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Vol. 8, No. 1: September 17, 2001

What Are the Essential Characteristics of the Successful Online Teacher and Learner?
An Issue-oriented Dialogue White Paper
Virtual Pedagogy Conference, UW Oshkosh, July18, 2001
Facilitated By Jane Kircher, Instructional Design Manager, UWS DotEdu

Instructors and students need to understand the characteristics of the online environment in order to further develop the trails for success as online teachers and learners. Faculty members and instructional support professionals who participated in this dialogue session identified themselves as either novice or veteran users of on-line technology; the comments included here reflect a range of experience, understanding, and, in some cases, preconceptions about the on-line environment.

Focus question: What are the essential characteristics of the successful online teacher and learner?

This question was further divided into 3 areas:
1. What is the nature of the online environment?
2. What are the characteristics of a successful online instructor?
3. What are the characteristics of a successful online students/learner?

1. What is the nature of the on-line environment? Comments:

  • Driven by technology
  • Less flexible than classroom environment
  • Requires more planning, preparation, and detail
  • Lacks spontaneity
  • Changes "energy" by offering more asynchronous interaction
  • Difficult for students with poor written communication skills
  • Provides opportunity for reflection
  • Uses "online-ese," the language of online education
  • Humor and emotions may not read well
  • May cause fear and caution both personally and intellectually for novice user
  • Requires an adequate base knowledge of technology
  • Allows anonymous participation
  • Requires instructional design resources to maximize use of technology
  • Students benefit from introduction to environment
  • Limits nonverbal communication (body language)

2. What are the characteristics of the successful online instructor? Comments:

  • Organizes and prepares course materials
  • Is highly motivated and enthusiastic
  • Committed to teaching
  • Has a philosophy supporting student-centered learning
  • Is open to suggestions following pre- and post-learning evaluations
  • Demonstrates creativity
  • Takes risks
  • Manages time well
  • Is interested in online delivery of courses with no real rewards
  • Responds to learners needs within the expectations stated by instructor
  • Is disciplined to require and reinforce to expectations with students

3. What are the characteristics of the successful online student? Comments:

  • Manages and allocates time appropriately
  • Prefers linear learning style
  • Displays technology skills
  • Can deal with technology and its frustrations
  • Is an active learner
  • Highly motivated, self-directed, and self-starting
  • Depends on nature of instructional methods (group vs. individual tasks)
  • Has appropriate writing and reading skills for online learning

Key Issues of Consensus

Participants reached consensus on the following items:

  • How can institutions provide
    • Support for use of instructional technology to instructors and students?
    • 24/7 support to instructors and learners?
    • Functional and emotional comfort and skill acquisition?

  • How can institutions "face the myths?"
    • Development time by faculty is too great
    • Students and faculty have different levels of understanding of distance learning
    • Need to recognize efforts of instructors

  • Why does every instructor need to learn every skill?

Areas Where Consensus Was Not Reached

Several participants expressed concern that some of the following items have not been articulated or consistently provided to faculty systemwide. They did agree that there is a need for institutions to communicate and provide:

  • Consistent support for instructional design (pedagogy needs analysis, design options, implementation planning and evaluation of course, certificate, program and / or degree) and instructional developers (application specialists)
  • Quality standards and criteria as well as evaluation criteria
  • Clear expectations among and between institution and faculty, institution and students
  • Clarification of differences between global and detailed perspectives between novice, apprentice, and expert instructors and learners

Topics for Future Discussion

  • Ability for faculty and students to share content
  • Design expectations with flexibility on all levels--instructor,department, institution, etc.
  • Information about changes in student demographics
  • Clear institutional commitment and articulation to students,instructors, and staff about institution's
    motivation and goals to offer online learning
  • Philosophy of online learning
  • Support for technology
  • Recognition of efforts of instructors
  • Ability to provide appropriate preparation time


The faculty and instructional support professionals agree that teaching and learning online requires substantial investment in many types learning by all parties involved and is a developmental process. Some skills and knowledge need to be adapted from traditional application; other skills will be additional ones. The commitment of the institution is essential. Instructors and support professionals are already firmly committed and more instructors are choosing to use online capabilities. However, some needs are not yet adequately being addressed.

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