Role of the Teacher in Online Education

Stephen Downes, respected thought-leader in online education, recently gave a talk titled, We don’t need no educator: The role of the teacher in today’s online education at the Norwegian Association for Distance Education (NADE) in which he discussed the rapidly changing role of the educator in online learning and made the case for why instead of the traditional “expert” role, online educators serve in a host of roles, including:

…as Learner

  • Collector
  • Connector
  • Curator
  • Artist
  • Sharer
  • Scientist

…as Designer

  • Programmer
  • Alchemist
  • Convener

…as Coach

  • Salesperson
  • Agitator
  • Mentor
  • Coordinator
  • Facilitator
  • Conversationalist
  • Tech Support

…as Expert

  • Lecturer
  • Moderator
  • Demonstrator
  • Broadcaster
  • Theorizer
  • Evaluator
  • Bureaucrat

Stephen makes some enlightening points in his talk and I recommend it for anyone interested in the potential for online learning and in particular, the dynamics of learning in a massive open online course. If you find online learning interesting, you’ll enjoy Stephen’s talk. NADE has kindly recorded the talk and made available both part 1 and part 2 and I’m also embedding them below.

Do you agree with the points Stephen has made? What roles did he exclude that you’d suggest be added? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


  • Thanks for the video. I do enjoy Downsies approach, and appreciate he’s talking future here … but at the same time, I’d say that in our current ‘not in school’ game-world project called Massively Minecraft (I can’t avoid the plug sorry), we have kids 4-16 playing Minecraft, set against some goals. Where we began with a few players 10 months ago, we now have over 200 kids from around the world – all of whom – from this definition are online teachers. It would be trite to say they are teaching themselves, when the are in fact teachers. You can see their work on the Guild website which demonstrate all of these aspects.

    I think, as I do a lot of teacher-education, that there is a sort of developmental hard-wiring that happens, and if you look for all those descriptors, you in fact find them in several job descriptors and titles as Stephen points out at the beginning. Where as our kids are great at ‘fast switching’ between these roles, teachers are not – they become hard wired into a particular role that is cast.

    I’d argue our game world is an optimal, immersive distance education course – that achieves (without the familiar methods and tools) outcomes in literacy, digital skills and social-emotional capacity that fails to happen in school models, simply has most models don’t try to evolve they try to be hard wired – when they think they are at an optimal functional level. Kids don’t see technology like this, so I suspect reject teaching online simply because they see improvements constantly on a hard wired system.

    Thanks for the video. My view is that a MOOC can easily be 3D, have no obvious teacher in a game-space and though play, players would learn just as much – because learning is also better as a shared experience. I’m yet to see a MOOC as a game-approach, yet there are many examples of MMO games such as World Without Oil … In my view – I think we using a game-like approach would radically improve how it feels to try on these roles in a MOOC, rather than plow over what they mean.

  • Dean, I got into online learning by first designing and creating online games – MUDs, specifically – and adapting them to learning. So I’m predisposed to be sympathetic to the MOOC-as-game approach. There are some stopping points, though:

    – games are self-contained – there’s no sense of a distributed online game (or a distributed 3D web) so you have to all go into the one environment – but this runs exactly contrary to the design philosophy of a MOOC

    – games create additional overhead – it’s difficult to get people to wrap their minds around distributed and learner-created learning, adding the elements of gamification or 3D object creation creates an even greater barrier, without an appreciable gain

    So that’s about where i am on MOOCs-as-games at the moment.