Online Instructor Roles

Teacher helping student

The complexity of the online environment brings into focus the need for instructors to facilitate an online course through various perspectives or “roles.” These roles include managerial, social, pedagogical, or technical (described below). Each of these four roles encompasses a number of skills and competencies specific to that domain of teaching. A successful online instructor combines all four roles to help teach students the subject matter and build an online learning community in support of that subject matter.


Why Is It Important?

It might be easy to overlook or forget the fundamental differences between face-to-face and online teaching; however, it is these differences—especially for fully online (asynchronous) courses—that can determine learner’s and instructor’s success in an online course. The online learning environment requires an instructor who can not only communicate effectively using technology, but also guide student learning, coach students to collaborate effectively, and provide enough structure for student success while allowing self-directed exploration. By facilitating an online course according to the four major roles, online instructors take a comprehensive approach to teaching that greatly benefits all online learners.


Information to Consider

Instructors in online classrooms have to consider multiple roles that have some similarities to teaching face-to-face but also many differences. When teaching online, the associated competencies and tasks should be tailored to the nature and requirements of the online learning environment. Online instructors performing these roles will simultaneously bring learners together around the course material and thereby give them the opportunity to make social connections and to create new knowledge along the way.

There are also many strategies to achieve the four roles in the “Designing Online Courses” and “Teaching Online Courses” sections of this website:

Online instructor reaching out to students


Want More?

The “Online Instructor Roles” deep dive topic describes the roles of the online instructor and the skills and strategies that are needed to succeed.

Topics covered include:

  • Instructional roles
  • Online teaching skills
  • Building online learning communities
  • Principles of good teaching practice

Visit the Online Instructor Roles deep dive topic

Note: This course is available for FREE to all UW-Madison faculty and staff. When you click the link you will be prompted to sign in with your UW-Madison NetID and password. Then you will be taken to the topic homepage where you can learn more and complete activities.