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The Joys of Teaching Online

Posted in Teacher Tools on April 4, 2010 by

Dave is the Faculty Manager @ Knewton, and our top teacher in GMAT, LSAT, and SAT prep.

As I recall, there were four categories of hand-raisers in my high school:

1. The Eager Beaver: “I’ve never met a question that I’m not totally psyched to answer!”

2. The Kool Kat: “I’m smart, but please don’t tell that to my friends. I’d lose all my street kred.”

3. The Anti-Brita: “They call me tap water, because I’ve got no filter. Save the lectures for grad school; high school is for discussing and participating.”

4. Shy LeBeouf: “If I say something wrong, everyone will point and laugh, so I’ll just sit here and people will assume I know everything. Or, I have crippling glossophobia.”

I’ll be honest — I have at one point been in every one of these categories. I was in Category 1 during my senior year of high school, when I felt confident and comfortable with myself. I was in Category 2 as an awkward middle-schooler, when I dumbly felt that fitting in would be easier if the teachers didn’t like me. I was in Category 3 as a kindergartner who had spent five years living and interacting with two parents who prized intellectual curiosity over everything else. I was in Category 4 during my first semester of college when I found myself surrounded, for the first time, by a bunch of really bright Category 1’s.

No matter what category I was in, my high school was not ideal to handle all my needs. No conventional school is. In an online class, however, you can answer every question the teacher asks or just sit back and take your own notes. You can ask an off-camera TA for further clarification without ever interrupting the flow of class. You can even ask a question that you’d be normally embarrassed to ask in front of your peers, and it’ll be handled privately and off-camera. Basically, you can be the student you want to be. Better yet, the anti-education attitude of the Kool Kats (Category 2), which can be quite kancerous in a konventional klass, will be invisible and won’t have any impact at all.

Now, what are the downsides to online classes? Surely, the educational system we’ve had in place since before Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great isn’t completely misguided. Absolutely, there is something missing in an online classroom: educational hand-holding. Many students relish having a teacher who will constantly push, prod and provide one-on-one guidance. Such a relationship is a wonderful thing; it’s also usually quite expensive. (Alexander the Great’s father, the King of Macedonia, re-built Aristotle’s war-torn hometown in exchange for having the famed philosopher teach his son. And you thought college tuition was high. Whoa.)

I spent a few years making some serious money providing one-on-one tutoring to the children of modern-day Macedonian kings and queens (read: investment bankers and corporate lawyers). I made the shift to an online education company because these princes and princesses do deserve high-quality instruction, but they don’t deserve it more than those who cannot afford it.

It’s no secret that many of our public schools are over-crowded and under-funded. Despite Herculean efforts by teachers, administrators, and our government, schools are not able to address the needs of every student. So why not try something else? Online learning is very new, and new things are very scary. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t better. I’m pretty confident that, in a few decades, people who hold fast to these old-school ideas (pun intended) will stop asking questions like “What are the limitations of online teaching?” and start asking questions like “Why didn’t we start doing this sooner?” and “Why are my children still being subjected to the pervasive attitude of the Kool Kats?”