On-line teaching and learning: New roles for participants


Ron Oliver, School of Communications and Multimedia, Edith Cowan University.


For many years now, new technologies have been being applied in educational contexts with a variety of goals and intentions. The technologies have often been applied in response to an economic imperative, for example, in universities where technology has been seen as a means to create cost efficiencies. In schools, the new technologies have often been embraced with a view to creating more effective settings for learning. In distance education across all sectors, the technologies have been applied to create more open and accessible learning programs. In all these applications, we have observed valiant attempts by innovative and keen practitioners to solve some educational problem through the astute use of the new technologies.

The pace of the adoption of the new technologies has increased in recent years and today there are few people in education and training who have not been affected in some way by this uptake. The big move has been to on-line teaching and learning which is gaining momentum by the minute. But some people are beginning to question how well the use of the technologies is meeting the needs of the stakeholders in the educational process and whether or not the full potential of this massive investment is being met. What we are seeing in many instances is the use of new technologies to replicate traditional teaching practices. In this forum, I will argue that to gain the full potential from the new technologies and on-line teaching and learning, participants need to alter their roles. On-line teaching and learning has created a whole new learning paradigm and significantly changed roles for everyone, including teachers, students and in many cases, the providers of support services.


In most educational sectors, students in past years have become accustomed to quite similar forms of teaching and learning. Learning experiences have tended to involve a combination of influences including teacher-centred classrooms involving various forms of learning activity and assessments. Those who have tried to generalise this form of teaching have suggested a number of typical aspects.

a. Conventional Teaching

Table 1 shows some typical elements of conventional teaching practices. The curriculum content is usually fixed and presented in linear and sequential ways. Mastery of existing knowledge and concepts is sought before students are led to the next set. In terms of learning activities, people only need to think of their own learning experiences in school and university. Typical activities involve learning tasks that are segmented and fragmented to make them more easily achieved. The activities tend to lack any real life context and are usually presented in abstract forms bearing little relevance to settings beyond the classroom.






• linear



• lack of context


teacher as expert

• individual learning

discrete assessment


Table 1.

Typical elements of conventional teaching practices


In most cases, the teacher plays the role of the expert delivering knowledge to the learners. Learners act in passive modes working individually to complete the set tasks. Assessment of learning is done through pencil and paper tests measuring competency in the various elements of the curriculum.

There have been many critics of these forms of teaching and learning and for years innovators and practitioners have been exploring teaching and learning strategies capable of delivering more effective and more enriched learning outcomes. Many of the outcomes from conventional teaching have long been recognised as insufficient and unsatisfactory. Successful students have often been found to have employed surface level learning strategies. Learners have frequently been found to be incapable of applying and transferring the learning to practical settings. Learning has been found to be temporary and short-lived.

Contemporary Teaching

For some time now, educational researchers, classroom teachers and curriculum developers have been exploring ways to increase the effectiveness of teaching programs and in particular, classroom learning. The learning theories have always suggested that what is needed is more active involvement of the learners in the learning process. Theories of learning have been developed which explain the way in which learning is achieved through knowledge construction. The integral role of communication between learners has been explored and the value of collaboration and co-construction of knowledge developed. At the same time, curriculum developments have moved from descriptions of the content to be learned to environments where outcomes of learning have been made discrete. The role of assessment has been recognised and given a more fundamental place in the learning process. The sum of these developments suggests a changed direction for educational planning and Table 2 provides a means to compare these contemporary teaching ideas with those of the past.






• outcomes oriented


global and anchored

• contextualised


teacher as coach

• collaborative learning

integrated assessment


Table 2.

Characteristics of contemporary teaching ideas



The advent of on-line technologies coupled with an emerging recognition of the importance of effective teaching in university settings are acting together as catalysts to change the face and nature of university teaching and learning. Through on-line technologies, we finally we have the means to create the forms learning environments that we know work best. The classroom of tomorrow is starting to emerge and it is quite different to the classroom to which many are accustomed. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is in the roles of the participants. Everyone seems to be doing things a bit differently.

a. Changed roles for learners

The first thing often observed about learners in the on-line classroom is the degree of self-regulation and self-determination. On-line environments provide both teachers and learners with access to more open forms of content and away from the rigid structures to which we have been accustomed. What are the new roles for the participants in this regard? Many possibilities exist.

b. Changed roles for the teachers.

Teachers of on-line learning become quite different to their contemporaries in terms of their roles and responsibilities. The differences appear in how they interact with their learners and how they manage and implement their learning settings.

c. Changes for the Support Services and Administration

As we move to more on-line learning, a number of other different behaviour patterns will emerge. On-campus learners will become off-campus learners and students will have choices in when and where they will learn. Internal courses will merge seamlessly with external offerings. Off- campus learners will learn alongside their on-campus counterparts. What does all this mean for the institution? Some of the changes that come around include:

These issues demonstrate the need for universities moving to embrace on-line learning need also to consider the ways in which they offer courses and support student learning. There are many people within the organisation whose roles and responsibilities are changing as a consequence of these moves.

Possible Questions for Discussion

  1. Is the scenario of a converged on-line learning community of university students an example of stargazing or is this scenario really happening and becoming mainstream?

  3. Will the on-line phenomenon keep moving or might it trip and be derailed by other forces?

  5. How do we train staff to be effective teachers in the digital era? Is being a content expert enough?

  7. For whom is the changed role the biggest problem? The students, the teachers or the institutions?

  9. Does on-line learning always mean better learning? How can institutions move to safeguard the quality of their on-line learning programs?

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