Become an E-Learning Instructor

Online learning has revolutionized the way colleges now offer education. Yet research shows many instructors are still uncertain about this new medium. If you enjoy mentoring others and using technology to create community, you could become an e-learning instructor. Do you enjoy mentoring others, working flexible hours and using technology to create community? Do you have a Masters degree? If so, you could become an e-learning instructor and reap the benefits of virtual teaching.

Back in 2004 I became a part-time e-learning instructor at the undergraduate and graduate level. Now I begin each day in my home office checking up on my students’ discussions. I still work full-time as a business consultant, but my virtual teaching activities give me the satisfaction of mentoring others.

Colleges today are reaching a whole new breed of non-traditional students through online courses. Over the past decade the number of degree-granting higher education institutions that offer distance education courses has doubled from 33 percent in 1995 to nearly 66 percent today (Tabs, 2003). Many universities have found distance education to be a revenue source, without the corresponding need to expand physical classroom space. And research shows that interaction between faculty and students increases in an online environment (Maguire, 2005).

Yet these same universities have found that 50 percent of their faculty are resistant to make the transition from classroom-based instruction to online web-based courses (NEA, 2000). While it is no longer a novelty for faculty to teach a mix of classroom and online courses, many schools are looking for e-learning instructors who have real world experience. But to enter this world you will have to develop a virtual teaching strategy that addresses the preparation, performance, and process of online learning.


The first aspect of a virtual teaching strategy is proper preparation. While a traditional teacher might focus their preparation on creating lesson plans to teach in the classroom, e-learning instructors take a different approach. Rather than focus on what they should teach, they create a comprehensive study plan that focuses on what students should learn.

Keep in mind that online courses rarely conduct live video lectures. If lectures are used at all, they are considered supplemental archives. Instead, the real focus of online education is the work that learners complete through reflective journals, formal papers, text-based dialogues and project portfolios. This means that long before the course starts you need to create a well designed mix of prepared readings, assignments and assessments. Then you will upload these into a web-based course management system, such as Blackboard.

This switch from a teacher-dominated classroom to a learner-centered format will require you to rethink your role. Online instructors are more akin to coaches, facilitators and guides, rather than lecturers. Faculty who switch to learning-centered formats often come to characterize education, not as the teacher transmission of content, but as the student construction of knowledge through “questioning, criticism, discussion and deliberation” (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999, p. 198).

Educators refer to this as “self-directed learning” or nurturing “autonomous learners” (Ponton & Carr, 2000). In one study of self-directed learning, 66% of students rated their interaction with the teacher greater in online courses (Chester & Gwynne, 1998).


The second aspect of your virtual teaching strategy is focusing and measuring performance. This involves: (a) relating all assignments to real-world performance competencies, and (b) establishing grading standards to objectively evaluate whether students meet these in their formal papers and projects.

Educator Peter Pipe challenges instructors to create a “Performance Pyramid” for each course they design (Pipe, 1975, p. 99). You begin by asking, “What would a successful student do in relationship to my discipline one month, six months or one year after they finish my course?” You then list all “critical incidents” or real-world encounters that your ex-student might likely face, and how they would successfully handle it on the basis of your instruction. Then you rework these critical incidents into “actions statements,” with corresponding subordinate skills. This performance map then becomes the “raw materials from which objectives are fashioned” (p. 102).

Once you have course objectives that relate to real-world performance, you have the standard from which to assess any student assignment. Every major assignment, whether a formal paper or integrative project, should have a corresponding grading rubric that lets your students know what grade will be given for what level of performance.


The third aspect of a virtual teaching strategy is guiding class dialogue so it extends into higher levels of learning. Online courses normally create threaded-text discussion forums, where students are required to post regularly. These cyber-class dialogues are different from free-for-all message boards. They differ in that: (a) students follow structured conversation posting protocols to demonstrate their knowledge, and (b) the e-learning instructor then challenges students to take their posts to a higher level.

The School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Regent University uses excellent conversation protocols or what they call “dialogue guidelines” to guide student forums (SLS, n.d). Each forum is open for three weeks. Students are required to post a minimum of five to ten posts within an open forum, and limit each post to 201 words. The discussion in each forum is guided by a starter question directly based on a course objective. Course dialogue is called for in three main styles: “open-forum,” “point-counterpoint-response,” and “5-post 200-word.” Open forum is the least structured. Point-counterpoint-response calls on students to take a position and defend it. And 5-post 200-word calls for scholarly demonstration of research, beyond what is assigned.

In contrast to traditional class discussion “the online environment lends itself to… allowing students extra time to think and learn” (Wojnar, 2002, p. 2). That is where you come in as an e-learning facilitator. Your job is to challenge students in dialogue to extend what they know, so that it ranges across the six cognitive categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy. These are: 1) merely listing what one has read, 2) explaining what one has learned in their own words, 3) applying knowledge to new situations, 4) analyzing complex ideas and concepts, 5) combining complex ideas into new solutions, and 6) defending one’s thinking based on holistic evaluation (Wojnar, 2002). An e-learning moderator, therefore, helps students practice inquiry by questioning their posts and probing group assumptions. English philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls this “unrehearsed intellectual adventure” (as cited by Brookfield & Preskill, p. 6).

By structuring and then moderating online dialogue you help students process what they learn at a deeper level. You give them the mental space to relate new concepts to previous experience. And they come to see that learning is a social process, not just from the instructor, but from other students.


Becoming an e-learning instructor is much more than just focusing on software or the technical aspects of computer mediated teaching. An e-learning instructor develops a virtual teaching strategy that focuses on:

1. Preparation – creating a course framework of student assignments that is learner-centered, rather than teacher-centered.

2. Performance – relating all assignments to real-world performance competencies, and insuring student work is graded objectively according to these rubrics.

3. Process – establishing student dialogue on proven conversation protocols and guiding it through inquiry so it extends into higher levels of learning.

With these virtual teaching keys in mind, you can join the thousands of mid-career leaders who are transforming education online by becoming outstanding e-learning instructors.

[Are you looking for online institutions to teach in. Check out the Online Education Database].

About the Author

Dr Jay Gary is president of PeakFutures, a leadership training group. Over the past twenty years PeakFutures has helped hundreds of leaders in non-profits, corporations, and educational institutions develop new programs and use cutting edge technology to deliver them.


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

NEA. (2000). A survey of traditional and distance education members. Washington, DC: The National Educational Association.

SLS (n.d.). “MOL Dialogue.” Retrieved from the School of Leadership Studies, Regent University,

Tabs, E. D. (2003, July). Distance education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 2000-2001 (National Center for Education Statistics, Ed.) (NCES 2003-017). Retrieved 7 June 2005, from

Pipe, P. (1975). Objectives–tool for change. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers.
Ponton, M. K., & Carr, P. B. (2000, 15 September). Understanding and promoting autonomy in self-directed learning. Current Research in Social Psychology, 5(19), 271-284.

Wojnar, L. (2002, August). Research summary of a best practice model of online teaching and learning. English Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 2-9.

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