Top 5 Online Learning Skills That Online Instructors Should Have

Top 5 Online Learning Skills That Online Instructors Should Have
Summary: Online learning programs must pay as much attention to quality of instructors as they do to the technology. This article reminds us some critical online instructor skills.

Top 5 Online Learning Skills That A Successful Online Instructor Has

One of the most neglected areas of online learning is the skills of online instructors. Like face-to-face instructors, online instructors need strong formation in content, instruction and assessment. But since they are teaching through technology, they also need formation in other areas (managing online learners, technology skills). These areas include:

  1. Content knowledge
    Online education instructors must know their content and must know how to help learners develop an understanding of content in a distance environment. Often, assumptions prevail that all online learning is a self-study process in which content (for example, readings) serves as didactic materials and that learners can learn key content ideas on their own simply by watching a video or reading text. In such an environment, online instructors focus on communication, record keeping, and administrative tasks. Online instructors do need to know content well, but most of all, they need to know how to help learners develop a deep understanding of content and know how to use content-appropriate instructional strategies in a technology-mediated environment.
  2. Blend pedagogy, technology, and content
    Online learning programs often struggle to find well-qualified instructors who understand how the intersection of technology, pedagogy, and content can provide meaningful learning experiences for learners; who exhibit skills of self-direction and time management that enhance their efficacy as online instructors; and who understand the importance of and have the skills to provide active facilitation and technology-mediated support (Burns, 2011). Online learning programs also struggle to find instructors who know how to modify the instructional practices and pedagogical techniques used in face-to-face settings for the online environment. These struggles arise from two sources: The first is that very few online programs train instructors in the distance medium in which the instructor is supposed to teach. The second is that online instructors are often recruited from face-to-face settings where this intersection of technology, pedagogy, and content is quite different from online settings. Three immediate solutions to these two issues are listed below:

    1. Engage online instructors in the sorts of quality and extensive professional development and support that can help them make such connections.
    2. Prepare online instructors to teach in the medium in which they will instruct. Medium-based instruction (i.e., training online instructors to teach online via an online program) can help instructors develop the necessary skills to foster interaction and communication with and between learners during the online learning experience. It also shows online instructors how to use telecommunication tools in support of instructional methodologies that can encourage learner collaboration and knowledge acquisition.
    3. Introduce online instructors to frameworks of knowledge, such as technological pedagogical content knowledge, which emphasize connections among technologies, curriculum content, and specific pedagogical approaches so that instructors can blend technology, pedagogy, and content to produce effective, discipline-based teaching via technology (Burns, 2013).
  3. Establish an online presence
    In an online learning environment, the instructor plays a critical and multifaceted role. He or she is the “face” of what can be, for novices, a disembodied and potentially disorienting experience. Facilitators must work to establish a welcoming presence, set a tone that encourages reflection and inquiry, broaden and deepen online communication, assess both individual and group learning and interactions, make critical judgments about whether and how well participants are gaining content-specific knowledge, encourage those who fall behind in posting, know when and when not to intervene, and summarize participant learning (Burns, 2011). Most critically, to make the online environment feel like a conversation and foster a sense of belonging, facilitators must provide “verbal immediacy” and “just-in-time” assistance. Strong and skilled facilitation—of knowledge, of the learning process, and of helping learners manage their time and tasks—is even more important when learners are new to online education and/or used to traditional, didactic learning environments.
  4. Effective communication skills
    Online discussions are often the “tie that binds” a collection of individual learners into a collaborative learning community. Without such discussions the learning opportunity becomes a solo endeavor, and opportunities for deeper learning are lost (Burns, 2011). The promotion of such collaborative communities through online discussion groups requires skilled facilitation by instructors, who employ strategies to elicit learners’ beliefs and understandings. They recognize when and how to respond to individuals and to the group in order to shape and promote interaction. They guide participants along a continuum of learning from awareness of new techniques to adapting and applying such techniques in their own professional settings. And again, they provide verbal immediacy and just-in-time assistance to learners. These latter practices are critical elements in the coherence of online groups, since an online instructor’s response time can bridge the virtual distance between the instructor and students or deepen it.
  5. Ability to manage learners (in online classes)
    Online learning can be  difficult for learners who have never been given the independence or flexibility to chart their own learning course, or who come from education systems that are top-down and directive. Online learners often have difficulty completing their work in such an open environment, particularly when they are not part of a place-bound physical cohort of other learners. Online instructors must devote time to assisting such learners by motivating them, counseling them, offering just-in-time support, monitoring their performance, and providing one-on-one and differentiated tutoring. Online instructors will need to provide the right amount of support and pressure via the technology available (IM, phone, e-mail) on an ongoing basis. Though this notion of supporting and interacting with Online learners sounds intuitive, it is often not the norm in many established online environments, in which learners are expected to go it alone and support for, management of, and monitoring of learners is not built into the online education system.


Burns, M. (2013). Estrategia nacional en línea para la Universidad Nacional de Educación de Ecuador. Quito, Ecuador: Ministerio de Educación

Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Retrieved from