Replicating What’s Done In The Classroom Won’t Make Online Education A Success

No industry transitions easily to the online world. Recent history is loaded with failures. The magazine publishing business is a perfect example. Simply taking a printed article from a well-known publication and posting it online failed to compete with digitally created publications like Reddit. In advertising, the traditional 30-second television spot looks out of place in YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat. The same is true in retailing. Purchasing shoes from a department store fails to offer the same range of variety, value, and convenience as buying them through Zappos.

Higher education may be a victim of the same trap. It is naive to think the dynamics of a live classroom translate to a digital platform. Zoom wants educators to think otherwise. Rest assured, digitally savvy students aren’t buying it. These kids see right through the charade. Zoom delivery lacks the authenticity students demand of all institutions they find meaningful.

A college course delivered only via Zoom is insensitive to the character of today’s college student. A regular classroom is challenging enough for students who are less verbal and more fearful than they once were of saying something incorrect. Translating the classroom to the laptop screen where everyone is more visible makes the experience downright terrifying.


The moment students open a laptop or look at a smartphone, they have a whole different set of expectations. Instructors don’t always realize that the laws of online communication rely heavily on the visual doing most of the work, with simple, short comments added to better explain the photo. Student photos and comments are not spontaneously posted, but are usually given considerable thought as to how peers may interpret the message. Even short, 10-second TikTok dances are better choreographed than a baby-boomer instructor might expect.

When today’s students watch a longer video on YouTube or even Facebook, they view it for entertainment first and content second. They look at the number of views a video has received to determine value, and they spend time thinking about what it says about them before recommending it to a friend to view. Videos are their first Google stop when they can’t figure out a task like fixing something on their computer or learning how to cook a new dish for a friend.

Most importantly, students like communications to be personalized. Besides glancing at the number of likes they received, they especially enjoy personal comments on their Instagram posts or stories. These comments, even emoji responses, let them know a connection has been made.

Cautious engagement, entertainment, and personalization are all rules of the digital universe. Ignore these rules and students will conclude the online message is not authentic. Instead, they will shut down, remain silent, and simply do what is required. They will complain about the experience to Mom and Dad, who college administrators fear might conclude that the high cost of tuition for online delivery is not worth the expense.


The last five weeks of the spring 2020 semester was challenging as all classes went online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even after having taught online for the past three summers, the combination of the pandemic and the lack of preparation time for jumping to an online venue was a killer. Every instructor has to find their own methods for success in online education just as they do in a traditional classroom, but here are a couple of things I do that have been successful:

Send weekly emails on Sunday that summarize the assignments of the coming week. Weekly assignments end with an exam due every Friday by 5 pm that evaluates comprehension of the key topics covered.

Create one or two video lectures of approximately 20 minutes each week that students can watch at their leisure. These videos have at least a couple of entertaining segments to let them know I am sensitive to their plight, and understand how they judge the value of a video.

Establish a private Facebook group where class members can post visuals about the material being studied and make comments on fellow students’ posts. During the final five weeks of the Spring ’20 semester, my class of 20 second-semester seniors made over 500 posts in our group including visuals of themselves and their parents at home during the pandemic.

Utilize Zoom, Face Time, and now Facebook Rooms for team meetings and study sessions.

Anything digital takes much more time than expected.  With two weeks advanced notice about going virtual, college instructors can’t be expected to be experts at teaching online. Given more time, there is every reason to believe they will become more sensitive to what works best online with their students. This pandemic accelerated the acceptance of online learning as a significant part of higher education’s future. There is no turning back.

Bill Bergman is a lecturer in marketing at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, where he has taught for 10 years in the undergraduate and MBA programs. He has over four decades of experience working in marketing, advertising, and publishing, including as president of the Bergman Group, a Richmond-based marketing and advertising company. He has twice been named one of the Poets&Quants for Undergrads’ Favorite Professors: in 2017 and 2020

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