What Is the Instructor’s Role in Online Learning for Higher Education?

February 3, 2023

It’s no secret that online courses are more common and more critical than ever. Demand has been growing steadily for years, and a large number of instructors today need to teach many or all of their courses online. For instructors who haven’t taught in an online format before, this can lead to many questions. 

These questions cover far more than simply how to teach online. Some professionals aren’t just questioning their course implementation; they’re questioning their fundamental role in the educational process. Some may even doubt their relevance in the academic world as a whole. This doubt is more widespread in fields where there exist well-designed online resources. It’s all too easy for instructors to feel like they are being replaced. 

There’s no doubt that online teaching has some significant differences compared to teaching in the classroom. However, the differences are often less important than the similarities. Just as well-written textbooks don’t replace a teacher, neither do accessible online resources. Resources like these are tools — educators themselves are much more than that. Online and off, educators are crucial to driving both program and student success. 

To make the transition between classroom and distance learning, it helps to understand the actual role of the instructor in online classes. In many ways, instructors are more important in online courses compared to in the classroom. Knowing what students and the online environment require of you can help you adapt more readily and find your feet in a new environment. 

Teaching Online: Key Aspects of the Instructor’s Role

Teaching in any context involves providing your students with three fundamental types of engagement: teacher presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. 

  • Cognitive presence is the ability to engage with others about a subject and construct meaning out of that engagement. 
  • Social presence is the ability to integrate with others and display personality in the class community.
  • Teaching presence is engagement with an instructor who can guide, question, and facilitate the learning process in a way that other learners can’t.

Whether you’re teaching in person or online, you need to provide your students with an outlet for expression, a way to discuss information, and guidance to explore the material effectively. The classroom setting offers a natural way to provide all three presences at once. When teaching online, however, your job as an instructor becomes more complicated. 

As an online instructor, you have five unique roles. Unless you delegate, your students not only need you to facilitate the three presences, but also to fulfill two additional functions: tech support and course designer. Here’s a breakdown of everything online students need out of their instructors to learn and grow. 


Coaching the material is a vital aspect of any educator’s job. Teaching students the material and guiding them through the learning process is the most fundamental aspect of education. Regardless of the format, the point of having instructors is to coach students through their education.

In the classroom, coaching students is relatively simple — though not always easy. The classroom itself offers a chance to interact with students, allowing you to provide a teaching presence. To speak with students one-on-one, it’s as simple as pulling them aside after class. 

Online education requires more effort to coach students effectively. While recording or live-streaming lectures can be a great tool, coaching students requires the instructor to be proactive. That can mean giving students outlines, creating additional content in different formats, or contacting students individually to meet them at their level. 

Curriculum Designer

Every course needs to have a curriculum in some format. Some classes, particularly those in the health science field, need to meet specific curriculum objectives. While on-campus courses frequently have long-standing, effective curricula that have stood the test of time, online courses may need some work. 

As an online instructor, you may need to partially or wholly rework a class. If the in-person class relies on access to resources on campus, your online students will need a substitute. For example, instead of taking part in anatomy labs with physical models, you can give your students assignments based on online, interactive 3D anatomy models.

Designing a new curriculum from the ground up is a significant undertaking in any medium. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of any tools and content banks that make the task easier.

Community Builder

Both social presence and cognitive presence rely on the educational community of a specific class. The third hat you wear as an educator is one of community building and organization. This process can be done in a classroom by pairing students for assignments, scheduling in-class group work, or having whole-class discussions. 

Building a community online is another matter. Discussion boards are a common choice, but they need to be used effectively. Instead of using discussion posts as a medium for short essay responses, you can foster discussion by posting open-ended questions. You can also assign students to smaller groups for projects or labs as long as you make sure they can communicate with each other.

Finally, giving your students ways to work together and work with you in real time is an excellent way to build community. Setting up a chat feature during live lectures or scheduling video meetings can help create a sense of community, but it also requires you to understand technology. 

Tech Support

That brings us to the fourth aspect of teaching online: technical support. Many students will reach out to their instructor first when they have questions about technical problems. The foundation of an excellent online course rests on the technology running behind the scenes and the instructor’s understanding of how to use it. 

Since the instructor’s understanding of the platform is fundamental to the success of an online course, the platform must be easy to use. This helps you understand it as the instructor, and it leads to fewer questions from students that can eat up time better spent building community or coaching.

Content Manager

Last, every educator acts in part as a content manager. Every course includes assignments, tests, presentations, and grades that need to be handed out and returned in a timely fashion. The complexity of the shift from keeping papers and physical items organized to managing an online content system depends entirely on the program involved. 

Furthermore, many instructors create new content — new handouts, quizzes, or even final exams — every semester. Keeping new and old versions of the same assignment from becoming confused poses its own challenge when running online courses. 

It’s worthwhile for instructors who provide feedback on assignments and exams to find a system that makes content management simple. When you’re already fulfilling the four other roles of an online instructor, using the right tools can keep your world more organized.

Supporting Instructors: How Administration Can Help

The switch to teaching classes online is rarely a decision made in a vacuum. Many faculty members switch to online education at least partly due to the request of the administration of their institution. Whether this is the result of a shift in institutional strategy or a reaction to outside events, the administration is just as responsible for the success of the newly-online courses as the faculty. 

The administration’s support of faculty during and after the shift to online courses can make all the difference. According to studies, online educators point to administrative support as one of the most critical elements of a successful transition to distance learning. There are a number of ways that administrators and department heads can support their instructors.

Providing Tools

The first and most important way to support online educators is to offer them the tools they need to teach. When teaching online, the instructor needs to communicate with students, send and receive assignments, provide lectures and other learning material, and test and grade students on their grasp of the material. Providing the tools to do all these tasks and more is a crucial task for administrators and department heads. 

A Learning Management System (LMS) is a convenient and flexible program that can help instructors do all this and more. Many universities already have an LMS in place to help with submitting assignments online. A great LMS can handle much more than that; they offer a platform for online discussions, a place to upload video lectures, and a general hub for any information a class may need. 

Not every LMS will cover every possible online education requirement, however. If there is a gap between the capabilities of an LMS and the needs of a course, the administration can work to provide additional tools that can integrate with the LMS that’s in use. These tools may be programs like:

  • Video-conferencing software
  • Testing platforms
  • Chat programs
  • Learning resources

Making these additional tools easy to access and use can encourage faculty members to spend their time focusing on their students. The more time educators can focus on supporting teaching, social, and cognitive presence in their classes, the better student outcomes will be. 

Offering Technical Support

While supporting their students’ use of technology is a vital role for an online instructor, they don’t have to do this alone. Tech support is one aspect of teaching online that can be at least partially delegated to others. 

Administrators of programs with online courses should prioritize technical support in their institution and any tools they provide. This is true whether the tool is an LMS, a set of online course materials, or a testing platform. If these resources come with their own tech support team, that’s even better. 

Native technical support removes a burden from educators and makes learning simpler for students. While it’s still important for educators and students alike to understand the platform, technical support can make the learning process easier. 

Guaranteeing Training

Who educates the educators? Perhaps not department heads or administrators, but they can definitely facilitate training. Offering instructors training to help transition to online courses can be a vital part of growing and maintaining a distance learning program. 

This training can take many forms. Whether it’s voluntary individual mentoring on running a useful online course or a mandatory seminar explaining new tools, administrators should give educators the resources to learn about their new role. Studies show that students report a better understanding of online course materials when their instructors have been trained on the online systems in use. 

Communicating Effectively

Shifting to online models of education affects more than instructors’ abilities to communicate with their students. It also affects the instructors’ chances to share with the administration. For administrators, working to communicate with faculty is a valuable use of time.

An effective communication strategy can include many methods, like:

  • Opinion surveys about available tools and resources at the beginnings and ends of semesters
  • Regular email updates about new features or responses to feedback
  • Reaching out to individual instructors, especially those teaching multiple online courses
  • Providing an open forum for feedback, complaints, and suggestions

When talking in person is difficult, it’s even more important to provide other communication methods to support a healthy program. Clear lines of communication are crucial for improving courses and programs over time.

Setting Clear Expectations

The goals of an online class should align with the in-person alternative as much as possible. However, there may be some differences between the two when it comes to reaching those goals. To facilitate a smooth transition to distance learning, administrators and department heads can lay out clear expectations and goals in advance. 

For example, administrators can set grade expectations, critical due dates, required testing, and adherence to university policy. They can also lay out expectations regarding feedback time, formats for specific documents, and even the frequency with which an instructor engages with the course during the semester. Communicating these expectations in advance gives faculty a framework for running their courses and helps keep the program running smoothly. 

Quality Counts: Why Investing in Course Materials Matters

Whether you’re an instructor or an administrator, quality course materials should be one of your top priorities. Why? Because the right materials can free educators to spend their time with their students instead of preparing for the next unit. Choosing suitable online materials is one of the most valuable investments in student and program success that can be made. The choice is especially important for traditionally hands-on courses such as those in the health sciences, where online courses are a new development. 

However, not all online courses and curricula are created equal. Choosing the right materials is just as important as providing them in the first place. Here are the signs of useful, valuable online course materials.

Excellent Writing

Online courses must be well-written and easy to understand. The separation between educators and their students makes it challenging to clarify information that’s written poorly. A great collection of online course materials will be written in clear, understandable language and checked by experts in the field. This helps prevent misunderstanding and allows the course instructor to focus on their students’ questions instead of rewriting the materials they already have. 

Easy Implementation

Implementing a new system is frequently the most challenging part of starting a distance learning program. The simpler it is to implement the new program, the more successful the course will be. Signs of a curriculum that’s easy to implement include:

  • Compatibility with the current LMS system
  • Minimal technical complications
  • Technical support to help in the setup process

These factors allow faculty to focus on the details of course content rather than getting the course running in the first place.

Simple Use

Once the course materials are implemented, they should be easy for everyone to access. Students should be able to spend time learning the material instead of the medium. That cuts down on the amount of technical support instructors need to provide and makes education the top priority, not technical problems.

Even excellent online health sciences course materials are not a replacement for instructors. Instead, they are tools. The right online course materials help instructors support both their students and the school’s program success.

In Summary

Running a distance learning course online is an art that many educators learn as they go. Just because the medium is new and unfamiliar does not mean that the instructor’s role has lost any of its importance. In fact, in many ways, it’s more important to have a well-organized, flexible instructor running an online class than teaching in a classroom. 

Online teaching requires educators to juggle more roles than ever before. Faculty are expected to provide students with coaching, an educational community, technical support, quality content, a well-designed course all at the same time. When instructors have the resources they need to do all of these jobs, they become the driving force behind both their students and the program’s success. 

For that reason, investing in educators and the tools they use pays off. An educator does more than just teach — they help programs grow. Supporting faculty with the right course materials can help any institution thrive even as transitions to online learning continue. 

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