June 3rd, 2013

Eight Roles of an Effective Online Teacher


online student on laptop

Teaching face-to-face and teaching online are both teaching, but they are qualitatively different. In comparison, driving a car and riding a motorcycle are both forms of transportation, but they have enough differences to warrant additional training and preparation when switching from one to the other. The same is true when faculty move from the traditional classroom to the online classroom. There are some things that the two have in common, but there are also plenty of differences. With this in mind, consider the following eight roles of an effective online teacher.

  1. Tour Guide – A tour guide leads one or more people through a place or a series of places, usually revolving around some sort of common theme or subject. Similarly, the online teacher plays the role of guiding students through one or more online learning experiences. These experiences are most often designed and planned long before the course starts so that the teacher can devote more time to guiding the students and less time preparing lessons. Within this role, the teacher directs and redirects the attention of learners toward key concepts and ideas. A good tour guide doesn’t want anyone to miss out on the highlights of the tour.
  2. Cheerleader – As with all learning environments, learners often need some encouragement. Learning is hard work and studying online can sometimes feel isolating, confusing, or discouraging without this important role. As a result, the effective online teacher makes intentional efforts to communicate specific encouraging messages to individual learners and the group as a whole. Even when providing constructive feedback, the teacher as cheerleader finds a way to promote positive messages alongside the critiques, doing his or her best to maintain an overall positive morale in the class. At times, learners may fall into negative comments about themselves, the class, or their classmates (even the instructor, on occasion). The cheerleader strives to find ways to listen, respect the learner’s frustrations, but to also help them reframe the situation in ways that are more positive and productive.
  3. Learning Coach – Many people focus on the role of teacher as role model and that is valuable. However, the role of coach is just as important, even more important if we want learners to develop high levels of competence and confidence. A role model throws a perfect spiral with a football while the learners watch. A coach gets the learners on the field, puts the ball in their hands, and then coaches them on how to throw a spiral for themselves. This is a powerful and essential role of the online teacher. Such a teacher must move beyond simply modeling a love for the subject and personal skill with the content. Instead, find ways to hand the subject over to the students to do something with it. Applied projects and papers work well for this, and it gives the teacher an opportunity to be a coach and mentor.
  4. Individual and Group Mirror – Imagine waking up in the morning, getting ready for work, and heading out the door without ever looking into a mirror to see that your hair is sticking straight up in the air. That is good information to know before you walk into the office. Learners need this same sort of feedback about their work. How are they doing? Are they getting closer to meeting the learning objectives or not? The effective online teacher finds ways to give this sort of feedback to individual learners and, when appropriate, groups of learners.
  5. Social Butterfly – Without intentional efforts to build a positive social environment, online learning can feel lonely and impersonal. As a result, the online teacher must serve like a great party host, facilitating introductions, using discussion starters to facilitate conversations among students, and taking the time to get to know students and referencing that knowledge in interactions with them.
  6. Big Brother – Everything is documented in an online course. The teacher can tell when and how many times a student logs into the course, what pages were viewed or not, how many discussions posts the student contributed, and much more. This data can be abused, but it can also be used to make adjustments and informed decisions as an online teacher. If a student is not logging in, then contact the student. If students are failing to visit pages in the course with key instructions, point that out to the students or reorganize the content so that it’s easier to find.
  7. Valve Control – Online courses are rich with content and sometimes students can get lost in all that content. The teacher as valve control intentionally releases content in chunks that are appropriate for students. Sometimes this comes in the form of only releasing content one week at a time. Other times, the teacher releases it all at once, but directs students to only focus on certain parts at a time. Another key is to break content into smaller segments. Rather than a twenty-page document of instructions, consider breaking it into ten two-page documents.
  8. Co-learner – Great teachers are lifelong learners, and they can model that learning for their students in a variety of ways in the online classroom. The teacher can be an active (but not too active or it will silence students) participant in online discussions, sharing what they are learning about the subject, and even complete all or parts of some assignments, sharing their work with the students. This goes a long way in building a vibrant and dynamic online learning community where every person in the community commits to embodying the traits of a lifelong learner.

Dr. Bernard Bull is the Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of Education, and Director of the M.S. in Educational Design & Technology at Concordia University Wisconsin.

  • Jeff Sommers

    Interesting. But the adjective "online" in the title isn't necessary, is it?

  • arlene coughlin

    I liked your article. I would also include that the fauclty is a facilitator…….seeing who is on track and getting those who are ont quite on track to align better with the class. Arlene

  • nasra

    The article is an informative and adding valuable knowledge .I also studied online course during my post graduation in Education . Therefore,I can facilitate it more than others.

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  • Sue Hellman

    I think I might add 'role model' to the list — someone who walks his/her own talk both in spirit and in actual delivery. It's so frustrating for online learners be judged by someone who doesn't hold his/her own course development work to the same standards by which the students' learning demonstration work will be evaluated.

  • Catherine Breet

    Excellent article, Dr. Bull. A Ducati or BMW engine won't mean much if you don't know how to handle the curves … any more than all the fun online tools will do you if you don't know how to use them effectively. Jeff, I do believe "online" belongs in the title. There are dramatic differences between online and classroom learning … and learning how to address them takes skill, passion and practice.

  • Stephanie Belcher

    Great article. In fact these are all roles of an effective teacher, aren't they? In the case of an online teacher, there will have to be greater emphasis on giving feedback regularly, and being a "valve control" as there is so much information being made available each week.

  • Rita nicholas

    I enjoyed the emphasis on co-learner. It is important for teachers see their role as lifelong learner involved in a number of communities, not just the community they create with their current students. It is this lifelong learner that enables the sharing of learning across years and time zones.

  • Samantha Roach

    I think this is a great article, its a good checklist for us lecturers who teach online, to ensure that there is a balance. I agree that online teaching and classes can be a lonely process for the students. These are great points to make it more exciting, fun and fulfilling while enhancing the student's learning.

  • Checklist that will enhance student learning. Good read.

  • Angad Singh Amethi

    This article may be helpful and motivating for all teachers, online or off-line. Good ideas may be taken from anywhere and from any source.

  • Bill

    Large! Really cold. Obrigado.

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  • Crystal Pietrowicz

    Good points in this article. Another good resource is "Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction" by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson (one of the Jossey-Bass Guides to Online Teaching and Learning). This book has loads of great ideas that support the various roles described in the article here.

  • Kathleen Gradel

    How cool is it that there is nothing about being the expert or "sage on the stage." I think that this is a huge transition for many folks, as they move into online and blended learning.

    And @ Crystal…thanks for the plug on Conrad and Donaldson's recent update to "Engaging the Online Learner"! I was privileged to have some of my "tried and true" activities included in the recent edition.

    It is great to be amongst "co-learners" here!

  • Leslie Lewis

    Great article! It does a great job of identifying the key roles of the online instructor . . .

  • Gary

    I'm sorry and maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon but, these suggestions seem to me to reinforce the sense of entitlement that many of the students I encounter have. These are college age students, not elementary or junior high. When I went to college (granted back in the dark ages) my professors expected us to take responsibility for our learning. They were friendly, many were role models, but they didn't feel like they had to hold our hands through the academic experience that was college. Help was available if we asked for it but the expectations listed above are too much. I have certain expectations of online students – they have ready access to a computer with the skills necessary to use it, reliable Internet access, etc. I've had students who tell me they took my class to learn how to use a computer (I teach philosophy and Logic, not keyboarding or computer science). Others do not have their own computer and expect me to grant them exceptions to class policy because they have to borrow someone else's computer or use one at a library. These students are adults but too many of them want the privileges of adulthood without the responsibility that goes along with those privileges. I try to explain everything clearly, help when I can, and create a collegial atmosphere in the online courses, but I cannot become an enabler of entitlement. I don't expect many of the respondents to this thread to agree with me but I felt compelled to present another side of the discussion.

    • Bernard

      Gary – Thank you for the comment and willingness to explore another perspective. With that said, I suspect that you do a good measure of these things in one way or another. What roles do you see as most critical for the online instructor?

      Your comment also bring up an important "part 2" to the article and that would be "Eight Roles of the Effective Online Learner."

  • Qin Li

    Some people are concerned that as more and more courses are moved online, there will be a lesser need for human instructors. This article only speaks to that instructor's presence is more important in an online learning environment, isn't it? : )

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  • readandwriteglobalhealth

    Excellent – what are the best complementary guides for participant-focused effective online learning and how to maximise the opportunities (and minimise the difficulties) of online learning?

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  • jstrobel777

    Very good content. When an online course is designed well and facilitated by an engaging instructor, the learning outcomes for the student is great. I've been there. I liked your point about the teacher being active, but not so much that it silences students. Before any student enrolls in an online class, clear expectations must be set such as basic computer experience, self direction and time management. Online is not for everyone, but one day, it will be the norm.

  • Sunday-Martins Odetokun

    It seems the best is serve last, he points here are really and very good it tells the truth about online training and brought out the reasons why online taring is very good and support using online training as a way to support adult students to read more but to encourages to not just seat down because some of the reason or danger has been remove.-travelling safety and finances.