Being an effective online instructor does not end with creating a stellar course. As with face-to-face instruction, effectiveness carries through to the way you interact with your students, the multiple roles you will play at varying times throughout the semester, your presence in the virtual classroom, and your involvement in student learning. Effective instructors are facilitators of student learning, strive to be excellent communicators, and are resourceful, organized and prompt. To be an effective instructor, you must recognize not only the roles you must fill but also the most appropriate time to fill them.

Eight Roles of an Effective Online Instructor

Faculty Focus published the Eight Roles of an Effective Online Teacher (Bull, 2013). Consider the following eight roles of an effective online teacher.

Tour Guide

A tour guide leads one or more people through a place or a series of places, usually revolving around some sort of common theme or subject. Similarly, the online teacher plays the role of guiding students through one or more online learning experiences. These experiences are most often designed and planned long before the course starts so that the teacher can devote more time to guiding the students and less time preparing lessons. Within this role, the teacher directs and redirects the attention of learners toward key concepts and ideas. A good tour guide does not want anyone to miss out on the highlights of the tour.


As with all learning environments, learners often need some encouragement. Learning is hard work and studying online can sometimes feel isolating, confusing, or discouraging without this important role. As a result, the effective online teacher makes intentional efforts to communicate specific encouraging messages to individual learners and the group as a whole. Even when providing constructive feedback, the teacher as a cheerleader finds a way to promote positive messages alongside the critiques, doing his or her best to maintain overall positive morale in the class. At times, learners may fall into negative comments about themselves, the class, or their classmates (even the instructor, on occasion). The cheerleader strives to find ways to listen, to respect the learners’ frustrations, and to help them reframe the situation in ways that are more positive and productive.  

Learning Coach

Many people focus on the role of the teacher as a role model and that is valuable. However, the role of a coach is just as important, even more, important if we want learners to develop high levels of competence and confidence. A role model throws a perfect spiral with a football while the learners watch. A coach gets the learners on the field, puts the ball in their hands, and then coaches them on how to throw a spiral for themselves. This is a powerful and essential role of the online teacher. Such a teacher must move beyond simply modeling a love for the subject and personal skill with the content. Instead, the learning coach finds ways to hand the subject over to the students to do something with it. Applied projects and papers work well for this, and it gives the teacher an opportunity to be a coach and mentor.  

Individual and Group Mirror

Imagine waking up in the morning, getting ready for work, and heading out the door without ever looking into a mirror to see that your hair is sticking straight up in the air. That is good information to know before you walk into the office. Learners need this same sort of feedback about their work. How are they doing? Are they getting closer to meeting the learning objectives or not? The effective online teacher finds ways to give this sort of feedback to individual learners and, when appropriate, groups of learners.  

Social Butterfly

Without intentional efforts to build a positive social environment, online learning can feel lonely and impersonal. As a result, the online teacher must serve as a great party host, facilitating introductions, using discussion starters to facilitate conversations among students, and taking the time to get to know students and referencing that knowledge in interactions with them.  

Big Brother

Everything is documented in an online course. The teacher can tell when and how many times a student logs into the course, what pages were viewed or not, how many discussions posts the student contributed, and much more. This data can be abused, but it can also be used to make adjustments and informed decisions as an online teacher. If a student is not logging in, then contact the student. If students are failing to visit pages in the course with key instructions, point that out to the students or reorganize the content so that it’s easier to find.  

Valve Control

Online courses are rich with content and sometimes students can get lost in all that content. The teacher as valve control intentionally releases content in chunks that are appropriate for students. Sometimes this comes in the form of only releasing content one week at a time. Other times, the teacher releases it all at once but directs students to only focus on certain parts at a time. Another key is to break the content into smaller segments. Rather than a twenty-page document of instructions, consider breaking it into ten two-page documents.  


Great teachers are lifelong learners, and they can model learning for their students in a variety of ways in the online classroom. The teacher can be active (but not too active or it will silence students) participant in online discussions, sharing what they are learning about the subject, and even complete all or parts of some assignments, sharing their work with the students. This goes a long way in building a vibrant and dynamic online learning community where every person in the community commits to embodying the traits of a lifelong learner.

Additional Resource

Dr. Bernard Bull is the Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of Education, and Director of the M.S. in Educational Design & Technology at Concordia University Wisconsin.


The mission of the Rothwell Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence is to empower faculty members in their pursuit of professional growth through diverse offerings for the universal goal of student success.

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