online instructors

Redefining Teaching: The Five Roles of the Online Instructor

online instructors


I used to think that a large classroom full of live students was the only place I could be “in my element” as an instructor. I relished being the enthusiastic orator who conveyed knowledge in, what I strived to be, an engaging way. I made sure to probe with questions and stimulate discussion, but when I reflect on my days in the classroom, I realize that mainly I talked. I talked because I had specific material I felt compelled to cover during each class session. The priority in my lesson plans was the content I would be disseminating, and as such, I shouldered a hefty responsibility to use class time to impart specific information to students. I was the leader of my classroom, and wanted to ensure I was effectively leading students to knowledge.

As I moved to teaching online, my virtual classrooms have given me a different perspective on my role as instructor. In an online venue, I find that I lead, but in a different way. I am less a lecturer, and more a mentor. I am less a disseminator, and more a facilitator. Student learning is less about me, and more about them.

To be clear, I still teach in my online courses, and I relish working with students in this capacity. Yet, I have found that to be effective in helping students successfully learn from a distance, online teaching requires the instructor to take on some different roles than those to which I was accustomed. A move away from disseminating and toward facilitating means adopting and embracing new ways of doing things. While there are still plenty of similarities between teaching online and in the classroom, there are many areas that are qualitatively different. I have identified the following five roles as being unique to the online instructor. I firmly believe that actively assuming these roles will lead to a higher quality experience for both the instructor and students.

  1. E-learning Designer: It is important that an online course meet the same objectives and curriculum requirements as its on-campus counterpart, assuming there is one. However, merely replicating the course in an online setting by uploading lectures and slides is ineffective. The mediums of delivery are different; consequently, they require different approaches.  The online instructor takes on an e-learning designer role and must reconceptualize the course and design it for the online environment.  For example, an online course typically involves autonomous interaction with course material and asynchronous participation in course-related activities (i.e., students and the instructor participating at different times).  Additionally, a typical online course has a heavy, if not almost exclusive, emphasis on written text both in terms of how course content is presented and in how communication occurs between and among students and the instructor.  As e-learning designer, the online instructor is challenged to adapt (or develop new) the course in a way that considers these factors as well as achieves the learning objectives.
  1. Technology Specialist: Clearly, technology is an inherent part of online learning, and online teaching requires some level of technological savvy. Yet, the technical aspects of maintaining an online course are more considerable than might be apparent. The online instructor assumes a technology specialist role and must choose tools that are appropriate for learning goals and that are within the technical capabilities of students.  It is important that the instructor know how to use the tools and be able to clearly describe their use to students. The role also includes handling the ongoing technological maintenance required of an online course.  There is an abundance of links and tools that need continual monitoring to ensure they are functioning properly. Moreover, a good deal of time is spent regularly uploading, deleting, and editing files and web pages, and modifying site links and dates. As a technology specialist, the online instructor tackles these tasks so that all aspects of the course site are continuously running smoothly. Otherwise, technology can become a source of frustration or distraction for students, or be a hindrance to learning. When technical aspects of the course are running without issue, students can focus on learning.
  1. Content Coach: Just as it is in an on-campus class, course content is a hugely important part of the online learning experience. However, as opposed to lecturing about content during prescribed weekly class time, the online instructor plays the role of content coach and must devote time to mentoring students as they process the information presented to them. The onus to learn is more on the students, but not without the instructor guiding them through the process. The online instructor is challenged to find ways to ensure learning in the virtual classroom, perhaps by providing tips or concise snippets about content, pinpointing crucial areas upon which to focus, or offering critical thinking questions for consideration. Coaching may occur at the class level, but more often than not it involves mentorship at an individual student level.
  1. Social Director: When teaching a traditional on-campus course, contact between and among the instructor and students is more predictable. There are established times, typically weekly, when the class meets and social interactions naturally ensue. Breaking the ice, small talk, course updates, and questions about content generally can take place before, during, and after class meetings. A sense of community and a class culture tend to be organically established. For an online course, these things require a bit more effort and creativity. The online instructor becomes a social director and must purposefully establish a sense of community and modes of interaction among all participants. Through emails, discussion forums, chat rooms, videos, or other means, the virtual classroom is brought to life. It is also essential that the online instructor establish his/her own presence in the class from the start and throughout the semester. This may be done by way of personal introductions, chat rooms, timely responses to inquiries, and swift feedback on assignments. The goal is to help students feel like part of the group and engaged in the course, thereby increasing feelings of connectedness and reducing feelings of isolation.
  1. Managing Correspondent: Online courses tend to be writing and reading intensive for students, but also for the instructor. The online instructor accepts the role of managing correspondent, and must create and organize all of the written resources that help students master content and complete requirements. The goal is to make the material manageable and understandable. In addition, the role entails spending a disproportionate amount of time providing feedback on written assignments and responding to all of the written inquiries and communications from students. The online instructor encourages, critiques and, ultimately, uses his/her typed words to support students as they proceed through the learning experience. When done successfully, students feel confident and competent in their online course.

Upon discovering and embracing these roles, I have found that I feel more in my element when I teach online. How do these approaches work for you?

If you found this post useful, be sure to share it!

2 thoughts on “Redefining Teaching: The Five Roles of the Online Instructor”

  1. Abel Journeyman

    Just wish to say your article is great, and timely too. The clarity in your post
    really shows your expertise on Online Education. With your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep updated with
    forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.

  2. Pingback: Week 4 – Teaching and Learning | jslearningportofolio

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top