Online Learning Roles for Instructors and Students

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Online learning provides opportunities for both students and instructors, but each of these groups must interact successfully to achieve optimum educational results. As in traditional face-to-face learning, students have roles as learners and instructors have roles as mentors. Online learning presents new methods of interacting and learning. In higher education online courses, adult learners respond to constructivist learning theories that embrace andragogy (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Through experience and time, adults construct knowledge by absorbing information in online activities, books, and communication with mentors and other learners (Koohang & Paliszkiewicz, 2013).  Pedagogical methods must be applied to online learning targeting younger students.  In any online platform, scaffolding is a technique used to develop higher thinking skills in learners (Hannafin & Sharma, 2004).  The scaffold supports the learner to a certain extent until he/she can move forward without it (Hannafin & Sharma,  2004).  Online instructors facilitate this scaffolding for students through various synchronous and asynchronous interactions.

One of the obstacles for online instructors is the lack of face-to-face interaction. Instructors in a brick and mortar classroom gauge whether their students understand while in real-time (Savery, 2005). They answer questions immediately. Tradtional teachers can often tell whether their students are following along or “lost”.  This type of scaffolding must be altered for online teaching.  Online instructors must utilize new tools of communication and assume the role of communicator for the community as well as the individual (Hirumi, 2011).  This requires the instructor to be informed about technology as well as theories of learning.  Technology alone does not secure a successful educational outcome (Haythorthwaite & Andrews, 2011).  Teachers must be comfortable with synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication and take the initiative to use them (Koohang & Palisziewicz, 2013).  Synchronous communication includes web conferencing using voice only, or visual and voice. Asynchronous methods of communication include email and discussion boards.  Online instructors should notify learners of the methods for communicating along with times available to ensure open dialogue (Brown, 2005).  Learners feel more connected when instructors respond to their questions in a timely manner (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010).  The instructor is in an ideal position to facilitate online communication in an on-going basis throughout the course.  In this way, the scaffolding is being upheld to encourage visibility between learner and instructor.  The role of the learner is to utilize these communication tools and respond to open discussions and questions that have been posted by the instructor. The teacher must often initiate this process and interact with a discussion board to achieve the necessary communication, collaboration, and connectivism (Hirumi, 2011).

Teacher introductions are a good way to open discussion and share a short biographical sketch (Savery, 2005).  Online instructors may want to include a letter of introduction before a course starts and open discussion through a community discussion board.  Feedback is essential for good communication, whether online or in the classroom, and is a necessary part of good scaffolding. Teachers should give individual feedback through email or when returning assignments. Timeliness is of paramount importance for successful interaction, according to student surveys  (Getzalf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009).  Positive feedback motivates learners and keeps them connected through constructive learning theory (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Students often have an opportunity for feedback midway through a course or at the end of the course.  If the feedback is genuinely desired and given, the midway feedback can be useful to instructors in making changes.

Online learning requires sound learning theory-based courses that will address the needs of the students.  Adult learners are often more motivated and comfortable being an independent learner (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). They respond well to constructivist learning theories that encourage them to build upon the knowledge they have (Koohang, et al., 2009).  Instructors must evaluate the methods used to encourage knowledge construction.  This can be difficult if the online course was designed by someone other than the instructor.  In such a situation, the instructor must work with the course outline and activities. The instructor may need to take a greater role as communicator and direct the student to other sources of information (Ravenscroft, 2011).  The role of the teacher in online learning is to mentor the student through activities that require a learner to “absorb” information, “do”, and “connect” (Horton, 2007). The learner has the responsibility to complete the activities in order to facilitate learning through this process of constructing knowledge (Horton, 2007). Online learners must be motivated and self-actuated to successfully complete courses (Koohang, et al., 2009).

Scaffolding is a critical step in all types of learning, but especially necessary for successful online learning. Students vary by ability, age and experience, so the scaffolding may have to stay up longer in different scenarios. However, learners and mentors are able to navigate the online learning community when they utilize the tools for each of their roles in the process of learning.

Horton, 2007


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