How is online teaching and learning really different?

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A woman lays on her bed looking at her laptop

How will this help:

Recognize the key differences between face to face and online teaching.
Compare online teaching practices to personal teaching practices.

The basics

The first step in learning the differences between online and face-to-face teaching is understanding that one is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other. There are numerous aspects of traditional teaching practices that are extremely valuable to distance education. However, online teaching requires facilitators to take the knowledge they currently have and expand upon it to meet the needs of the online environment.

You may suspect that online teaching is different than teaching face-to-face – which of course, it is in many ways. If you have some experience with emergency remote teaching, you certainly experienced some of the more obvious differences. It may feel completely foreign to think about interacting with your students only through text or not having improvisational conversations in your Thursday lecture. However, what almost all research suggests is that learning does not change based on how students access a course. Although the modality (face-to-face or technology-based) alone can seem overwhelmingly different when you are accustomed to a traditional, teacher-led class, the underlying principles that make an excellent learning experience remains the same. For example, some of the best courses regardless of the delivery method employ a well-structured and planned, learner-centered approach aligning with learning objectives and focusing on active learning.

Quality of learningEquivalent to onlineEquivalent to face-to-face
TechnologyMay use some technology to supplement.A majority of instruction and interaction takes place through online-based tools.
Delivery methodUsually in the same room, sometimes on paper.Usually not in the same room, usually in an online format.
AssignmentsLecture, discussion groups, case-based learning, quizzes, exams, group projects, case-based learning.Lecture, discussion groups, case-based learning, quizzes, exams, group projects, case-based learning.
Planning/developmentCan be flexible. Some faculty plan well ahead of class, others may design lectures and activities hours before class.Planning must be done ahead of time, usually before the semester starts. Because video/audio take time to produce, you may develop content as much as six months in advance.
Student class timeUnplanned conversations at the moment occur more organically when all students are in the same place.Asynchronous communication tools may take longer for unplanned conversations to develop and may require some advance planning.
Student demographicsMost residential students at the University of Michigan are “traditional” meaning they are under the age of 22, full-time students, accustomed to the schedule and workflow of a traditional residential college setting.Many online students are adults (over the age of 25), balancing a full time career on top of family as well as school. While they may consider themselves life-long learners, a traditional classroom and expectations may not be something they have had experience with for several years.
Instruction timeTime spent on a course is distributed in a known way. Face-to-face courses have a set meeting day and time and length. Assignments tend to come in at the same time.Online courses are accessible 24/7 which means the class is taking place 24/7. Students may email at all hours, assignments may be submitted differently. Adult students may try to anticipate outside workloads by working ahead.
Interaction with studentsFrequently, you can see students to gauge understanding you may have informal before/after class conversations with students.Although many instructors report greater interaction with students in an online course because of the types of interaction possible online, it is challenging to use some of the same informal methods that you may be accustomed to. Creating informal spaces for communication or more frequent formative assessment methods can help bridge that gap.
Instructor roleA good portion of face-to-face teaching for faculty involves the physical presence of leading a class, through lecture, discussions and/or activities. Classroom management, transitions between topics and activities all factor into “class time”“Lectures” are frequently developed many weeks or months in advance, which leaves the faculty role in an online course to facilitate group discussions, coach students, monitor for learning.

Practical tips

  • Get to know the platform and other technologies in advance
    If you are not comfortable with technology, that’s okay. Technology does not have to be “cutting edge” to be pedagogically successful. Use what you know and spend the time to get comfortable with new technologies. Accept that technology will fail at some point, but there are ways to mitigate impact to the class.
  • Be proactive about thinking about timelines for designing and facilitating your course
  • Learn about best practices for teaching online. While many of them are similar to face-to-face practices, you may find the methods different. Knowing more prior to designing a course will help integrate the pedagogies that resonate with your teaching style.
  • Identify university support resources available to you and utilize them


University of Michigan

CRLT- Strategies for online teaching

Other Resources

John Hopkins University – Comparing online and face-to-face teaching at John Hopkins University


McGinley, V., Osgood, J., & Kenney, J. (2012). Exploring graduate students’ perceptual differences of face-to-face and online learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(3), 177+. Retrieved from