Taking the Show on the Road: What Traditional Classroom Teachers Should Know as They Move to the Online Classroom

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Catherine Fuller
Colorado Technical University

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When I think of my own elementary school experience during the 1980s, I think of a card catalog the librarian showed us how to use in order to find our favorite Ramona Quimby books; I picture Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe’s in our computer lab; I remember little orange lunch tickets that you physically handed to the lunch ladies. I picture sitting in rows of desks facing my classroom teacher.  And the technology of my teacher’s instructional methods? Chalk. Blackboard. The ditto machine. Envelopes housing bulletin board materials for next year.

In a span of less than three decades, that classroom has been replaced with one full of smart boards, smart notebooks, class emails, websites, blackboard discussions and facebook pages. And as we are all aware, some classrooms no longer exist in schools, but instead in some virtual space, in a cyber-techno-reality.

How does a teacher, one who grew up in an age where the classroom blackboard ruled, now learn how to teach in a world where using Blackboard means a student might never enter a classroom?

Transitioning from the actual classroom to the virtual classroom requires adaptations similar to that of a ringmaster taking her circus on the road. Of course there are benefits to her decision to do this, such as the ability to reach a wider audience, the chance to explore new terrain, and of course, the opportunity to keep up with other traveling acts like Cirque de Soleil, but there are also challenges. The show requires new technology for set-up and take down. The focus on marketing becomes more important. The lions need calming because they detest traveling. But a successful and thoughtful ringmaster, just like the successful and thoughtful educator, will be able to successfully navigate these challenges because, as she knows, the show must go on.

This paper will outline four key principles to consider while evolving as an instructor from the traditional classroom to the virtual classroom, or, to extend the metaphor, while taking the show on the road.

Whereas a ringmaster would consider how best to bring elephants cross-country, the instructor and administrator must consider how to bring the materials to the students, including technologies useful in asynchronous courses and synchronous courses. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages in terms of ease of scheduling, use of technology, and personal satisfaction of students. In terms of teaching, both require new training and a lot of preliminary preparation. Just as a ringmaster must have foresight and consider the obstacles in transporting elephants, the instructor must anticipate and circumnavigate obstacles in technology by problem solving even before the teaching begins.

Whether the audience travels to the circus or the circus travels to the audience, the audience still enters into the tent before watching the show. The ambience, the sounds, the noises, the smell of popcorn—all of these affect the experience of the spectator. Likewise, the classroom environment affects both the traditional and online classes both positively and negatively for the student and instructor.

Many research studies, including one done by Becker in 1981 and another by Sundstrom and Sundstrom in 1990, have pointed out the “social and symbolic importance of physical spatial configuration” (As sited by Jaffee, 2003, p. 228) and often the traditional classroom, complete with desks facing the front and perhaps even a podium adds to the “sacred status of the physical classroom” (Jaffee, 2003, p. 228). Students walk into a classroom and immediately step into the role of “student,” or receptive learner. The web eliminates the physical classroom and takes away the automatic “teacher status” granted to the instructor upon walking to the front of the classroom and standing behind a podium.

The web provides an environment already geared at student-centered classes and a place in which instructors can “mediate and guide [discussion, but] they cannot entirely control the flow of communication. Thus instructor and student roles and relations are less hierarchical and more overlapping and interactive” (Jafee, 2003, p. 231) so the traditional classroom teacher must be willing to shift to role as coach rather than guru.


  1. You will need new tools in order to take your show on the road.

  2. The circus tent affects the show.

  3. Some of the circus acts will change, some will stay the same, and some will be eliminated.

    The magician with card tricks is portable and can easily bring his act on the road, but the act in which a dozen clowns pop out of a Mini Cooper may have to stay home. Likewise, several traditional classroom methods transfer easily to the online medium, while others require adjusting or elimination. The following principles relate to teaching activities and methods of delivery:
    • Philosophically, a teacher must recognize the interactivity of online courses. David Jaffee suggests four pedagogical principles that could be practiced in the online classroom: interactivity or the idea that everything in online coursework depends on interconnected communication; active learning or the engagement of students with class materials; mediation or the interaction between student and instructor, and collaboration between students in the same class (Jaffee, 2003, p.  234).
    • Student-centered activities used in a traditional classroom often translate well to the online learning communities. Illinois Online University offers these methods to teachers in training as options that work in both the traditional and online classroom: Learning contracts, discussion, lecture, self-directed learning, mentorship, small group work, projects, collaborative learning, case studies, and forums (Instructional strategies, 2007, para. 3-4). Traditional classroom teachers well versed in student-centered activities can expect to make some modifications, but take their methods with them into the online classroom.
    • Traditional lecturing will not work well in the online classroom. For those teachers who possess that magic talent of captivating a large group of students with a fascinating lecture, unfortunately “the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ is no longer an option” (Jaffee, 2003, p. 230). Some lecture materials translate into readings, but the online teacher cannot expect success through 60 minutes of lecture.
    • Communication with students is mandatory; it must be timely, frequent, and personal. As with all classes, teachers must be able to understand students’ backgrounds, needs, and experiences but this becomes more difficult without “cues from body language” (Garber & Stankiewicz, 2000, p. 36), and thus teachers must frequently communicate with students in a personal manner in order to help foster a sense of community. In addition, teachers may have to model many aspects of their class, from using technology and sending emails to designing learning contracts and making responses in a group discussion. Learners in an online community may be unused to interacting technologically and the online instructor would be smart to foresee difficulties and strategize solutions prior to beginning the course.
  4. The audience will still applaud if the ringmaster can pull off the trick of bringing the show on the road. At the end of the day, an audience wants a successful show and a student wants to learn from a class. If an instructor is prepared, flexible, and matches the learning outcomes to the methods of instructional delivery, her students will appreciate her efforts.

In distance education or online learning, the danger is creating an impersonal learning environment, such as the one recorded in a study for a student who described her distance learning experience as “impersonal and one-sided, a disaster” before requesting her money back (Garber & Stankiewicz, 2000, p. 34). In order to counter this, traditional classroom teachers should remember to bring personal strategies to emails and web-postings.

While transitioning from being the ringmaster of a three-ring circus to being a showman who travels by RV across the country may not be easy, it can be done. The traditional classroom teachers who will evolve and thrive in our changing educational world will be the ones who strategize and plan ahead for the difficulties of online classes, who refer to the research that continues to provide new insight to the new field of distance education, and who, above all, consider the student in their teaching methods and communication.

Author Bio

Catherine Fuller
Colorado Technical University

Ms. Catherine Fuller lives in Minneapolis where she works as a writer and an English instructor. After receiving a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota, Ms. Morris went on to earn her M.Ed in teaching language arts from the University of Minnesota and her M.F.A. in writing from Hamline University. In addition to her nine years in education, she has worked with several small presses and journals, including CoffeeHousePress, Midway Online Journal, and Waterstone magazine. Catherine Fuller can be reached at CFuller@faculty.ctuonline.edu


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Garber, E, and Stankiewicz, MA. (2000). Cyber faculty: an experience in distance learning. Art Education 53, 1, 33-38. Retrieved from National At Education Association at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3193860

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