Instructors teach. That sentence is, of course, an oversimplification focused on the intended outcome of their work. If students are to learn, instructors are expected to teach. Teaching is the instructor’s primary activity, but the full constellation of tasks that an online instructor must undertake in support of teaching are more varied and nuanced.

Berge (1995) initiated the conversation on what roles online instructors should expect to fulfill for their students. The four roles that he listed – pedagogical, social, managerial, and technological – provided guidance for early online instructors who sought to understand their students’ needs. These roles were born out of Berge’s experiences and observations and went on to serve as the framework for various studies that followed (e.g., Bonk, Kirkley, Hara, & Dennen, 2001; Dennen, Bagdy, Arslan, Choi, & Liu, 2021; Gómez-Rey, Barbera, & Fernández-Navarro, 2018; Liu, Bonk, Magjuka, Lee, & Su, 2005).

Renewed interest in online instructor roles arose during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when educational institutions swiftly moved to remote (and often online) learning formats. At that time, instructors were not only challenged to provide learning content and assessments online, but also to support online students along both social and technical dimensions (König, Jäger-Biela, & Glutsch, 2020). The modality shift also posed new pedagogical challenges, reflecting the systemic nature of instructor competencies. Knowledge of content, pedagogy, and technology as isolated fields is insufficient for instructor success; rather it is at their intersection that robust learning is best supported (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). Various studies reporting instructional shifts during the pandemic highlighted the challenges instructors faced when navigating new roles (e.g., Dennen et al., 2021; Rapanta, Botturi, Goodyear, Guàrdia, & Koole, 2021).

This chapter discusses research on the roles of the online instructor using the four dimensions of Berge’s (1995, 2008) framework as a primary organizing element. In addition, two dimensions that are not often discussed in conjunction with the existing roles – the ethical and the networked dimensions – are introduced for consideration. These two dimensions do not align directly with any single existing role but rather overlap with several of them, which is consistent with Berge’s (2008) view of the roles. These additional dimensions and their underlying functions encourage individuals to reflect on the increased complexity of online learning contexts that have co-developed with advances in online learning pedagogy and technology. Collectively, all six areas – pedagogical, managerial, social, technological, ethical, and network – represent competencies that are needed by online instructors.

Background and Context

One of the first things people think about when considering online learning is the transactional distance. Transactional distance, a concept first introduced by Moore (1993), is the perception that instructors and students are separated from each by time and space, creating an interaction gulf that is exacerbated by reliance on computer-mediated interactions and a reduction in communication channels or cues when compared to physical classroom settings. This perceived distance can lead to individuals feeling isolated in online learning spaces. However, instructors can work to reduce the perception of distance by fostering a highly interactive environment, which might include instructor-learner and learner-learner interactions in addition to learner-content interactions (Moore, 1989). After all, without these human interactions, an online course effectively becomes a correspondence course.

Planning for interactions is not enough to foster positive online learning experiences for students. Students needs vary widely, and instructors are challenged to engage students across the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions (Martin & Borup, 2022). In a systematic review of research on blended learning, the following issues that affect student performance in online contexts were identified: self-regulation, technology (literacy, self-sufficiency, and complexity), and isolation (Rasheed, Kamsin, & Abdullah, 2020). Each of these areas can be broken down into smaller, more specific challenges students face. Online instructors need to be attuned to these challenges and develop skills to help mitigate the challenges.

The concept of instructor roles, notwithstanding Berge’s (1995, 2008) framework, can be challenging to neatly define. Various researchers have sought to describe the concept of instructor role, as can be seen in the following examples:

  • In an effort to measure student perceptions of instructor roles, M.-L. Hung and Chou (2015) developed and validated the Online Instructor Role and Behavior Scale (OIRBS). OIRBS contains five subscales: course designer and organizer, discussion facilitator, social supporter, technology facilitator, and assessment designer. These constructs overlap with Berge’s framework along two dimensions (social and technology) but consider pedagogical and managerial tasks in different ways.

  • Alvarez, Guasch, and Espasa (2009), through an analysis of the literature, suggested five roles. Three were the identical to Berge’s framework, but course design and cognitive roles were listed in lieu of the pedagogical role.

  • Bawane and Spector (2009) studied eight roles, finding that three of the top four roles (pedagogical, social, technological, and evaluator) aligned with Berge’s framework.

  • A systematic literature review by Baran, Correia, and Thompson (2011) added two roles to Berge’s framework, instructional design, and facilitator. However, as their review notes, these are not always distinct roles. For example, one might consider the instructional designer role to be subsumed by the pedagogical role, and Berge (1995, 2008) directly states that facilitation is part of the pedagogical role.

  • Martin, Budhrani, Kumar, and Ritzhaupt (2019) found that instructor roles and tasks vary across institutional contexts. Larger, better-staffed institutions may provide greater support structures, and as a result instructors may be able to rely on other staff to perform certain tasks.

Regardless of the terminology, framework, and task definitions and groupings that are used, online instructors undeniably have multifaceted job duties that draw upon diverse areas of expertise. Most of the scholarly work about instructor roles, including the aforementioned studies, either situates itself in or references and builds upon Berge’s (1995, 2008) framework. Thus, Berge’s framework will be used to structure the discussion of instructor roles.

Pedagogical Role

The pedagogical role is the role that is most commonly associated with online instruction and has been deemed the primary or most important of the roles (Bawane & Spector, 2009; Gómez-Rey, Barbera, & Fernández-Navarro, 2017). Most scholars include tasks related to course design and facilitation as part of the pedagogical role, although some may parse roles more finely and discuss facilitation or instructional design separately from pedagogy, implying that the method of teaching is somehow separate from, although undeniably interdependent on, these other two areas.

Berge (2008) states that facilitation is an essential component of the pedagogical role. Facilitation entails not only helping students navigate course materials and activities but interacting with them and fostering peer interactions as described by Moore (1989). Scholars have been exploring online facilitation competencies since the early days of online learning, with the recognition that there is no singular approach, but rather a multitude of facilitation styles and skills (e.g., advisor, assessor, researcher) that an instructor may draw on (Goodyear, Salmon, Spector, Steeples, & Tickner, 2001).

Facilitation is often a responsive task, occurring when an instructor reacts to students over the course of a semester, but good facilitation is based on a plan and builds on a solid foundation of course design. Thus, while instructional approaches vary and course design may or may not be undertaken by instructors and considered part of the pedagogical role (e.g., Gómez-Rey et al., 2017 view design as separate from pedagogy, but Liu et al., 2005 include design as part of pedagogy), course design is nonetheless critical to the work of an online instructor (Martin, Sun, & Westine, 2020), and in particular their pedagogical tasks.

It may be futile to try to determine whether course design or facilitation is more important. In practice, the two tasks are interrelated but are recognized by instructors and students in different ways. In a study that compared instructor and student perceptions, instructors were more focused on course design and feedback, whereas students rated facilitation and communication as factors most likely to contribute to their success (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). These findings suggest that instructors should not neglect facilitation and focus on course design, but instead they should factor facilitation and formative points of instructor-student communication into their course design. Additionally, students may not consider course design as important as course facilitation, because good facilitation is the element that connects students to course activities and materials. Instructors with strong facilitation skills may be able to compensate for poor course design, whereas good course design may not be sufficient to overcome the ill effects of poor facilitation. This premise was discovered by many instructors during the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. When these instructors made a rapid shift to remote teaching via online technologies, they learned that designing and delivering course content was not the only or even the most important pedagogical task. Instead, instructors needed to consider how students would interact within the course and provide opportunities for engagement (Rapanta et al., 2021).

Together, instructional design and facilitation shape the way that students perceive activities and engage in a class. Whereas the course design includes not only content but also learning activities and assessments and sets up the overall expectations for what students will do, instructors communicate their pedagogical values and expectations to students through facilitation. Ma, Han, Yang, and Cheng (2015) found that course design has an effect on how students access learning materials in an online course, but that interactions and guidance affect how students complete learning tasks. Further, the manner and frequency of instructor interaction with students can be planned and affects how students approach learning activities (Dennen, 2005). When instructors are absent from interaction spaces, students will assume their work in those spaces is not valued or monitored, likening it to busy-work. Alternately, when instructors are overly dominant in the learning space, students will orient closely toward the instructor and may seek continuous instructor affirmation and place less value on peer interactions. Although this may sound like an ideal situation for students, as the dominant instructor in Dennen’s (2005) study learned, it is not a sustainable solution.

Looking to the future, more work might be done to support the needs of diverse student populations in online environments. Although little studied at this time, students from different backgrounds and cultures will likely benefit when their instructors embrace anti-oppressive pedagogies and promote critical awareness through reflection and discussion (Migueliz Valcarlos, Wolgemuth, Haraf, & Fisk, 2020). This recommendation is consistent with the notion that course design and pedagogical decisions made by instructors should be flexible and empower students (Rapanta et al., 2021).

Managerial Role

The instructor’s managerial role, alternately referred to as the administrative role, refers to course oversight. Berge (1995) suggested that this role is associated with managing objectives, time, and structural components of learning activities. In this sense, one can see a direct connection between the pedagogical role and the managerial role. Whereas the former is concerned directly with how students make meaning out of their course experiences, the latter provides the supporting structures and conditions for successful pedagogy.

Bonk et al. (2001) elaborated on Berge’s (1995) description of the managerial role with concrete examples from four cases. Under the managerial role, instructors engaged in tasks such as determining the class schedule and deadlines; planning and assigning groups; evaluating and revising parts of the course; and providing students with regular announcements and updates (Bonk et al., 2001). In this sense, the managerial role intersects directly with the instructional design process and includes localized tasks related to setting up and running each unique course offering. When these elements are in place at the start of a course, the instructor is better able to focus on student engagement and their pedagogical role (Arbaugh, 2010). Gómez-Rey et al. (2017) found that the importance or uniqueness of the managerial role for the online instructor has subsided in recent years, likely due to improvements in course design and technology.

Course-level administrative tasks also fall under the managerial role. A major task for online instructors is setting up the learning space, whether within an LMS or some other tool (Berge, 2008). Instructors also need to organize, provide access to, and monitor files and file sharing spaces (Alvarez et al., 2009). Course oversight may also require collecting and reporting data to other institutional offices, such as attendance dates and student learning outcomes. These data may be used to support institutional research and for accountability reporting to government and accreditation agencies.

Digital learning spaces make it easy for instructors to monitor student data, such as log-ins, course material accesses, and assignment submission times. Interestingly, despite the heavy focus on learning analytics as a means of supporting learning and retention in recent years, in one study both instructors and students rated instructor monitoring of student course access as the least important activity contributing to student satisfaction (Dennen et al., 2007). Analytics are useful for identifying students who are absent or at risk of failure, but they are limited because they sit at the gateway of pedagogy. Still, this represents a growing area of research with the aim of amplifying an instructor’s ability to meet both students’ managerial and pedagogical needs. Perhaps with improvements in artificial intelligence, future analytic systems will be able to not only provide alerts for at-risk students but also suggest moment-by-moment facilitation strategies, also supporting the instructor’s pedagogical function.

Even without using analytics, Berge (2008) suggested that instructors might monitor student interactions and intervene when students are not participating in the desired manner. In other words, instructors may need to monitor student attendance and progress in a course from an administrative perspective (e.g., maintaining attendance records) and communicate with students when their actions are not consistent with course expectations – not just for the absent or underperforming students, but for all students. For example, Berge (1995) suggests that instructors should manage students who dominate interaction spaces, encouraging them to sit back and listen more. These forms of monitoring and intervention may help uphold the course structure and foster student behaviors and a learning community that supports pedagogical functions, even if they do not directly contribute to learning.

Additionally, during their online learning journeys, students have needs at different institutional levels. The instructor’s immediate sphere of influence is the microlevel, or the class, where learning is the main focus. However, an online instructor’s tasks are not limited to learning or classroom-focused interventions. Online instructors often serve as the face of the university for their students, who in some instances may never visit the physical campus. Although staff members and advisors may assist with admissions and guide students toward class enrolment, once students are registered for classes, the learning management system (LMS) becomes the entry point to the university and instructors become a primary point of contact.

However, students may need help with advising or other issues related to their degree program, in which case the instructor may directly help or may connect the student to someone who works at the mesolevel, such as a department administrator or advisor. Additionally, during the pursuit of learning, students may find themselves needing to access institutional or macrolevel resources, such as information technology, instructional technology, and the library. There are myriad other reasons why a student might need to access macrolevel resources, which typically include financial aid, career centers, student groups, and recreational services. Based on best practices in online learning, Quality Matters ( recommends that online course instructors look beyond the microlevel needs of students and facilitate awareness of and access to macro- and mesoresources by providing links to these resources in the class’s learning management system.

Social Role

Initially stemming from an awareness of the need for faculty to facilitate discussions in online environments (Berge & Collins, 2000), the social role of online instructors has continued to evolve. Facilitation is common to both the pedagogical and social roles, although each role invokes a different skill set and focus. Just as virtual learning opportunities have expanded, the social role of online educators has grown to include both the formal and informal supporting of meaningful, cooperative student-faculty, and student-student relationships (Alvarez et al., 2009; Baran et al., 2011; Berge, 2008). Alvarez et al. (2009) suggested this more encompassing understanding of the social role of online instructors could be observed in the language and naming conventions that are frequently used for online educators. They noted that terms such as facilitator, coach, mediator, and moderator, which are commonly used as titles for online instructors, are all indicative of the rising value being placed on social functions.

Some explanations for the increasing focus on the social role of online instructors can be attributed to transactional distance (Moore, 1989) and the resulting awareness of the lack of a shared physical space (Varvel, 2007) and difficulties related to expressing sensory and emotional expressions (Guasch, Alvarez, & Espasa, 2010). However, as Baran et al. (2011) noted, as technologies continue to offer increasingly advanced and accessible opportunities for people to be more social, students who use these technologies have likely grown accustomed to being engaged as active participants in online environments. These developments and changing expectations may push some instructors to reflect on and change their beliefs and practices.

While the instructor’s social role is often understood in terms of supporting and maintaining relationships between students and their peers, and between students and their instructors, the process of creating these relationships involves nearly every aspect of the online learning environment. The practices associated with creating meaningful relationships often revolve around instructors’ abilities to serve as guides throughout the learning process, to express empathy and understanding of their students’ experiences, and to establish a sense of cohesion between the members of the class community (Bailey & Card, 2009; Guasch et al., 2010; W. C. Hung & Jeng, 2013). The social role of the instructor goes beyond the facilitation of interactions to also include the design and teaching practices that foster connectedness and identity congruence, or a shared sense of values, goals, and beliefs among the students (Hughes, 2007). In many online learning environments, these practices are rooted in social constructivism and are well-aligned with those who value student-centered approaches to learning (Berge, 1997; Berge & Collins, 2000; Varvel, 2007).

Although there is a need to situate some conversations about the social role of instructors contextually, Richardson and Lowenthal’s (2017) discussion of strategies for establishing instructor social presence can be applied broadly as a way to support relationship-building in online learning environments. The three strategies they identified include the development of instructor personality or persona, a term they credit to Dennen (2007); the design of the course, most notably interactions and clear expectations; and the inclusion of intentional online communications, which they suggested continues to be the main way to establish social presence. Instructors must establish their own identity through various channels (Dennen & Arslan, 2022), serving as a model for their students to do likewise. Their presence in learning spaces, whether direct or indirect, indicates to students the importance and expectation of participating in these learning activities (Dennen, 2005). When students share their identity, they establish presence. Additionally, as instructors work toward best practices in online teaching, these strategies can be most effective when coupled with the understanding that the social aspects of an online class can be supportive of diverse student voices. By encouraging these voices to speak and be heard, instructors can foster more inclusive learning environments and an increased sense of belonging for learners who may feel marginalized.

Online instructors may initially see the social role as one that asks them to design and facilitate opportunities for students to form social and emotional bonds in order to improve satisfaction and motivation (Liu et al., 2005). While these practices are often associated with the affective domain of learning, the significance of the social role extends into the cognitive domain as well. When students feel as though they are part of the learning community and feel a sense of connection with each other and with their instructors, the environment becomes one that engages them with the learning outcomes, provides them with the opportunity to ask questions, and gives them the space to co-construct knowledge (Aragon, 2003; Liu et al., 2005).

Technological Role

The technological role of the online instructor is one that continues to evolve. Berge (2008) suggested that the “ultimate technical goal is to make the technology transparent to the user” (p. 410) and that the online instructor is often the initial point of contact for students with technical questions. As technologies have continued to expand, the technical skills and expected competencies of online instructors have increased as well. Online instructors often need to have plans in place to mitigate technical disruptions, system requirements, and learning curves (Berge, 2008), in addition to their focus on teaching. While some of the competencies related to the technical role can be measured through their practical applications, effective instruction goes beyond the instructor’s abilities to implement and maintain the tools and platforms. Those instructors who are often seen as the most successful in online environments are the ones who are able to apply both their pedagogical and technological skills to improve instruction through the adoption of creative designs and innovative technologies that support the desired learning outcomes (Bailey & Card, 2009; W. C. Hung & Jeng, 2013).

In what Guasch et al. (2010) referred to as the technological domain, the technological role is more complex than the expected general knowledge related to computers, multimedia, and educational technologies. They noted that in their review of studies concerning online instructor competencies, the technological role, along with the managerial role, is unique in that it is associated with all the other roles and functions. As online instructors navigate the various roles, distinctions between technology and teaching become less defined and more intersectional. Rather than understanding the technological role as task-based and separate from the other roles, online instructors should work to bridge potential gaps between technology and teaching. Instructors must not only know how to work with the technologies, but also how to use the technologies in ways that support the chosen teaching and learning models (Alvarez et al., 2009; Guasch et al., 2010). Effective teaching in digital spaces relies on the instructor’s awareness of the “mutually reinforcing” relationships between teaching, technology, and content (Koehler, Mishra, & Yahya, 2007).

Much like the competencies of the other roles, the competencies of the technological role tend to be understood by how they are applied (Alvarez et al., 2009), and the practical applications are often contextual (Gay, 2016). When asked to rank online instructor roles in order of importance, instructors placed the technological role toward the middle of the list (Bawane & Spector, 2009). Faculty also tend to report their technological skill level as lower than the importance of the skill, suggesting that they feel they still have room to learn and improve (Martin, Budhrani, & Wang, 2019). However, this prioritization varies across studies, though, depending on how technologist is defined, who is asked to provide the ranking, and which skills and abilities are considered essential (Egan & Akdere, 2005; Williams, 2003).

At the most basic level, online instructors should not only be comfortable using the learning systems provided by their institutions, but they should also be able to share and maintain content resources, troubleshoot both their own and their students’ basic technical problems, and communicate with their students in a variety of ways. While considered fundamental, these practices are continuous and take a considerable amount of time throughout the preparation and teaching of the course. Beyond these essential competencies, online instructors also work to evaluate the ways in which technologies can enable and enhance the learning process. In the role of the course technologist, instructors should be intentional with the technology solutions they choose and transparent with their students about how they should be used and what their expected benefits are. The best educational technologies are accessible and easy to navigate and offer solutions that improve teaching and learning, and online instructors are often the ones who can determine how well technologies meet those criteria.

Ethical Dimension

None of the prior four roles explicitly discusses ethical issues related to online learning, although ethical concerns may arise in pedagogical, managerial, social, and technological contexts. The instructor’s ethical role has two sides. First, the instructor has an ethical obligation to meet the needs of their students, which includes considering issues of access and equity. Instructors are models and arbiters of ethical behavior for their online students, setting the expectations and tone for their classes. Second, online instructors should strive to minimize discomfort related to learning in online spaces, which may occur due to concerns with privacy, intellectual property, and context collapse.

Prior online learning research has discussed issues of access and equity mostly at the macrolevel (Martin et al., 2020). While societal and institutional actions, which may focus on ensuring an institution has a diverse student population and fosters cross-cultural exchange, are important, the online instructor’s ethical purview must operate within the microlevel of the individual class. Access and equity are not ethical issues unique to online learning, but they can be exacerbated by it. In contrast to views that learning via digital tools can lead to the democratization of education (Semerikov et al., 2020), other scholars have shown they can also widen gulfs. Technology is not a neutral force in online learning (Migueliz Valcarlos et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare some of the digital inequities that students may face, not all of which are explained by socioeconomic status. Some of the issues that arose included loss of access to campus-based learning resources such as computer labs, libraries, and Internet, and home bandwidth or environmental conditions that were not conducive to completing coursework. While these situations were temporary and occurred during a time when instructors were heavily encouraged to make accommodations for struggling students, they nonetheless represent inequities and highlight the potential fragility or volatility of online learning access.

In nonpandemic times, students in rural areas often suffer from bandwidth problems and students with older devices and software may struggle to complete assignments. Additionally, instructors need to pay attention to tool accessibility issues. Some learning tools may be unavailable to or unable to be used by some students due to disabilities, geography (e.g., some online tools are blocked in China), or technological limitations (e.g., smartphone-only apps). Institutional guidelines and instructional technology support staff may help instructors navigate these challenges, but even learning management systems that are adopted institutionally require additional instructor knowledge and effort to be used in ways that minimize access problems.

Other scenarios that have historically excluded or diminished the learning opportunities of some online students include rigid temporal expectations. Many online students choose the modality because of its flexibility. However, when instructors hold synchronous sessions for a class that was meant to be asynchronous, require groupwork without providing time and guidance for completing the work, or set rigid participation deadlines (e.g., posting to a discussion on specific days of the week), students who became online students because they needed temporal flexibility may find themselves at a disadvantage. These situations may occur in the classes of well-intentioned instructors who have valid pedagogical or social reasons for their course design and expectations.

Supposing there are no issues related to access, instructors still need to grapple with concerns related to student comfort in the online learning environment. Students may be concerned with privacy, digital footprints (Dennen, 2015), and intellectual property issues (Dennen, 2016) in online learning environments. Instructors need to be able to provide assurance and guidance on these issues, reassuring students about who can see, save, and share their course contributions. When learning activities are limited to the semi-private confines of the LMS, some of these concerns may be mitigated, although instructors still need to provide leadership in this area and set expectations that help respect student privacy (e.g., no screenshotting and sharing discussion posts). When learning activities extend beyond the LMS, occurring on social media or when students need to share contact information or use personal accounts to access learning spaces, some students may experience discomfort due to context collapse, which occurs when personal and school life collides in digital spaces. Students have reported this phenomenon to be undesirable in prior research, and most prefer to keep their personal digital activities separate from school-related ones (Dennen & Burner, 2017).

Student comfort may also be diminished when students feel they do not belong in the class setting. This sense of othering can result in student disengagement and can be caused by students feeling they are different from their peers and, as a result, less valued in the class. Othering may occur due to ethnic, academic, or professional backgrounds (Phirangee & Malec, 2017), as well as differences in international location or origin (Choi, Arslan, Adolfson, & Screws, 2021). Instructor choices in all areas of online learning (e.g., epistemology, content, interaction, technology) wield power and have the potential to include or oppress different groups of students (Migueliz Valcarlos et al., 2020). In the ethical dimension, instructors should continuously consider the background and perspective of each student, ensuring that each is provided with activities, content, technologies, and interaction opportunities that empower them to succeed in the online class.

These ethical concerns span across the four established instructor roles. When students struggle to access or fully participate in a course or feel discomfort in the learning environment, they are affected along the pedagogical and social dimensions. Instructors have the potential and an ethical responsibility to modify their courses to be fully inclusive. Adjustments to course design, management (e.g., policies and oversight), and technologies may help minimize learning inequities, maximize student comfort, and help all students fully understand their learning options and behavioral expectations.

Network Dimension

One of the exciting dimensions of online learning is the network dimension, which suggests that class boundaries can be more fluid and expansive than they are for classes meeting in physical spaces. The temporal and geographic boundaries of a campus-based learning experience tend to confine learning experiences to people listed on the roster. The same can be true of online classes if instructors replicate the same activities and build virtual boundaries that are the equivalent of physical classroom walls. However, online learning provides instructors with opportunities to lead their students in making connections between their class and the larger online world. When students are encouraged to use the Internet as part of their learning experience, learner-network interactions (Dennen, 2019) are added to the three types of within-class student interactions identified by Moore (1989). In other words, with the instructor’s blessing, support, and perhaps co-participation, students can explore and connect their class learning to content from and interactions with relevant online people, spaces, and tools. Through these opportunities, instructors find themselves playing a network role in which they demonstrate how to develop a meaningful professional learning network (PLN; Krutka, Carpenter, & Trust, 2017) and exist as co-learners alongside their students in a connectivist learning experience.

Increasingly, connectivism has become a popular approach for online learning. Connectivism was proposed as an alternate learning theory acknowledges the diverse and distributed learning experiences people have when interacting with other people and resources in online spaces (Siemens, 2005). Downes (2019) reminds that connectivism is not simply a pedagogical strategy to invoke in a class or to be measured via formal assessments. Rather, connectivism represents a contemporary way of navigating the world and making sense of one’s interactions in online spaces. Invoking a connectivist approach in a formal learning context is effectively committing to supporting students as they explore relevant online spaces, each of which contributes to a unique experience that reflects both course learning objectives and personal ones.

Instructors who embrace connectivism as an online learning epistemology and who wish to support students in developing PLNs (Krutka et al., 2017) need to develop another set of skills, so they can navigate online worlds themselves and support students in doing the same. The Networked Knowledge Activities (NKA) framework (Dennen, 2019; Dennen et al., 2020) can be used to support this endeavor, highlighting the subskills (e.g., collect, curate, share, broker, negotiate, and create) that occur in a networked environment and support learning. These skills are familiar to most social media users, but are neither mastered by nor ubiquitous to all students. Integrating the skills into online classes merges classroom learning and everyday life information-seeking behaviors. By parsing larger, authentic online activities into smaller, well-defined actions instructors can be intentional about encouraging students to develop and practice skills that promote lifelong learning and productive development of and interaction in PLNs. Instructors have opportunities to help students locate and evaluate online resources, access online expertise, and develop networks that will serve them in the future.

This networked dimension of the overall instructor role has implications for each of the other roles. Networked learning reflects both pedagogical and technological choices and positions instructors and students in the midst of social spaces that may be inhabited by others. Instructors need to help students navigate these social spaces, invoking facilitation, managerial, and technology skills. Finally, when learning shifts into increasingly public online spaces, a new range of ethical concerns arise.


Online instruction is a complex activity, drawing upon a diverse set of skills. Attempts to separate these skills into different roles, such as Berge’s (1995) framework, mark a first step toward articulating important instructor competencies and organizing them in a logical manner. These roles can be used alternately to support professional development or enable focused discussion of a single dimension of the online instructor’s job. The heavy crossover and interplay among these roles are emblematic of the systemic nature of online instruction. No single role or dimension alone is sufficient to support learning, not even the pedagogical role.

Notably, these four core roles have remained constant for more than two decades and have gained widespread acceptance among educators and educational institutions. This constancy, however, does not mean that our understanding of each role has not changed. Developments in both pedagogy and online learning technologies have stretched the roles to encompass different approaches to learning. Newer concerns related to ethics and networked learning, leading to the discussion of each as its own dimension in this chapter, similarly represent developments in educational and everyday practices and values. Looking to the future of online instruction, it seems likely that these core roles will continue to guide online instructors, even as specific approaches to each role continue to develop and reflect systemic changes and advances in online education research and practice.