Online instructor roles
This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.
Learn about the various roles an instructor plays in an online course
The complexity of the online environment brings into focus the need for instructors to facilitate an online course through various perspectives or “roles.” These roles include managerial, social, pedagogical, or technical (described below). Each of these four roles encompasses a number of skills and competencies specific to that domain of teaching. A successful online instructor combines all four roles to help teach students the subject matter and build an online learning community in support of that subject matter.
Why Is It Important?
It might be easy to overlook or forget the fundamental differences between face-to-face and online teaching; however, it is these differences—especially for fully online (asynchronous) courses—that can determine learners’ and instructors’ success in an online course. The online learning environment requires an instructor who can not only communicate effectively using technology, but also guide student learning, coach students to collaborate effectively, and provide enough structure for student success while allowing self-directed exploration. By facilitating an online course according to the four major roles, online instructors take a comprehensive approach to teaching that greatly benefits all online learners.
Information to Consider
Instructors in online classrooms have to consider multiple roles that have some similarities to teaching face-to-face but also many differences. When teaching online, the associated competencies and tasks should be tailored to the nature and requirements of the online learning environment. Online instructors performing these roles will simultaneously bring learners together around the course material and thereby give them the opportunity to make social connections and create new knowledge along the way.
The managerial role refers to the organizational, procedural, and administrative tasks associated with maintaining the online learning environment.
- Setting agendas and timetables
- Monitoring overall timing and pacing
- Providing clear instructions for all course activities and assignments as well as guidelines or netiquette expectations for online discussions
- Building and managing online groups
- Facilitating and managing online discussions
- Coordinating assignments and grades
The social role promotes a friendly environment and community feeling to support students’ cognitive processes and learning experiences.
- Implementing icebreaker or get-to-know-you activities
- Motivating and engaging students in a community of inquiry
- Creating a supportive climate for learning that respects individual differences
- Attending to individual concerns
- Using a friendly, personal tone
- Building social rapport and a collective identity among the class
The pedagogical role includes a wide range of tasks (e.g., instructional, intellectual, and content-based) that contribute to the students’ understanding and application of course content as well as the development of their critical thinking skills.
- Selecting, refining, and regularly updating course materials
- Writing clear learning objectives and aligning the course materials, activities, and assessments with those objectives
- Designing online discussions and activities
- Stimulating critical thinking and reflection by using questions and probes
- Assessing student work and providing timely feedback
- Referring students to online support services for tutoring, advising, library resources, and other help
The technological role helps students feel comfortable with the technology used in an online course.
- Understanding technical terms related to online tools
- Using online tools to communicate with students
- Using online tools to present content in textual, graphic, audio, and video formats
- Allowing students sufficient time to learn how to use new tools
- Diagnosing and clarifying technical problems
- Referring students to technical support resources when necessary
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