Role ambiguity in online courses

Current thinking in learning design, General Leave a Comment

A paper written by Bork and Rucks-Ahidiana (2013) from Columbia University on the role of the instructor and student in an online course highlights the need for clarity of roles.

The Problem

Their analysis suggested that student and instructor expectations of one another’s actions and behaviors are misaligned and hence leads to role ambiguity in the online context. Thus causing frustration, tension and confusion among students and instructors as they try to understand their role in an online course.

What they found

Bork and Rucks-Ahidiana found that most instructors felt that students should:

  • solely be responsible for being motivated
  • identify the most important material
  • prioritise course-related tasks
  • review assignments in advance
  • ask any questions of the instructor several days before assignments are due

However, students agreed that students should:

  • manage their time well
  • perform course tasks and assignments on schedule

But, the students expected that instructors should:

  • work more actively to make key tasks, material, priorities, 24 and assignments clear
  • motivate student learning by ensuring that materials were engaging
  • inject their own presence into the course
  • support student learning by being proactive in providing substantive feedback

Both students and instructors expressed frustration about their expectations not being met. The frustration articulated by our student interviewees—who were largely successful online students—may help to explain why less successful online students ultimately drop out or fail.

Although each group may have felt confident that they were enacting their own role appropriately, both groups were frustrated that the other group was not doing so.

The Solution

The mutual misalignment of expectations, coupled with a lack of exposure to the typical socialization processes that would be present in a face-to-face course, suggests that colleges need to implement institutional-level interventions, such as student readiness and faculty development activities, to bring online student and instructor expectations into better alignment.

Colleges could implement an explicit socialization process that communicates instructor expectations to students—and vice versa—to improve the online experience for all parties.

The Solution in Practice

They advocated a two-pronged approach: (1) improve student readiness activities for the college as a whole and for individual courses (think about “0 Week”), and (2) enhance professional development for instructors. These strategies, implemented simultaneously, would allow both students and instructors an opportunity to observe and define specific role-related behavior in distance learning courses. Through a transparent socialization process, role ambiguity that currently surrounds these online roles might be reduced.

Read the whole paper on role ambiguity here.


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