In-person vs. online - the differences (part 2)

In the first postlet (linked above), I focused on the similarities between in-person classes at school and classes in the online environment. In this postlet, I will interweave the findings of research studies with my practical experiences as a math teacher to illustrate the differences between these two modes of teaching/learning with a continued focus on one-to-one classes as that is my area of expertise.

A point worth mentioning here - there are four types of classes that we could technically experience and analyse:
  1. classes in schools (one-to-many and in-person)
  2. private in-person tuition classes (one-to-one and in-person)
  3. online classes being conducted by schools during the Covid-19 pandemic (one-to-many and online)
  4. private tuition classes over the web (one-to-one and online)
I have extensively taught in contexts #1 and #4 and taught, to a limited extent, in context #2 when sitting down with individual children after school to explain a concept. I have no experience in context #3.

Hence, there might be some tension and blurring of boundaries in the analysis that follows owing to the fact that there are two variables at play and I don't have equal exposure to all four contexts. However, I'll try my best to keep the analysis focused on in-person vs. online! 😀

~ o ~ x ~ o ~


As far back as 1995, Derek Rowntree, a professor of educational development in the United Kingdom, taught a one-to-many online course and published his findings on the model. He commented on the flexibility of online courses to adapt to what learners actually want to talk about. However, Rowntree was cautious in his optimism by mentioning technological difficulties around hardware, software and internet bandwidth (Rowntree, 1995). This was rather prescient of him as, even today, when educational systems pivoted to online learning in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, they faced similar challenges.

During my three years as a teacher in under-resourced schools, the logistics and infrastructure needed were pretty straightforward - chairs and desks for students, a chair and desk for the teacher, a blackboard/whiteboard, chalk/whiteboard markers and duster, electricity for lights and fans and a portable projector (optional - I bought one and used it for videos, movie screenings, presentations, activities etc.). Besides these aspects, I also needed a printer and photocopier shops for worksheets and supplemental material and stationery shops for classroom supplies. Of course, my students and I were in the same physical space for all our lessons.

The logistics/infrastructure for online teaching is worlds apart. For starters, my students join the session from their homes and I join from mine; in fact, I've taught children from Denmark, the UAE and Singapore where the children and I were in different countries altogether! 😂 Due to constraints around internet bandwidth, we tend to keep our videos off so that we can hear each another clearly. A computer/laptop screen with a shared whiteboard serves as the visual medium of communication. I upload images/content and 'write' on the whiteboard using a digitiser (see an example here). No printing, photocopying and classroom supplies are required. Of course, electricity is the fuel that keeps all parts of this engine smoothly running! Unlike a physical classroom, examining student work is more challenging since I can't walk around the class and it isn't convenient for my students to write on the whiteboard without a digitiser! So, I've adapted to asking them to call out their steps and I write them on the whiteboard which helps during problem solving.


At school, there was one teacher (me) and 40 students. Tailoring the daily class to each student's needs was out of the question - especially when I had some children who couldn't read or add/subtract and others who were expert readers and whizzes with numbers. The closest I came to customising lessons was during extra classes where I practised differentiation by having 3 batches of students created broadly based on their English and math levels. In these classes, I was able to cover stories/grammar and solve math problems appropriate to their levels. However, not all children could stay for extra classes so, by and large, customisation was a challenge that I could not overcome during my fellowship.

For those who can access them, online classes provide synchronous supplemental instruction that meet students where they are – both, academically and physically (Vasquez III & Slocum, 2012). On similar lines, my one-to-one classes online are inherently customised. Once I have taught a child for a few weeks, I develop a sense of their working style and existing knowledge and use this information to design the class in their zone of proximal development. I am able to encourage and guide them through focused attention which serves to enhance both their skills and confidence. Furthermore, if they are struggling with a concept, I can explain it in different ways and give them multiple opportunities to practice until they attain mastery (this is backed by research by Whetstone et al., 2014).

While not the focus of this piece, I should mention here that one-to-many classes online will face challenges similar to in-person classes at school with respect to customisation.


In one-to-one online classes, a well-executed lesson would have a back-and-forth dialogue between the teacher and student which makes the process engaging (Chappell et al., 2015). To explore this power of dialogue, another study looked at whether frequent and focused interactions/conversations between the teacher and student helped the teacher adapt on the fly and select actions/methods that were likely to benefit that particular student (Siler & VanLehn, 2015). The study conclusively found that teachers drew on prior experiences and interactions with students to adapt and inform their future teaching actions.

With regards to my in-person classes at school, I firmly avoided lectures/monologues even when I had 40 children to work with. I tried to facilitate dialogue between myself and the class as a whole (by encouraging participation, calling on students at random, group/team activities etc.) or between two or more students (or groups of students) to create a stronger lesson. Such interactions gave me a broad sense of whether my teaching was leading to the learning outcomes that I wanted or not. 

My online classes took classroom dialogue to another level. Since I couldn't see my students or respond to their body language cues, I was completely reliant on speaking to them and hearing their responses (and tone of their responses) to gauge their understanding of key ideas. This dialogue, accompanied by humour and informal conversations, was also key to building a rapport with my students because, unlike school, I couldn't informally chat with them outside class, share lunches with them, play sports with them or visit their homes and parents.


During in-person classes at school, my students would note down important points from the lesson that I either dictated to them or wrote on the blackboard. They worked out problems in their notebooks that I would collect and correct. Content on the blackboard was eventually wiped out so they used to be under some degree of stress to write at a reasonably efficient speed before the next subject period.

In online classes, all slides (with markings and annotated notes made during the session) are available as a compact document upon completing the class. Students can focus entirely on understanding the concept without having to copy the slides into their notebooks. During a session, a previous slide is one click away and never wiped out as such; thus, there is a reassurance that content can be conveniently revisited (if required) at a later point of time.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

I hope that these two postlets gave you a sense of the similarities and differences between in-person classes at school and classes in the online environment. In subsequent postlets, I intend to get back to the meat of online teaching by outlining my approaches to planning and execution of regular non-trial sessions.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~


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.

Rowntree, D. (1995). Teaching and learning online: a correspondence education for the 21st century? British Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3), pp. 205-215.

Siler, S. A. & VanLehn, K. (2015). Investigating Microadaptation in One-to-One Human Tutoring. The Journal of Experimental Education, 83:3, pp. 344-367.

Vasquez III, E. & Slocum, T. A. (2012). Evaluation of synchronous online tutoring for students at risk of reading failure. Exceptional Children, 78(2), pp. 221-235.

Whetstone, P., Clark, A., & Flake, M. W. (2013). Teacher perceptions of an online tutoring program for elementary mathematics. Educational Media International, pp. 1-12.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

I read the articles quoted 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. Dear Shreyas bhaiya,
    Hope you are doing well. Thank you for sharing this with me. I agree with everything you shared above. However, I was thinking on a point you mentioned above. The point was regarding taking notes in physical class vs online class. I wonder that how our classes would look like if we try and somehow make it in hybrid type. For instance - we can have notes as a PDF which the students can see it later. You also talked about informal conversation, what I feel is that more informal things are done in physical class as it is easy to do so when compared to online class.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Adnan.

      Some of my students still make notes in their notebook during the online class as it helps them understand and remember the concepts better. My point is that they don't need to take down everything that they see on the slides because they will have access to it after the session. :-)

      I 100% agree with your comment on informal conversation. It is much easier to do this in an in-person class as we can feed off facial expressions and body language. Also, in a school, there are opportunities to interact outside class which is not there in online classes.

  2. The parallels of online classes and face to face classes is clearly seen here, and something hwich i compeltely agree with. The strategies being used to mimic the physical classroom often makes me think if all that technology is doing is connecting a learner to a teacher far away from them, and does not necessarily change or add any value to the way learning happens. The question mainly then is, if it is possible to reimagine what we mean by learning and how one learns simply by changing the medium of education.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Anirudh.

      When online tutoring companies started, one of their USPs was to be able to connect a child to a tutor of his/her choice without having to worry about commute (in conventional tuition classes, the child would have to go the class after school) and access (limited choice of tutors available). The main role of technology was to be this missing link.

      As people's understanding and usage of this medium of instruction evolved, discussions around how technology could be leveraged in other ways began taking place. For example, I use Desmos in a number of my lessons - if I wanted to use this in my in-person classes, I would need to set up my projector and ensure internet access which were both challenging in the under-resourced schools that I taught in. Technology can add value to the way learning happens (in my view). Like any new system, it will require educators to think and engage with it more deeply to unlock its potential.

  3. Well framed all the thoughts..
    It made me wonder that if there could be one more model between "one to one" and "one to many", which is "one to limited many"...

    In some casses, there has to be a minimum and max number of students to make the learning happen.. Specially in life skill based programs.
    Would love to know your thoughts over it.

    1. The grey area here is the word 'many'.

      One-to-one is crystal clear; however, what distinguishes 'many' from 'limited many' and who decides this? Does the subject/topic under study determine this? Does the teacher decide based on his/her capabilities? Does the tutoring company decide this based on their pedagogy and revenue models?

      Based on your experiences in life-skill based programs (going by your comment), can you share some concrete numbers to illustrate the optimal number of students (in your opinion)? How did you arrive at the maximum/minimum number of students here?

  4. The number in limited many is decided based upon group engagement and individual attention at the same time.

    In cohort based learning, the idea is to work together and learn from each other as well.

    In such cases, minimum would depend on how many participants should be in one group according to the design of the program. Could be from 3 to 5. And, I have observed in variety of the program that maximum number 20-25 leads good results.

    Note: Entirely based on personal experiences

  5. Pardon me bhaiya for such a delayed comment.

    As a student who has experienced both in person or so called offline learning and online learning I've come to a verdict that both have its pros and cons.
    In offline learning, the students is pretty much focused for a reason that he or she are under the supervision of teacher (that means no misbehave😁) or there might be multiple reasons like the space or the school environment send these study vibes.
    The negative part of this can be different for different people like for me previously travelling was a little bit hard time for me like waiting for the bus or travelling in overloaded bus where there is minimum space to move.
    For teachers or the school organizations, they might have a time-consuming period like taking printouts or worksheets or MCQ practice test like you've mentioned above.
    Now talking about the good part of online learning is that obviously you have to study for home, you can take digital notes like I did sometimes (you can either type them in laptop or write with a stylus in phone) or for some classes I didn't even had to take notes as they were directly sent to us via ppts or pdfs. So that whole thing can save a huge part of time of the student as well as the teachers. Also the tests were on Google forms and in the internal marks they included group and individual presentation which were made on laptops or computers, so there wasn't any need for investment in other things.
    But the worst part with me was to focus since it is study from home and I'd to attend a live one to one talk with my mother or even father which would've been no way possible in offline schooling.

    Thank you for the post bhaiya.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge the balanced and concise manner in which you've summarised the pros and cons. It's wonderful to hear from students like you who are the ones learning and experiencing these varied modes of learning. :-)

      I like the point about the environment created in in-person classes that encourage studying under the watchful eye of the teacher! I'd like to add that the social aspect of learning in groups/teams is also more effective in an in-person set-up compared to online.

      Yes, time taken in travelling is a valid point and, if one extends it further, online learning gives us access to courses and professors from around the world without having to step out of our houses.

      While I get that online learning saves on aspects like printing and manual correction, I do wonder if there is value in children actually writing (not typing) on paper and teachers being able to correct and see the students' steps and thought process on the paper. What do you think?

      Coming to your last point - yes, home can be distracting at times. I have been working from my home for the past 1 year and have had to set expectations with my family so that I can focus and be efficient. However, if a person's home has many family members and/or is a home with 1-2 rooms only, then it may be very hard to find peace! :-(

  6. Hi Shreyas, It is really worth gauging every aspect of online teaching. As it is going to be new normal. Also, every online instructor would agree with Derek Rowntree's finding of the flexibility of online courses but technological difficulties around hardware, software, and internet bandwidth during online classes. Good teachers not only proficient in their subjects but always want to connect with students. That's why they find it difficult to teach on the online platform. A combination of both online and in-person classes may work best if possible. Your idea of customized classes is also very good needs a little more effort from the teacher's side but surely will be very beneficial for students. Thanks for sharing your experiences of different teaching modes with us.


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