Back to the Future: How Online Tools Can Help Instructors Get Back to What They Love

Back to the Future: How Online Tools Can Help Instructors Get Back to What They Love

Not long ago, I posted an entry on my own blog about the ways in which the instructor’s role might be able to be reinvented, rather than undermined, by the assimilation of online tools and process. 
My hypothesis was that with some readjustment, continued focus on quality and a research mindset, instructors who embrace innovations and look seriously at available resources may be able to spend more time immersed in the core elements of their discipline rather than having to fulfill a huge range of functions, many of which are beyond their formal training, and, I’d venture, their real passion.

Over the last few years, the availability of quality, accessible materials and other media has meant that faculty materials development and prep work can potentially shift to what has been called “curation” of materials, rather than development. In this context, the role of the teacher takes on more dimension and nuance; the concept of “unbundling” the teaching role (i.e., teasing it apart and examining its makeup) starts to make sense when we list the sub-roles that the typical instructor has had to assimilate—many of them only in the last 10 to 15 years:

  • Curriculum developer
  • Pedagogy expert
    Photography for NEU Graduate programs brochures and web sites.

    Online tools provide incredible learning opportunities—for students and instructors.

  • Instructor
  • Mentor
  • Grader
  • Author
  • (Web-based) materials developer
  • Instructional designer
  • Multi-media specialist
  • Academic technologist
  • Usability expert
  • Social media guru
  • Online researcher
  • Grant writer (as needed)

There are certainly models that unbundle the instructor role to an even greater degree, but there is the opportunity at hand to at least let go of the development/production of materials-related parts. I can’t think of a bigger waste of time than the production of slideshow versions or re-writes of materials that are already “out there.”

Surely a better use of time than writing the 5001st version of the 101 textbook is contextualizing, or the production of what some call “transitional” (or “interstitial”) text to provide students with the guidance and impetus to drive them to and across resources.

My hypothesis is that the biggest value a truly immersed scholar can bring to his class is to convey the passion that he developed in the field—igniting that fire, signposting the journey and weaving together the bigger picture. Be neither the sage nor the guide but the sherpa who lets you hike the mountain on your own, but will stop you from walking over a precipice.

Online tools and materials such as learning management systems and discussion boards provide time and space for contextualizing and pre-class feedback and dialogue. To deliver content in physical class time and have students struggle with assimilation of detail and issues of cognitive overload, when unleveraged days or weeks between face-to-face classes have passed by, is a huge missed opportunity.

Andrew Miller writes that a “flipped” classroom still requires instructors to demonstrate the value of their content, whether online or offline. “Just because I record something, or use recorded material, does not mean that my students will want to watch, nor see the relevance in watching it… If the flipped classroom is truly to become innovative, then it must be paired with transparent and/or embedded [justifications for students to engage with] the content.”

Miller’s points underscore a great opportunity to strategically re-evaluate the traditional instructor role, by allowing online tools, communities and the smorgasbord that we used to call the World Wide Web to take some tasks off an instructor’s plate. This doesn’t mean diminishing instructors’ roles or superseding their duties, but, instead, providing them the space and time to get back to sharing inspiring, motivating discourse with informed and enthusiastic students.

Read a recent Aspire post on how the “flipped” classroom model can be a benefit to international students—and the professors who teach them.

About Kevin Bell

Kevin Bell is the executive director for Online Curriculum Development and Deployment at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies. He leads Northeastern's efforts toward the goal of high-quality, professional online programs based on industry and academic standards. He works closely with senior leadership to ensure that the Northeastern University Online strategy aligns with the College's five-year vision and with the University's academic and regional campus goals.

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