In-person vs. online - the similarities (part 1)

So far, I have covered how/why I took up online teaching, my first interaction with parents and children, how I plan/execute the trial session and setting expectations with my students.

A common suggestion that I received in comments on this series was to compare and contrast in-person classes with online classes. I believe that this is a good time to explore this topic and I plan to divide this exploration into two postlets.

In this first postlet, I will interweave the findings of research studies with my practical experiences as a math teacher to paint a picture of the similarities between regular in-person classes in school and classes in the online environment (with a focus on one-to-one classes as that is my area of expertise). I think that this will provide necessary grounding, not just for the next postlet, but for the series as a whole.

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…I distinguish teaching practice from the great sea of informal and ordinary instruction. This distinction has two elements: teaching practice is relatively deliberate and attentive… and practicing teachers seek to connect their teaching with students’ learning.
~ David Cohen

Teachers' hats

Successful teachers wear many hats. Research suggests that strong teachers exhibit four key behaviours – subject expert, facilitator, guide and administrator (Chae & Shin, 2015). The subject expert provides quality learning materials and delivers clear and accurate content. As a facilitator, the teacher encourages students and creates a comfortable learning environment. The teacher is also a guide on how to study a topic and good supplementary sources to consult. Lastly, the teacher is an administrator who checks homework, tracks student learning and reports progress to the parents/students.

During my school teaching days, I definitely had to don these hats to varying degrees depending on where we were in the academic year. The subject expert hat was prominently worn in each lesson during term time; the facilitator hat was always on as I tried to set an environment that motivated and encouraged my children to learn; the guide hat came into play around tests, exams and when parents/children sought general advice; and, lastly, the administrator hat was used when I gave my students feedback, conducted parent-teacher meetings, filled out progress reports and performed other tasks expected of a class teacher.

As an online teacher, I continued to play these four roles, albeit through a different medium and only for one child at a time (as opposed to 40!). As I didn't physically meet and interact with parents/students anymore, I had to work doubly hard on the facilitator and administrator roles to ensure that communication channels were both open and regularly used. 😀

The learning experience

Another key responsibility of a teacher is to scaffold the learning experience while keeping in mind constraints such as time available, current academic level(s) of the student(s) and syllabus requirements (Feng et al., 2017). To this end, many of the components of in-person classroom lesson plans are useful in an online class. For example (drawing on and extending the work in Chappell et al., 2015):
  • having a clear agenda in place for the lesson (I wrote about this here)
  • explaining concepts with examples (I do), taking children through examples together (we do) and giving children ample opportunities to independently solve questions (you do)
  • using multiple representations and explanations for concepts that are enduring areas of understanding in the syllabus
  • modelling the thought process involved using mathematically accurate language
  • encouraging students to back their answers with reasons
Even in my one-to-one classes online, I execute the {I do, we do, you do} trinity to build both the child's conceptual understanding and confidence. When one method of explanation doesn't work, I try alternate ones and often use visual/graphical representations to aid children's understanding. As I grew as a teacher, I started emphasising the thought process over the final answer (I wrote about this in this post) and pushed my students to articulate their reasoning using accurate mathematical terms. This further aligns with classroom research that encourages teachers to probe students to analyse a problem thoroughly and come up with strategies to solve it as a means of building deeper understanding (Kahan & Wyberg, 2003).

Checks for understanding

Some research suggests that asking conceptual questions in the flow of instruction helps students become more aware of their cognitive processes and problem-solving strategies (Osman, 2010; Koerwer, 2007). During my training program at Teach For India (and in the three years in the classroom thereafter), these were known as 'checks for understanding' (or CFUs) and we were encouraged to employ these in our lessons to:
  1. give us (teachers) an idea of how the lesson was going - are children grasping the key concepts?
  2. give children an idea of where they stand - are they truly understanding or merely nodding their heads?!
I found CFUs to be even more useful when teaching online because I could no longer observe the expressions and body language of children. In school, I had developed a radar for sensing when a lesson was going great and when it was spectacularly falling apart by simply observing my children! 😅 However, when teaching online, the only way to know if they were understanding was to ask questions that allowed them to demonstrate that understanding. Accordingly, I could move ahead in the lesson or try another strategy to help them.

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Whether in-person or online, the above elements are central, common and non-negotiable for a strong teaching-learning process. After all, at its core, teaching online is still teaching! 😃

ln part 2 (linked here), I will look at some of the key differences between in-person and online classes.


Chae, S. E., & Shin, J. (2015). Tutoring styles that encourage learner satisfaction academic engagement and achievement in an online environment. Interactive Learning Environments, pp. 1-15.

Chappell, S., Arnold, P., Nunnery, J., & Grant, M. (2015). An Examination of an Online Tutoring Program’s Impact on Low-Achieving Middle School Students' Mathematics Achievement. Online Learning, 19(5), pp. 37-53.

Cohen, D. K. (2011). Teaching. In Teaching and its Predicaments (pp. 24-48). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Feng, X., Xie, J., & Liu, Y. (2017). Using the Community of Inquiry Framework to Scaffold Online Tutoring. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(2), pp. 162-188.

Kahan, J. A. & Wyberg, T. R. (2003). Mathematics as Sense Making. In Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving (pp. 15-25), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Koerwer, S. (2007). Thinking Storm: The ABCs of Online Tutoring. Information Today, 24(7), p. 2.

Osman, M. (2010). Virtual Tutoring: An Online Environment for Scaffolding Students' Metacognitive Problem Solving Expertise. Journal of Turkish Science Education, 7(4), pp. 3-12.

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I read the articles quoted in this essay as part of the course EDU T561 Transforming Education through Emerging Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education while pursuing my master's degree.


  1. This post shows a lot of hardwork behind a perfect lesson which i have experienced in your class and still miss it. It is very clear that your class has to have good students and good learners when you teach. But please also add about what you feel when students don't do your homework and how you deal with it. Thanks for sharing such a knowledgeable post!!

  2. This is a great post to set the grounding for this series! I’m also curious if you only do 1:1 classes online? If no, then CFUs might not always work for a full class of students right? In those cases, do you proceed based on how effective your delivery of a concept was from your stand point?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kartik.

      Yes, I currently do only 1:1 classes. This is intentional as I value the attention that I can give the student and the insights that I can gain from observing their approaches and thought processes closely - this would be hard to do if I had more than one student.

      With regards to CFUs - I used these in my physical classroom by asking questions to 2-3 children (sometimes at random and sometimes planned) to get a sense of whether the concept has been understood or not. In the online space, if I was to teach multiple students at a time, I would make use of polls and perhaps still pick out students and ask them CFUs to gauge the lesson. It may be logistically more challenging than if I was teaching them face-to-face but it can still be done...

      However, you last point is valid - it is not possible to always ask CFUs and I do, at times, have to proceed based on how I thought the concept came across. In those instances, I may give students 1-2 carefully designed questions that would serve as barometers for me to check their understanding.

  3. Hi bhaiya! This post was clear enough for any parents to feel safe about their childrens' education during this pandemic.
    Please add about your perpective on math as...not just a subject but... Any metaphor you want. Thanks for the post!����


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