The world of higher education has changed, and many classrooms around the world no longer have a teacher standing at the podium in front of the class, like the Economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who hopelessly—and endlessly—asked a bored and disengaged group of students, “Anyone? Anyone?” In fact, the emergence of online higher education as a new way to complete a college degree has become so popular that many “classrooms” are not even physical, they are virtual learning environments, and the instructor and students may be separated by hundreds of miles. This distance means that academic roles are changing, and faculty and students have to learn new ways to interact. While many students thrive in the traditional academic setting, and need the face-to-face communication with faculty available in those settings, other students find traditional methods alienating and intimidating, and this often presents a barrier to learning. Online courses offer different methods of instruction that can increase student engagement and learning. But that means that faculty have to expand their roles and functions into different areas. The role of a faculty member in an online course will depend on whether the course is designed by the instructor or curriculum specialist, who controls what content is offered in the course, or if the course is one that allows students to participate in the creation of course content, through student-constructed blogs, wikis, databases and other activities. In his SlideShare presentation entitled Roles and Responsibilities of the Online Instructor, Jason F. Rhode, Ph.D. emphasizes that the world of online education is about building a community of learners. This is where most online courses diverge from traditional courses. However, as different as these two kinds of online courses are, there remain specific ways in which online teachers can provide support to their students that is different from the methods used by traditional classroom instructors.
How Can Faculty Adapt to Online Teaching?
Given the new developments in online education, faculty must reexamine their traditional methods and develop new roles for themselves that are responsive to both the new learning environments in which they teach and the new kinds of students they will encounter there. Some of these roles are not new, though they take place in a new format. But some are wholly specific to online education:
- Role Model for Netiquette: Faculty need to provide students with examples of thorough, appropriate, and timely answers to student questions through their own professional conduct. If an instructor responds to a question in slang or with incomplete sentences, students will understand that to be acceptable in their own work. Through your respectful and encouraging answers, students will learn how to appropriately contribute to an online course.
- Subject Matter Expert: This is not a new role for college faculty, who in most cases have doctorates and are required, as part of their professional qualifications, to be experts in the subjects they teach. However, this is different online, when students must produce material that draws from many different online sources. Faculty must be familiar not only with their subject areas, but also with the different electronic sources from which students will draw their material. As subject matter expert, faculty also must know when to step in and make corrections without alienating students.
- Mentor: While some mentoring in an online course is similar to what traditional instructors do, such as returning student work in a timely fashion and delivering specific course content, students need a faculty member to always keep in mind that they are working independently, often at different times from other students and need specific kinds of guidance and support that is suitable to online learning. Faculty need to encourage responses, provide reminders about due dates, facilitate online discussions to keep them going, and mediate between students who may disagree in an online forum or chat, to keep the discussion on target. Importantly, Faculty in this role must act to a certain extent as supportive coaches, rewarding students for their valuable contributions and bolstering struggling students.
- Technical Advisor: Online instructors are the first line of communication for students struggling with technical issues. They will go to faculty with questions when components of the learning management system or certain modules are not functioning properly, as well as when they need assistance adding their work to open source programs. If the faculty member is a subject area expert but does not know a thing about troubleshooting computer problems, he/she will not be able to help students, leading to frustration and high drop-out rates. Faculty need to be at least basically technically competent, or know exactly where in their institution they can refer students who ask for help.
Role Models and Tools for Online Faculty
Michelle Everson, Ph.D. teaches Psychology at the University of Minnesota and quickly recognized that even though she was not teaching face-to-face, her presence and participation in the online courses still made a difference for the success or failure of the course. She points out that she is better able to follow student discussions online than in the classroom, where she had to walk back and forth between groups and always missed many comments. In her online courses, she can read all the comments and respond to them, making her more effective in providing feedback to students and making sure that they understood the course material. She writes that in her courses, she tries to:
- Cheer students on and let them know when they are on the right track
- Highlight important points made during discussion
- Question students about their understanding or ask them to clarify remarks they have made or expand on certain ideas
- Correct misconceptions/misunderstandings
- Provide direct instruction if students appear to be struggling to understand material
Dr. Everson provides a good example of the way that faculty across the country are developing their teaching methods to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by online courses. Along with many other faculty members, she believes that online courses allow her to “learn so much more than I ever could in a classroom setting about how students think through different problems and the hurdles they face along the way as they attempt to solve these problems.” One way that instructors can determine which areas are their strengths and which areas need development to become more effective online educators is to conduct periodic self-assesments, such as those offered by Dunlap-Stone University or Lawrence Technical University But the best suggestions will probably come from students themselves. Instructors should read between the lines of student questions to determine if there are any consistencies in the questions, because that may point out course content or instructional styles that are not working. Like most courses, the online role of the educator is constantly evolving, and such self-assessment can help create a positive virtual learning environment.