The Changing Roles of Educators in Online Teaching

In the various conversations that I had with educators in these past months, I heard the resistance to and anxiety about online learning. Many educators who are unfamiliar with online teaching work hard to recreate their classrooms in online learning platforms (e.g. Canvas, Google Classroom, Zoom, etc.). They want to construct an online learning environment that mimics the classroom—a setting that most educators, like myself, find integral to community building, student engagement, culture creation, alongside other wonderful things that make education good.

The desire to make online class a mimicry of the physical classroom, however, means that online education is framed as inferior to face-to-face learning. This approach views online education as pseudo-pedagogy—a counterfeit version of “real” teaching and learning. This is the wrong approach.

Educators wears many hats in the classroom. We are the presenter, the facilitator, the manager, the connector, the mentor and the role model. And if students like us enough, sometimes teaching can make us feel like a rock star.

Online teaching and learning begs us to change our mindset. It calls for us to change the way we play these roles. While presenting information and managing grades can be quite similar, the way we perform other roles must change. Moreover, we have to accept the reality that some of these traditional roles that we cling to simply don’t apply in the virtual world, and we need to adopt new unconventional roles as online teachers.

The Roles We Need To Rethink

The Mentor: While we can still serve as mentors to our students, mentoring in the virtual world means that we have to be more creative. The lack of physical interaction means that we cannot rely on our personalities or charisma to establish rapport. Students won’t be able to harvest the sensory details through direct interactions to get to know us. There’s no office they can go to. They can’t catch us after class to ask a curious question.

To compensate for the lack of physical interactions, we have to establish multiple channels of communications—synchronous and asynchronous. We need to think about creating multiple new spaces that are welcoming so students can feel safe and encouraged (or even expected) to reach out. Depending on the level of comfort and the degree of privacy you need, they can be in the forms of group texts via mobile phones or Whatsapp, chat sessions or chat rooms on LMS or Google Doc, online discussion boards, Zoom meetings and emails.

The Facilitator: While discussion and conversation can simultaneously boost student engagement, build a sense of community and reinforce knowledge among students in the classroom, achieving these various goals might take multiple formats in an online setting. Putting students in breakout rooms in a synchronous online classroom can be a good way to build community and encourage some students to engage with their classmates. However, it does not necessarily provide opportunities for us, the teacher, to evaluate how well our students know the material or if they are interested in the topic. We can’t read the room.

To compensate for that, we have to understand why facilitation works well in an offline environment, what specific goals they achieve, and design new learning components to fulfill these goals that might be difficult to achieve in an online setting. For instance, if students often ask clarifying questions during group discussion, but they stop doing that in the virtual classroom, create a separate space where clarifying questions can live, for instance, a discussion board.

The Roles We Need to Let Go

The Role Model/The Inspirational Figure: Any seasoned educators know that feeling when a former student sends us an email or a LinkedIn message telling us how a class we taught has transformed the way they see the world. It’s a great feeling. It validates our hard work. I get that. Well, we don’t get to enjoy this sense of satisfaction in online teaching. If there’s any sense of achievement to be gained in online teaching, it will come from knowing that our students have learned something from the class.

Indeed, an online learning environment is a de-centered space. Power and authority is not centered solely with the instructor but is dispersed or entrusted to students. We have to trust that students are going to access the materials and learn. Our job is make sure contents are good-quality and that they are accessible, technologically, economically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually (it’s a high bar, I know).

Letting go of our role as the central figure in the classroom doesn’t mean that we don’t set rules or expectations. It means that after we inform students of our expectations and provide them with clear guidelines, we let go of our desire to control students’ behaviors and allow for diverse learning styles. We must trust that students have what it takes to get through the materials, and if they don’t, we expect them to ask questions.

The Role We Need To Take On

The Curator: If we can’t directly inspire our students by relying on our knowledge, wisdom and charisma, how do we boost curiosity and make learning happen? We let the subject speaks for itself. Experienced online teachers select a diverse set of high-quality content and design a variety of learning processes that speak to different students. Similar to curators, good online teachers organize chaos into a coherent and logical framework.

Since trust might not be easily established with students in an online setting, we must allow students a multitude of routes to access and gain knowledge. Students might not trust us at a personal level, but they also don’t have to. If we make them aware of the many different sources of the same fact and let them get closer to the truth through various paths, they will come to trust the validity of the materials and develop interest around the topic.

More concretely, use a variety of methods of delivery and let students choose what work best for them. They can be YouTube videos, documentaries, podcasts, TedTalks, infographics, textbooks, news articles, essays, audiobooks, pre-recorded lectures, worksheets, Instagram posts, tweets or hashtags.

Online teaching doesn’t have to be worse than classroom teaching. It just has to be different. Because of that, it requires educators to rethink our roles. What roles do you take on when you teach? How do you see your role change in online teaching? Leave a comment!

#onlineteaching #teaching #pedagogy #onlinepedagogy #pandemicpedagogy #teachingandlearning #onlineclassroom #education #teacher #virtuallearning #webinars #students #studentsuccess #teachingonline


Published by pandamotherly

I am Dr. Esther HioTong Castillo. I am Panda Mom. I'm a biracial sociologist mama with a 4 year-old daughter. Four years ago, my complicated birth and the sea-change in my career and family had thrown me into the downward spiral of depression and anxiety. Now, I'm sharing my story and writing my way to health and wellness at the intersection of trauma, intergenerational trauma, family, and parenting.

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