What Is the Instructor’s Role?

In an online environment, “The roles instructors play in facilitating online discussions can include managerial, social, pedagogical, and technical” (Lear, Isernhagen, LaCost, & King, 2009).

As an online instructor, you guide the students throughout the material you have gathered and arranged, rather than serve as the sole source of knowledge. You lead conversations, then let students discuss and teach each other. You facilitate their use of tools, resources, and assignments. You challenge students to think critically together through group work, peer review, projects and more.

Change the way you deliver, not the way you teach.
Ensuring the course is working properly is also part of your role. If a portion of the course confuses students or the technology interferes with their learning, you are who they will look to for the resolution of the issue. Campus 6-TECH resources can be a great resource to aid you in finding recommended tools and testing the course setup.

Now that the environment and materials are set up, an online instructor is free to probe more deeply into students’ discussion board responses and evaluate whether assignment submissions appropriately measure mastery. You can also focus on keeping the course current by bringing in recent news articles, research, and new tools.

“High Touch is More Important Than High Tech”

As these professors from EDUCAUSE share in the video below, the value of communication through expectations, feedback, storytelling, and more outweighs technology. Your teaching decisions should drive the tools you use, rather than the reverse. In the video below, they say “high touch is more important than high tech,” meaning that developing a caring social presence and staying connected with students is more effective and valuable than having dazzling technology.

Within the Online Classroom: Focus on the Discussion Board

You set the expectations for the Discussion Board and the due dates for when students should respond. However, you can increase student buy-in by allowing the class to establish rules for itself or share past experiences of discussion boards that worked well or didn’t.

Rather than serving as a lecturer, you moderate and facilitate discussion. You also fulfill a key social function in encouraging students to participate and praising them for insightful answers. Other students will see your response to that student and will adjust their discussion accordingly. You also need to step in if a student has responded to another student in a way that is harmful to their learning. Just as in the classroom, you hold the key to fruitful, positive conversation.


In this example, a student named Kelsey gave a comment on the class discussion board in response to a prompt about a reading. Her comment only touched the surface-level. The instructor asks a follow up question to encourage Kelsey to think more deeply.
Kelsey, excellent point. You have identified the author’s primary intention. Does the example he gives support or bely his intention? Why do you think he used it?


In this example, a student named Brandon replied to a fellow classmate named Jasmyn on the class discussion board with offensive language, calling her point “stupid.” Rather than reply on the class discussion board for all to read, the instructor here emails Brandon privately to remind him of appropriate netiquette. Netiquette refers to the rules of online communication, whether in a classroom or other type of website. If you are curious, visit the Resources page for additional articles on netiquette.
Email to Brandon Brandon, in your reply to Jasmyn, you state that her idea was “stupid.” This type of language is not acceptable on the discussion board. Every student is welcome to share their opinion and thoughts; we want to create an environment that welcomes ideas and discussion. I encourage you to reread the discussion board expectations and phrase your thoughts in a way that is respectful in the future.

Above all, you have your pedagogical role. Ask students follow up questions to challenge them to think more deeply about the conclusions they have made. When a student has made an incorrect assumption, gently guide them to the correct notion and show them why. If a student has made an egregious error, you can either respond to them individually through email, so the rest of the class doesn’t see the corrective measure. If you believe that more may have made the same mistake, you can send an email to the class without mentioning that student by name.


In this example, the instructor reads a post from a student named Gabriel and notes that he misunderstood a key term. Rather than embarrass the student by replying on the discussion board, the instructor chooses to email Gabriel individually and correct his error, giving him the opportunity to also revise his post.

Gabriel, I read your discussion post from yesterday. You did a great job articulating your point. I did notice that you interpreted the author's use of the term “embarazada” to mean "embarrassed," but it actually means “pregnant.” This may change your interpretation of the author's overall meaning. Read the text again with this in mind, and see if you come to the same conclusions. Don't be "avergonzada," which is the actual word for "embarrassed." It's a common error. You are welcome to revise your post.


As with the previous example, the instructor notices that several students have misinterpreted a common word. Instead of emailing individuals, the instructor sends a class announcement.
Class, it has come to my attention that a few of you interpreted this term “discrimination” as meaning “prejudice.” Actually,

If a student uses inappropriate language or images, you have the ability to remove their post. Set this expectation up front when you discuss with students how you expect them to use the discussion board, and that if they do not comply, their post will be removed. Look into the help tutorials for Canvas or your LMS to find out how to do this if you anticipate it being an issue for your class.

Does it matter if you are involved in the discussion board yourself? You bet it does. “Evidence shows that instructors need to maintain substantial involvement in online courses” (Reuschle & Mitchell 2009, Schrum et al 2005).

Preventing and Responding to Academic Dishonesty

One primary concern many online instructors have is preventing academic dishonesty, or cheating. The UNCG Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities defines cheating and other relevant terms. During orientation all students sign a pledge to uphold academic integrity, and you may require students to sign the Academic Pledge on major work submitted. You can insert this statement into the opening text on quizzes or require them to sign the statement on submitted papers, for example.

If you suspect an instance of academic dishonesty, you can submit this academic violation report form.

Beyond the Online Classroom

As an instructor, you can play a key role in connecting online students to the university community and to student support services. Find out what student support services your campus offers.



Starfish is UNCG’s early alert and student success software that aims to promote clear communication between instructors, advisors, and students, and to make it easier for students to access the people who can support them while at the university. You can log in to starfish.uncg.edu to set up office hour appointments, leave flags to let students know of a concern you have for their performance, give kudos to recognize student accomplishments, and submit referrals to suggest a helpful campus resource that may aid in a student’s academic performance. For example, referrals may currently be issued to the following offices: Academic Achievement Center, Writing Center, the University Speaking Center, the Math Help Center, Career and Professional Development, the Dean of Students Office, the Counseling Center, and International Student & Scholar Services. Read about Starfish capabilities so you can use it for your own students or contact the Students First Office, which manages Starfish.