Photo by Mark Williams on Unsplash

This the final article in a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

At the end of part two, I promised a circus metaphor. Imagine that you are hired as the ringmaster for a circus. You will wear your red blazer, your tall shiny black boots, and your favourite black top hat. You will crack the whip in the centre ring. You love this job! However, once hired and on the road, you are told that not only will you perform as the ringmaster and MC, but you will also have to set up the tents and clean up after the elephants. You did not sign up for this! Such is the sudden realization, metaphorically speaking, of the novice online instructor confronted with Zane Berge’s pedagogy of online learning.

In 1995, Berge itemized four modes necessary for successful online teaching: the cognitive mode, the technical mode, the social mode, and the managerial mode. His framework effectively and neatly describes the nature of the “expansion of duties” that confront novice online instructors.

The cognitive mode

The cognitive mode encompasses the heart of what teachers are meant to do—help students learn. Teachers bring relevant learning experiences and materials to their students. All activities and assessments that contribute to learning fall into this category, thus contributing to its primary importance. What else would a teacher say, pre-online, if asked what their function was in the classroom? “To help my students learn?” In fact, it would be more likely for them to say, “To teach my students”; as the positivist view of teaching and learning centred on the teacher as the holder and distributor of knowledge. According to pedagogist Paulo Freire, this creates a one-way process in which an active teacher delivers knowledge into the head of a passive learner. While this is a broad generalization, it adequately describes a problematic and longstanding approach to teaching that requires change, as Randy Garrison and Walter Archer eloquently outline in A transactional perspective on teaching and learning:

…to imply that knowledge is held by the teacher, independent of the student, has the potential to seriously distort the educational process. …the result is prescriptive and authoritative instruction. Such systems assume that knowledge can be packaged by the teacher and assimilated in whole by the dutiful and unquestioning student…In contrast to such simplistic views, students need to be confronted with the complexities of knowledge…with how meaning and knowledge is constructed.

Focusing on the delivery of content to learners has allowed courses to be developed around textbooks, which, in turn, has benefitted textbook publishers and authors. For students, it has usually meant a read-and-test approach to learning, which requires expensive textbooks. Instructors assume students have read the material assigned and, with some additional verbal explanation, can ingest and comprehend the material so that they can reproduce it again, in some form, to master examinations or tests.

The physical structure of the traditional university classroom has significantly contributed to these narrow pedagogical practices. As class sizes have continued to grow, large lecture halls have increasingly separated teacher from learners, requiring students to walk down the narrow aisle from the back rows if they wish to engage with the professor. Smaller classrooms, where they still exist, are not as prohibitive. Still, the instructor is usually at the front of the class, standing or seated at a lectern/table/desk, spending much of their time lecturing their students.

Other cognitive patterns in traditional higher education have been inherited from years of a predominant educational paradigm mandating that students listen. The teacher, for example, serves as the primary—and often only—source of content. “The sage on the stage” model of teaching complements the notion that the teacher-sage is the only person in the room with content knowledge. As such, it is their duty, usually understood as the sole duty, to disperse or dispense or deliver knowledge to students. This knowledge is usually contained in a textbook and furiously scribbled notes.

This is an approach that must change in the online environment. Instead, as Garrison explains in Understanding distance education, online education involves a cognitive understanding that encompasses the actions of both learners and teachers—and the dynamic teaching-learning process in which they engage. Online learning, supported by advanced technologies and social media, has revolutionized access to learning resources. The internet is now home to endless resources that range from academically rigorous offerings to uneducated musings. Academic preparation must now include instruction on how to separate one type from the other.

The recent rise in popularity of open educational resources (OER) has enhanced the ability of learners to find additional resources for their courses. Many online courses now design some sort of internet research exercise into their courses, whereby learners can gather resources, create a repository, or share it with colleagues in some way. Social media networks also provide ample content for learners to discover and bring back to their courses for the benefit of all. In this way, learners are able to tap into copious global knowledge networks in their fields and introduce new perspectives into their courses. No longer does the teacher in the virtual classroom need to be the sole generator or holder of relevant knowledge.

These changes in the nature of the cognitive process are often new to those adapting to online teaching. Their training and their tradition have taught them to consider themselves as the sole conveyers of knowledge in the classroom. As Garrison and Archer detail, adapting to a new understanding of knowledge entails the adoption of a different pedagogical paradigm—a switch to a constructivist paradigm, one that emphasizes the co-creation of knowledge by teacher and learners and the sharing of that knowledge in collaborative activities.

Beyond adapting to a new pedagogical approach, transitioning faculty must come to understand that these cognitive-based changes—complemented by new online technologies—provide welcome opportunities for changes to assessment strategies. As Jason Openo, Director of Teaching and Learning at Medicine Hat College, and I have written, online assessments work best when designed with authenticity and the learning cycle at heart. Engaging learners during assessment activities and tasks is as critical and useful a learning strategy as engaging them during group discussion or fostering their engagement with myriad online resources.

Many novice online instructors without mentoring or guidance will cling to traditional assessment methods that include a heavy weighting on exams and tests. Conducted at a distance, this strategy raises logistical issues about proctoring and other types of oversight designed to maintain academic integrity. With adaptation and creativity, online assessment can challenge students to reach higher cognitive levels via individual or group project work; reflection papers; journals; self-assessment; peer assessment; or research papers that encourage accessing resources using the internet and social media. It should be pointed out that data on student online learning performance do not show any significant differencefrom traditional face-to-face results.

The cognitive mode, therefore, has the potential to shift both the pedagogical approach in the classroom and assessment strategies and techniques. Obviously, these changes must also be reflected in course design, as I will show shortly.

The social mode

If asked, it is possible that traditional teachers might say that it is their responsibility to help learners grow socially and develop good classroom behaviour. We all might recall a letter grade awarded to the way we, as young learners, comported ourselves in the classroom. The social aspect of online classrooms, however, differs substantially. Online teachers are not tasked, in postsecondary education, with helping their students learn how to behave, “netiquette” notwithstanding. That said, netiquette is required and online behaviour is usually defined by the teacher.

But embracing Berge’s social mode is much more than netiquette. In fact, in Liam Rourke, Terry Anderson, Garrison, and Archer’s celebrated “presence” model, this mode represents the social presence of both teachers and learners, with teachers holding primary responsibility for establishing a social climate of trust and safety in which learners can exert an appropriate social presence.

The understanding of social presence has also expanded into emotional presence, whereby learners’ emotional states and the factors that may contribute to those states are observed and noted.

As a university student, did you ever have a professor who took time to ensure that you were alright? Did you and your peers introduce yourselves to each other in the first class? While the answer to the last question may be “yes” for smaller classes, in most cases the answers to the former question will be “no.”

However, the notion of attending to social niceties has become an integral part of creating successful online experiences—and is of particular value during the current global health pandemic. The recent recognition of and focus on social presence in both literature and practice has helped educators understand the importance of creating a sound climate for learning—a safe, comfortable place where learners trust each other and the instructor. Garrison’s very cogent Community of Inquiry model places social presence as one of the three presences necessary for the online learning environment. Social presence, connected to emotional presence, has steadily been gaining traction for its role in student success.

How do novice instructors learn to create safe environments for their learners? There is no quick answer. Initially, they should be primarily concerned with the expression of content in this new medium. If the course has been effectively designed for online delivery and appropriate assistance or mentoring has been available, then the foundation for the sharing of content and the underpinning constructivist paradigm has been appropriately implemented. Next comes the fostering of an environment in which all feel safe sharing perspectives and asking questions.

This will be, in part, shaped by the learning management system (LMS) the university has provided to the instructor. For some faculty, this will be the first time that they are using an LMS. If LMS designers have created a “Welcome” space, in which instructors can introduce themselves and speak to the course’s intentions; a “Hello” space, where students can meet and introduce themselves; and perhaps a less formal space for student social activity, not directly content-related; instructors then have at least these three spaces in which to demonstrate their sense of caring, their interest in their students, and indicate, slowly at first, their humanness and personality.1

Learning to manage the social environment of an online course is, for most novice instructors, a new and foreign task. While there is literature on the topic, and many “how-to” tips available on the internet, novices often must be directed to those aids and reminded of the importance of a function that is less tangible than content and whose results are perhaps less obvious than are the results of cognitive efforts.

The managerial mode

Along with the modes already described comes the managerial role—the housekeeping. What could be accomplished in a few short sentences in a face-to-face class must now be carefully considered and delivered in an accessible fashion through the LMS or course website. Although a good template or design tends to put everything in the right place, management is essential to maintain the course’s pace, rhythm, and decorum. New instructors are often surprised by the amount of time online course management can consume.

The broad managerial task category can be understood to encompass the other three, as the online instructor is managing the platform upon which the course is mounted and managing all that occurs within it. This entails a lot of interaction, discussion, and housekeeping—including responding to questions, such as “Where do I find the reading for Week 3?” or “How long should my assignment be?” What often plagues novice instructors is the fact that what they could previously accomplish in a two-minute address to a classroom or in a quick one-on-one conversation at the end of class must now be carefully and clearly articulated in an online posting.

A less obvious but critical managerial task requires instructors to determine the desired balance between autonomy and control, as well as the levels of responsibility and freedom, that are afforded to learners. Distance education theory, which underpins online learning, speaks to the distance and separation factors upon which rest the balance between authority and compliance. How do instructors ensure that their goals for attendance and the completion of assignments and activities are achieved? These are managerial tasks upon which the unspoken “learning contract”2 between learner and instructor rests; and which are essential for the implementation and completion of cognitive work.

Managerial tasks may involve the formation of break-out groups for certain activities. Similarly, discussion forums, while popular, tend to require considerable management from the instructor to monitor participation and engage with students throughout the course. Additionally, managerial work might include the uploading of assignments to the LMS and the upkeep of the LMS gradebook. While also necessary in face-to-face classrooms, these tasks are more formalized in the virtual space and likely take more time.

The technical mode

The technologies of online learning are, for the most part, well developed and not difficult to master. Over the many generations of distance education (six or so, depending on whom you believe), technologies have evolved from paper correspondence; to teleconferencing; to videoconferencing; and through several iterations of computer conferencing. Whereas earlier generations of distance education generally ignored or omitted some student needs, the current state of online learning offers students a wide variety of formats that are much more capable. Today’s learning management systems allow for many types of interaction and easily connect to other types of media. The LMS provides a framework for the three functions already detailed.

Typically, novice online instructors think that technology is the key to their success and that it will be the most difficult hurdle to clear in the transition process. Neither of these assumptions is true. Online teachers do have to demonstrate and exercise some level of technical prowess. However, prioritizing technological expertise above the pedagogical expertise that is more critical and necessary for the course is a mistake.

When online learning was first being implemented, the availability and novelty of the technology, in a field led by educational technologists, was very attractive. Many early adopters focused on the technological aspects and ignored the pedagogy made possible by the LMS. However, over the years, pedagogical expertise and sound instruction took their rightful places as critical factors in the successful development and delivery of online learning. An LMS is a tool, just like blackboard and chalk.

That said, online instructors must develop a working knowledge of their modern-day blackboards. Learning management systems are no more difficult to operate than a smartphone and, in fact, can now be operated on a smartphone for easily and ubiquitous mobile learning.

The importance of course design

I noted earlier that design is important to successful online learning; in fact, it is a core construct. The successful application of Berge’s four functions of online teaching is contingent on sound design that fosters, permits, and encourages online learning. Encompassing social presence, inclusiveness, scaffolding for cognition, and effective group work; design is at the heart of the online course’s potential success.

Earlier in this article, I argued against using the term remote to describe courses that have recently been redeveloped to transition to online. The distinction that others made to justify the term remote was based on the quality and quantity of design used to develop a course. While an online course developed by an institution can indeed cost thousands of dollars, sustainable and effective courses can also be launched for much less. The key to good course design is understanding the pedagogy of online learning; the key to transitioning to online learning, as has been discussed here, is “minding the gap”—recognizing the enormity of the paradigmatic difference between learning environments.

Concluding thoughts

While searching for an appropriate analogy to capture my sense of the situation confronting many novice online instructors, I came up with the circus ringmaster described at the beginning of this piece. Hired for their ability to be the best and most entertaining ringmaster, they find that they must unfold monstrous amounts of canvas and pound the stakes into the ground. This was not expected.

It is just as unlikely that novice online instructors, especially at this time of unprecedented urgency, will be able to grasp what “they’ve signed up for.” And, in fact, they did not sign up for this; but here it is, and it is important to learners and institutions for instructors to survive and thrive in this new learning environment. It’s important that the enormous underlying paradigmatic shift is given its big picture status so that instructors can adapt their skills to a new reality. I would hope that they are given the opportunity, the tools, the support, and the inspiration to find a comfortable niche in what we know to be a valuable learning environment that will provide an essential medium for learning for years to come.

This the final article in a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

Dr. Dianne Conrad is a long-time distance educator, researcher, and author.


1The excellent adult educator, Stephen Brookfield, discusses the knack of self-revelation in The Skillful Teacher (1990). The trick, he explains, is to reveal yourself slowly. The teacher’s personal self is in a contest with their professional self in the eyes of the learner. The teacher is wise to establish themself as a valid and experienced presence in order to justify their being there and being responsible for learning. As time goes on, and the atmosphere and classroom climate relax, Brookfield contends that the teacher can begin to release their personality through informal anecdotes, humour, and references to their own personal life—within reason, of course. In this way, respect is first earned and more personal connections come second. Win-win.

2Learning contracts are sometimes explicitly used, mostly in adult education settings. They spell out the mutual commitment of each party (learner and teacher).