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What Can You Expect of Your Online Instructor?


If you are considering enrollment in your first online course, you may wonder how it all works. The online learning environment presents a number of challenges to communication and content presentation, all addressed through the use of technology.

Your instructors in these courses are charged with a number of tasks – both educational and technological – to ensure that you are able to locate, access, and interact with the information you need in order to learn from the experience.

In your previous traditional classrooms, your professors and teachers most likely lectured, led the class in open discussions, shared their own subject matter expertise, and assessed your work. While the job of the college instructor continues to evolve, these activities are still common on campus and online. So, what can you expect from an online instructor in an academic course?

Task Categories

Educators from Middle Tennessee State University applied the elements of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, to the online learning environment. Three key activities include:

  • Fostering student engagement by encouraging and supporting your interaction with the course content, with your classmates, and with the instructor himself/herself, as part of an online learning community.
  • Stimulating intellectual development through techniques that provoke you to take a new perspective, reflect on your own growth, and participate in complex problem-solving scenarios.
  • Building rapport with students with activities that allow all members of the community to connect with one another and by providing individualized feedback on course progress.

Performance Expectations

Penn State World Campus provides this list of eight ways in which online instructors are expected to perform their jobs. While designed for use by colleges and academic departments, this list helps frame the knowledge and interaction you should expect from your online instructors in terms of their:

  • Technology access: Having access to and understanding how to use all of the same technologies you are expected to use in your course.
  • Course management and instruction: Facilitating the course through its established schedule while supporting individual students throughout.
  • Preparation: Knowledgeable and skilled with the course site, communication tools, and content presentation before the course begins.
  • Course familiarity: Knows the course requirements, assignments, schedule, and subject matter. Communicates any changes with students, and reports problems per the school’s established procedures.
  • Availability: Similar to the expectation of online learners, the instructor accesses the course frequently and is available to address student questions and concerns in a timely manner.
  • Communication: Conveys expectations of all course requirements to students, answers questions, and participates in course activities.
  • Feedback: Provides all students with timely, thorough feedback on their assignments and progress toward achieving the learning goals of the course.
  • Documentation and record keeping: In addition to posting and recording assignment grades, tracks communication and completes additional administrative requirements of the school.

Core Characteristics

Several years ago educator John Savery presented the VOCAL approach [PDF] to online teaching that continues to be relevant today. According to Savery, the following characteristics “promote a supportive, challenging, constructive, rigorous, and effective instructional environment”:

  • Visible: Instructors should be actively present in their online courses by using a variety of techniques to participate in conversations, share their personalities, and communicate with students.
  • Organized: Online courses require instructors to possess efficient time management, prioritization, and planning skills that include clear presentation of course materials.
  • Compassionate: Online instructors are encouraged to develop supportive communities in their courses to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners, including many non-traditional students such as adults managing coursework in addition to the responsibilities of jobs and families.
  • Analytical: Learning management systems collect a lot of data about student use of course materials and progress. Instructors should work with their programs to review the available information, including student evaluations, and make recommendations to improve the course.
  • Leader-by-example: All course instructors – online, on campus, and blended – provide a model of what is expected in their classes in terms of professional communication, problem-solving, and participation.

As you can see, successful online instructors have a lot of responsibilities and wear multiple hats as they meet the expectations of both their students and academic departments. While your instructors may be working with a long list of challenges, they are your first point of contact for any questions or concerns related to your online course. Don’t hesitate to contact them for assistance as soon as you’ve identified a potential issue. They may not have all the answers, but can help you get in contact with all of the support services your school provides, such as libraries, advisors, counselors, and a tech help desk. Your success in the course is a common goal!

What are your concerns about working and communicating with an instructor in your first online course?

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Image credit: bdodge, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-SA

March 19th, 2013 written by (learn more about our authors)

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