The 9 roles of an online educator

Graphic depicting the roles on an online educator

Creating an online orientation program is not a small undertaking. There are a lot of tasks to be done, a lot of decisions to be made, and a lot of roles to be played. Going into a new project, it’s important to understand the breadth of responsibilities and have a clear understanding of who will be filling each role. While many of these roles, when viewed by title alone, are similar to roles involved in other types of face-to-face programs, the responsibilities and tasks associated with these roles for an online project may be different.

The Managerial Role

The managerial role acts as the project manager, and kicks the project off by setting objectives, timelines, budget, and decision making norms. They ensure the project is moving along according to the timeline, assist with removing any roadblocks that occur, and ensure folks around the institutions and in senior leadership are kept aware of the status of the project. The managerial role may also deal with tasks related to learner registration, security, privacy and record-keeping to ensure that your practices align with institutional policies.

Who: As the project lead, you may be responsible for certain parts of the managerial role, while your manager may take responsibility for other parts.

Skills and knowledge: Project management, communication, budgeting

The Pedagogical Role

The pedagogical role relates to the interactive pedagogies used in the program and the cognitive support given to the student. This role helps to determine which strategies and approaches will help to facilitate the learners understanding of the course content. They help to determine whether learning activities will be didactic, experiential, scenario-based, discussion based, reflective, etc., based on the desired outcome. This role is very similar to the pedagogical role involved in planning face-to-face programming.

Who: The pedagogical role is typically held by the project lead, but may be influenced by the content expert role and the instructional design role.

Skills and knowledge: Pedagogy, instructional strategies, science of learning

The Social Role

The social role involves ensuring that any interactions that the student has with the institution in the process of completing the program are friendly, supportive, and helpful. This includes emails received about the program, responses to discussion posts within the program, or responses to emails from students who are having difficulty. For a self-paced, asynchronous online orientation program, this role may be small, but it can still be important.

Who: The social role may be played by a number of different people, including department communications officers, who may be responsible for sending emails, IT or Help Desk folks who may respond to student problems, and student staff, who may be hired to interact with students within the program.

Skills and knowledge: Friendliness and patience!

The Technical Role

An online orientation program obviously requires using technology; your project team, therefore, requires folks who are technology experts, and can support both you and your students. They can provide resources and instruction to help you and your students feel comfortable using any required systems and software, suggest appropriate technology tools to help you meet your goals, and help solve any issues that arise.

Who: The technical role is often filled by folks who work in IT or in University Systems. It may be filled by a specific person, there may be one person who supports you, and a different person who supports your students, or the role may be filled not by a specific individual, but by existing systems and practices at your institution. For example, we don’t have a specific person who supports students with issues they encounter with the program, but UVic’s Help Desk is always an email or phone call away! The technical role is very rarely held by the project lead.

Skills and knowledge: Information technology, university systems, software used within the program, communication

The Assessor Role

The assessor role includes both the assessment and feedback that is given to students throughout the program. In an online orientation program, most of this assessment is embedded within the program’s learning activities as feedback that appears automatically depending on what the student selects, or as quizzes that are automatically graded. This role also monitors students’ progress and performance in the program.

Who: While it’s possible that many people will weigh in on program assessment, including your manager, project partners, or an assessment specialist on campus, it’s likely that you, as project lead, will be responsible for assessment.

Skills and knowledge: Different assessment techniques, survey and/or quiz design, providing feedback

The Content Expert Role

The content expert(s) play a critical role in the development of an online orientation program. While most orientation professionals are well-versed in the needs of first-year students and effective methods for engaging these students, they are often not the experts on all the topics an online orientation program may attempt to address, such as academic advising, academic success, mental health, finances, sexualized violence prevention, and more. Bringing folks who are knowledgeable on those topics on board can help ensure you are conveying the most important information to students, using the language and approach adopted by your institution. Content experts can help inform the learning outcomes for a topic, assist with developing and editing content, and help ensure the program is always up-to-date on the topic. During the development of UVic’s Pre-Arrival Program, we created a subject matter expert committee (SMEC) for each of our program modules that brought together folks from a number of different departments who had a stake in the topic. Through conversations with these committees, we were able to develop our learning outcomes for each module, create frameworks for each activity we wanted to develop, and receive feedback to ensure the information we were providing to students was accurate and on message.

Who: This is very dependant on the topic being covered, but often involves staff from a variety of other student affairs and services departments on campus.

Skills and knowledge: Content expertise

The Instructional Designer Role

The instructional designer role is responsible for designing the course in the online environment. When many of the other roles contribute to deciding what content to include, what approaches to take, etc., the instructional designer is responsible for sitting down at their computer and bringing all the ideas and decisions to life. They contribute to the conversations about learning outcomes, approaches, and learning activity type, as they are able to provide insight on what is possible within the learning platform and what is not. They are then responsible for designing the learning activities, seeking and implementing feedback, and also typically the role that inputs all the developed content and activities into the chosen course system, although the technical role may also be required here as well.

Who: The instructional designer role is typically held by the project lead, but often will be supplemented by staff in the institution’s Learning and Teaching Centre, or may be contracted out to individuals with expertise in instructional design and/or certain software. We worked closely with our partners in Technology Integrated Learning (TIL) at UVic, and they were immeasurably helpful in providing insight on what was possible within our learning management system, assisting with the design of activities using Articulate Storyline, brainstorming innovative ideas, and more.

Skills and knowledge: Instructional design, media and technology attributes and functions

The Researcher Role

The researcher role seeks out and engages with new knowledge that is relevant to the overall program. They focus on ensuring that the program is up-to-date and is meeting student needs. This role is extremely important at the beginning of the project as the structure and overall approach of the program are being developed. This role helps to identify the existing gaps that the program is to help fill, and stays up-to-date on best practices in online student engagement.  While the researcher role and the content expert role may overlap in some areas, it’s important to note that they are not the same. Content experts are expected to be up-to-date on certain topics within the program; the researcher is expected to be up-to-date on what topics should be included in the program in the first place. It’s also important to note that while the researcher has an important role at the beginning of the project, this role continues to be important even after the program has been developed in order to ensure the program does not become outdated and ineffective.

Who: This role is often filled by the project lead, although the role may also sometimes be delegated to someone else who will conduct and environmental scan or a literature review for the project lead. Some parts of this role may also be filled by folks not associated with the project at all, as previous work in this area may have initiated the project in the first place.

Skills and knowledge: Academic research, student needs, student engagement

The Evaluator Role

The evaluator role evaluates the program on a regular basis in order to suggest improvements. They may review participation rates, assessment results, student feedback, and overall student needs in order to fulfill their role. While most of the work involved in this role occurs after the program has been implemented, it’s important that evaluation also has a presence in the development of the program, in order to ensure that the proper data is being collected and that processes are in place to be able to conduct a thorough evaluation. The evaluator role is often responsible for producing project wrap-up reports and recommendations for the future.

Who: This role is often filled by the project lead, but may also sometimes include others, particularly student staff or perhaps content experts, who are asked for their perspective and opinion on certain aspects of the program or certain learning activities.

Skills and knowledge: Data analysis (quantitative and qualitative), evaluation techniques, survey design, communication


References

Ni Shé, C., Farrell, O., Brunton, J., Costello, E., Donlon, E., Trevaskis, S., & Eccles, S. (2019). Teaching online is different: Critical perspectives from the literature. Dublin City University.

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