Great Expectations: How will the rise in online learning expand the teaching profession?

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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One of the things we know definitively from the full-time K-12 online schools that Pearson supports is that, for some young learners, the traditional classroom isn't the right fit. Students enroll in these online schools for reasons as different as the students themselves. Some like the flexibility of learning when and where they want. Others struggle with the pace of a traditional classroom – eager to move faster or frustrated because they can't keep up. There are students who can't focus in a group of 30 or have health problems that make sitting still or attending school between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm nearly impossible because of doctor's appointments.

With this understanding, I was particularly struck by a story in the New York Times about a teacher who was struggling in the traditional classroom but, when teaching went online remotely, she flourished: "...as the teacher and her co-workers rewrote their playbook on the fly, she contributed innovative ideas, tutored parents so they could help their children, and reached the students with creative lessons. From her living room, she has blossomed. The principal was planning to put the teacher on a remediation plan...'but she’s knocking it out of the park on remote learning'".

More on the Forum Network: Beyond the Classroom Walls: An opportunity for an inclusive digitalisation of education by Magdalena Brier López-Guerrero, Managing Director, ProFuturo Foundation

Just as the traditional classroom isn't the best fit for all students, it isn't the best fit for all teachers either – and as online learning becomes a more integrated part of our education systems, this provides new career options for different types of educators. This is not to say that one method of schooling is better than the other. Online learning offers more and different opportunities for teachers to teach and for students to learn in the way they learn best.

Of course, no two teachers are the same, but for those in the traditional classroom the ability to teach and manage a group of young people is an essential skill that's largely universal. And then there's differentiated instruction – where we ask teachers to personalise learning for individual students often within the group inside the home classroom. Some teachers are excellent at this, but others struggle with the expectation.

So, what makes the online classroom appealing to people who may have shied away from traditional teaching simply because of the 30:1 in-person construct? Consider these three things: 1) Online school removes a large degree of classroom management; 2) Online school educators most often work one-on-one with students; and 3) Powerful data informs personalised, differentiated instruction.

Online school teachers have data at their fingertips to personalise and differentiate instruction.

Colorado Connections Academy teacher, Casey Reeder, recently talked to CNN about how the online classroom freed her up to focus on the individual needs of her students. "[Reeder] found that managing the [traditional] classroom environment took way more time and energy than actually teaching kids, and she couldn't reach as many of them as she wanted. 'I knew there were kids being left behind or not being pushed hard enough, because due to time constraints and class sizes, I had to teach the middle'". Without "classroom management", she shared that she had both the freedom and energy to "give every student what they need".

Another lesson from Connections Academy's nearly 20 years serving students fully online is that the Academy teachers – most of whom have experience in a traditional classroom – share that they know their students (and their families) better in the online school environment than they did in their bricks and mortar school. These teachers have regular calls with families and students or tutoring sessions, in addition to group synchronous LiveLessons. This approach will appeal to teachers who are better just one-on-one.

Similarly, online school teachers have data at their fingertips to personalise and differentiate instruction. This is especially helpful for an educator who prefers data-driven insights to help inform teaching strategies. A teacher may observe that a student abandons an online lesson repeatedly, at which point she contacts the student and works one-on-one. Such observations can happen in the traditional classroom as well – but again, not all teachers have the same strengths.

Read Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought and other OECD Policy Responses on our COVID-19 Hub

Whether in-person, hybrid or fully online, our reliance on online learning due to the pandemic is leaving a lasting impression. A recent Pearson Global Learner Survey showed that 88% of people believe that online learning will be a part of our education experiences moving forward. This growth and change will require more teachers who not only teach online, but also thrive and inspire their students online.

Without question, this moment has been difficult for education and there are challenges, like the digital divide, we must resolve for online learning to truly transform education with its promise of access and equity. But for those of us who've made education and online learning our life's work, this is an incredibly exciting time too –  for both students and teachers alike. It's my hope that from this crisis, with the possibilities of online learning in front of us, more people will be inspired to consider the rewarding work of teaching. The (online) classroom door is open.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Child Well-being Digitalisation Digital Inclusion

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Rod Bristow

President, UK & Global Online Learning

In 2019 Rod took on responsibility to lead our global online learning businesses in schools, higher education and employer based learning, in addition to his role as president for Pearson UK. Rod has led Pearson UK since 2010 and from 2014-2019 he also led all other core markets for Pearson. Rod has worked in education, publishing, and assessment for more than 30 years in universities, schools, colleges, professional training, and learning technologies in the UK and internationally. Rod is a trustee for the Education and Employers Taskforce, a fellow of the Royal Society for Arts, governor for Harlow College and the BMAT multi-academy trust, and past president of the Publishers Association. He is also chair of the judging panel for the National Teaching Awards. Rod is a graduate of University College London.

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Chetna KS
Chetna KS 13 days ago

So there's an opportunity to join the teaching profession since it's expected to expand online, which requires a much higher teacher-to-student ratio (ideally 1:1). 88% of the user group covered in Pearson Survey support the move to online, so the demand for more teachers online is likely to come up very soon. Good news for those who like to teach and like the company of children, but never thought of taking it up as an alternate career!

I would've liked to know more about the traits that differentiate the lady in Highline Public School from her colleagues, and make her a great fit for online instruction. NYT skips the details, but I feel a research study with a sample of teachers who have taken up online teaching with gusto (the screening criterion) would offer a lot of insights. Pearson may like to consider this.