my school. Do you have ideas, instructions, or resources to build community WITHIN teachers?

      • Kavita says:

        This post has highlighted the very basic and important aspect of virtual teaching learning techniques which is infact the need of the hour rather than getting and rushing into all types of apps or tools for the kids. A very useful post to learn the basics of teaching learning activities. I feel the teaching community should make the online learning very simple and cover the concepts in a manner that each level of the students group understands very easily. I like the idea of creating something for online assignments where there is a less possibility of plagiarism and cheating. Thank you very much for bringing in and reflecting on the current trends in virtual sessions.

    • Katrice Quitter says:

      Hi Cynthia,
      There are several tools that you could consider to connect and communicate with your parents, here’s a few to check out!
      Bloomz, ClassTag, and FreshGrade are all great tools. Each of these can be used in different ways with your students and parents. Check them out and see if something will fit your needs.

      I hope this helps!

  3. Paige says:

    Thank you so much for the work you put into both creating and collating information. I find your podcast a great resource.

  4. Your article provides an abundant amount of information. Would love to learn more about supporting early learning since it appears this will all apply.

    • Hi Robin! If by early learning you’re referring to kindergarten/first grade, we feel all of this is applicable. If you’re referring to preschool, that’s a bit out of our wheelhouse and we hope someone else can jump in and keep the conversation going! Thanks for your comment.

  5. Laura says:

    Thank you so much! I loved listening to the podcast and reading the post for additional links. Great work, thanks again!

  6. Claire says:

    Thank you Jennifer Gonzalez for this great article..

  7. Mark says:

    Really good and valid point. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Vicki Carter says:

    I really enjoyed this podcast. After listening I went back in and explored all the great links.

  9. lydia yehling says:

    Any hints for second grade teachers?

  10. Ali Pinzon says:

    Great article..I would like to receive emails from you

    • Ali, we’d love to have you join us! To subscribe, click here. If you have any problems, you can contact our Customer Support Team. They’ll be glad to help out.

  11. John Thomas says:

    I have worked in online education for over a decade, and I can say that most of what is covered here is spot on. I would say that one of the final points, about using research based instructional strategies, cannot be emphasized enough. You can do the same things online that you could do in the classroom. They might need to be done differently, but you can do them. If you can’t figure out how, ask someone. Find someone who has been doing this a long time, and ask them.

    One area where I will have to disagree is about scheduling live meetings. This is a decision that should be made now, over the summer, and not picked during the school year. In the episode, it was mentioned about having a weekly check in meeting, and having it at a time that works for the students. Jennifer mentioned, “One o’clock would definitely be first period.” The problem with this is that if 1:00 is first period for the ELA class, and the Math class, and the Science class, you’re going to get into a schedule nightmare. Once you add in that special education teachers, math and reading specialists, related service providers, etc. all needing times to meet with students, having all of this done ad hoc will create frustration for the teachers, for the students, and for the administrators. Teachers will find that they are spending more time scheduling meeting times than they are creating high quality instruction. I implore school administrators to take the time this summer to work out schedules for when students can meet. Send it early, so so students can see what the day will look like. They can see if there are conflicts (for example, one house has only one computer, and a 2nd grader and a 7th grader in the house both need to be on it at 1:00.) If those things are not resolved in the summer, it will create many headaches down the road.

    Another benefit of having set times for meetings is that it helps students, particularly those with special needs, to have a routine. If the times when they meet is in constant flux, it will create a level of stress and anxiety which will create an insurmountable barrier to learning.

    Do yourselves a favor. Build schedules now.

    • Crystal DeMoura says:

      Thank you; very well said and on point. Advice I will take!

  12. shadia says:

    thanks a lot for you, this article is great

  13. Miranda Nogaki says:

    I’ve been an all-online high school teacher for 5 years and am currently earning a masters in Online Instruction. This list is 100% research based! Educators, use this list like the Holy Grail of Online Instruction and share widely! Your colleagues need to know that things which sound simply, like giving feedback that is not attached to grades, and communicating thoroughly and often are practices shown by research to have huge effect size in online learning. Things like taking time to establish relationship aren’t just “feel good” strategies but are the most powerful teaching moves you can make online.

  14. Hi! Great ideas here! Would love to brainstorm how to teach some students face to face and some attending online simultaneously?!? How do you monitor the online at home students?! Yikes!

  15. Thanks for such an insightful article. I especially like the graphic depicting what we want students learning outcomes to be from technology. It is so important especially right now to learn to adjust to online teaching that is still effective and engaging.

  16. William Holt says:

    Thank you. Helpful in providing a few new ideas and confirming already developed strategies

  17. Kelly O'Connor says:

    Holly, I agree that post is fantastic, but in the situation we find ourselves in right now (pandemic-induced social distancing), I don’t think we can encourage teachers to be physically visiting classrooms–and many will not be physically at school to do so. I appreciate the article (“How to Support Teachers’ Emotional Needs Right Now”), linked in point #3. Jennifer–I would love help finding more resources like that article!

    • Excellent point about not visiting classrooms right now! I’m still wrapping my mind around all the changes coming and I didn’t even think about that when suggesting the Pineapple Charts. Maybe this could be rectified by granting access to virtual classrooms to other teachers? So much to think about.
      As far as finding more articles such as the one you mentioned, I would recommend following Jenn on Twitter. Half of what she posts is outside of Cult of Pedagogy, so you may find something good there! I also recommend the Teacher Soul Pinterest board. I hope this helps!

  18. Julie says:

    Hi! Thank you for this article. I work with a lot of ELs. I am wondering about qualitative informal reading assessments with ELs within the online learning environment, not grading or summative or standardized assessments. I mean reading assessments to inform our instruction. Do you have any guidance on how best to go about doing those within online learning to ensure they are equitable for ELs?

  19. Julie says:

    Also, you mentioned using research based instructional strategies which led me to wonder what research is there on assessing within online learning. I work with elementary level students many of which are ELs.

  20. A valuable resource for online teaching. Thank you.

  21. Emily G Brown says:

    I teach adult-English-learners at a community college. Practice is vital in language learning! I found this helpful as we move toward a virtual learning environment this fall. Thank you.

  22. Lillian Pulliam says:

    The information shared is extremely helpful! Thank you for sharing!

  23. Jannine Hinterstein says:

    This was a well stated and very actionable article. Less is definitely more in these times! Thank you.

  24. Martina Avery says:

    I really like this article, it hit a lot of points. I also think it it will give you an ideal of how to start.

  25. Dan Lawlor says:

    Appreciate these training sessions to iron out the issues before school begins. I am a Special Education teacher and the most important thing we can do is to make access to instruction as easy as possible for both students and parents. Last school year problem I had was my students frustration levels are extremely low. (another teaching opportunity) When they have to do multiple steps they would get frustrated and give up missing one assignment after another. This needs to be address before all other training can take place. Moving to canvas and one source of communication is a good beginning point.

  26. Gretchen Chrane says:

    Melanie Kitchen was wonderful. Unfortunately, my school does not use Google Classroom and the platform we use doesn’t seem to have the save level of flexibility and options for posting class lessons, videos etc. We will have additional training on our platform which may solve some of our issues.

  27. Tina says:

    I am a 1st grade teacher and will have face to face and online students. There will be no school time set aside for my online students. I am concerned that due to some parents working and student/teacher guidelines, that it will be late in the evening before I can interact with my online students. Even though I will have “office hours”, I do not know how I will handle the online responsibility without it consuming my home life. Suggestions will be much appreciated!

  28. Christina says:

    Thank you so much. Great inspiration for the start of the school year and to prepare for whatever situation we might find ourselves in.

  29. Gail Titus, Special Education Teacher says:

    This is an informative article and I will be sharing it with my teaching Team.

  30. Donna says:

    Thanks for the information. This helps frame our thinking as we move forward with online teaching and online learning.

  31. Sheila says:

    Good !o be reminded to keep it SIMPLE !

  32. Angela Fuller says:

    This is an incredible resource. Initially, I thought it was going to be a simple list of 9 ways. The depth and amount of information provided, however, was extremely useful. I am looking forward to September and will be splitting my time in the classroom with face-to-face, and online. The biggest thing that comes to mind for me and how I related to each of the 9 areas was around Flipped Learning. I find all of them fit really nicely into that framework. I especially enjoyed the comment around assessment having to look different. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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