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From Lecturer to Facilitator – Five Emerging Roles for Online Instructors

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Today, 79% of all online students and 76% of alumni say that online education is “better than” or “equal to” on-campus education.


More than 6.3 million students in the U.S. — most of whom were undergraduates — took at least one online course in fall 2016.[1] Today, 79% of all online students and 76% of alumni say that online education is “better than” or “equal to” on-campus education.

Online learning continues to grow in popularity as schools seek out new ways to connect with changing student demographics and learners press for more flexible and technology-enabled learning.

So how does the shift to online instruction change the way instructors approach curricula and learners?

In a traditional classroom model, the instructor is positioned at the front of the class, behind a podium or in front of a chalkboard. The lecture is given in the typical form of address. These conventional roles for faculty in our colleges and universities are based on a time when teaching faculty were the primary sources of information for students. Today, however, we are far beyond that.

A richer, more thoughtful learning experience emerges

Typically, faculty members are involved in selecting content, designing assessments and activities, grading assignments, and providing feedback. However, online learning and new models of teaching and learning such as competency-based education have many institutions rethinking the role of faculty. For example, one faculty member with deep subject matter expertise may be invited to develop the content for a specific course while another set of faculty may be retained for grading, feedback, and course guidance and advisement. Such a disaggregation or unbundling of roles may provide a richer, more thoughtful experience for learners as well as faculty members.

In the world of technology-facilitated online learning, the shift of space and time also completely alters the teacher/student dynamic. Chalkboards and lecterns are replaced by a learning management system (LMS). Lectures are transformed into interactive learning experiences rich with multimedia assets, and students are encouraged to pursue independent course readings[2], and engage in collaborative exercises and discussions. Rather than playing an authoritative role, teachers become facilitators and guides.

Let’s explore five emerging roles for online instructors:

  1. E-learning designer – Instructors must reconceptualize courses and redesign them for the online world.
  2. Technology specialist – Instructors must be familiar with the tools of e-learning and be able to explain them to their students.
  3. Content coach – Moving away from the traditional lecture format, instructors become coaches and mentors helping to facilitate student learning at both the classroom and individual level.
  4. Social director – In a traditional classroom setting, instructors and students follow traditional communication norms. In the online world, instructors must purposefully facilitate communication with and among the community of learners through various means, including email, chat rooms, discussion forums, polls, video and more.
  5. Managing correspondent – As online learning requires students to do significant independent reading and writing, instructors must play the role of managing correspondent to make sure material is manageable and understandable, and must invest significant time in providing feedback, responding to student questions, and offering tips and tricks and words of encouragement.[3]

[1] Study: More Students Are Enrolling in Online Courses
[2] The Role of Faculty on the Online Teaching Environment
[3] Redefining Teaching: The Five Roles of the Online Instructor

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Table of Contents
  1. A richer, more thoughtful learning experience emerges