Guide on the Side No More: The Faculty Role in Digital Learning


Jennifer Mathes

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The Faculty Role in Digital Learning

Faculty-Student Engagement in Online Learning

After attending multiple conferences this year, I now find myself with an opportunity to decompress and, in that process, I am seeing a number of trends and connections in what I learned. One comment that really stood out to me happened while I was listening to a keynote speaker in New Jersey at the Collaborate with Emerging Learning Design regional conference. In his presentation, Elliott King, @ElliottKingPhD (he is looking for more followers on Twitter), mentioned a great point about how Socrates believed that writing would be the death of memory and learning. Elliott used this as a comparison to current criticisms that online learning will be the end of teaching. This got me to thinking about how we describe teaching in an online environment. This is not new, but many of us have heard how teaching online requires faculty to move from the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side. I don’t remember when I first heard this saying, but I have used this many times over the years to help faculty, staff and administrators understand how the roles have changed in the online classroom. It also served as a reminder that our students have to take a more active role in the learning process.

However, after hearing from a myriad of presenters sharing their insights at conferences this year, I recognize that faculty do so much more in the classroom. In fact, when I reflect on my own experiences teaching in a digital learning environment, I know that this idea of a Guide on the Side is not true and it downplays the role that faculty actually play in the online or blended classroom. While it is true that faculty guide students through the learning, they also have to be cheerleaders, retention experts, tech support, the content expert, and so much more.

The level of control the faculty member has over the course design and content is not relevant. As we can see in the Quality Course Teaching and Instructional Practice (QCTIP) scorecard, an effective teacher will find a way to establish their presence and incorporate their expertise into the classroom environment. They will add a personal touch to the course through announcements (text or, even better, video), feedback, and other personalized elements. They create a foundation for student learning by using the materials provided in the course and building on it by bringing additional resources, asking quality questions, and being responsive to students.Quality Scorecard-Teaching & Instructional Practice-Community Engagement
So what do we call the role that faculty actually play in the online and blended learning classroom? In keeping with the past rhyming element that has been used in the past, I am calling this role the Ace in the Digital Space. I chose to describe the role as an Ace because we find, in the online or blended course, that a faculty member has to be the expert in many things (tech support, advisor, coach, subject matter, etc.) to their students. They are the first ones that students will go to when they run into an issue. This really does make faculty much more than just a guide on the side. The modality may differ from the traditional face-to-face experience, but faculty are still able to impart their knowledge while helping students navigate through the various challenges and barriers to their success. By providing a new perspective on the faculty role in digital learning, we also can promote conversations around how to better support faculty in the dynamic and diverse role they play.

It amazes me, how many great things we can learn at conferences. While we definitely take away the knowledge and great experiences of the presenters, we can then use those pearls of wisdom to reshape and reframe our own way of thinking. I can’t wait to further expand my horizons and learn from the many great presenters that will be attending the OLC Accelerate conference in November!

About the authors

Jennifer Mathes


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