Some big issues in online teaching

Jenny Mackness, United Kingdom

Pedagogy is often defined as the method and practice of teaching, but is that all it is? And what do we understand by teaching? What is a teacher’s role? These are questions that have always engaged educators, but with increasing numbers of learners taking online courses in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs), teaching online has come into sharp focus again. In my recent reading of research into MOOCs, I have noted reports that there has not been enough focus on the role of the teacher in MOOCs and open online spaces (Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013).

Years ago when I first started to teach online, I came across a report that suggested that e-learning was the Trojan Horse through which there would be a renewed focus on teaching in Higher Education, as opposed to the then prevailing dominant focus on research. It was thought that teaching online would require a different approach, but what should that approach be? Two familiar and helpful frameworks immediately come to mind.

  1. Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry Model (2000), which focuses on how to establish a social presence, a teaching presence and a cognitive presence in online teaching and learning.

Establishing a presence is obviously important when you are at a distance from your students. Over the years I have thought a lot about how to do this and have ultimately come to the conclusion that my ‘presence’ is not as important as ‘being present’. In other words, I have to ‘be there’ in the space, for and with my students. I have to know them and they me. Clearly MOOCs, with their large numbers of students, have challenged this belief, although some succeed, e.g. the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC, where teaching, social and cognitive presence have all been established by a team of teachers and assistants, who between them are consistently present.

  1. Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage model for teaching and learning online (2000) which takes an e-learning moderator through a staged approach from online access, through online socialization and information exchange, towards knowledge construction and personal development in online learning.

I have worked with this model a lot, on many online courses. Gilly Salmon’s books provide lots of practical advice on how to engage students online. What I particularly like about this model is that it provides a structure in which it is possible for learners and teachers to establish a presence and ‘be present’ in an online space, but again, MOOCs have challenged this approach, although Gilly Salmon has run her own MOOC based on her model.

In both these frameworks the teacher’s role is significant to students’ learning in an online environment, but these frameworks were not designed with ‘massive’ numbers of students in mind. The teaching of large numbers of students in online courses, sometimes numbers in the thousands, has forced me to stop and re-evaluate what I understand by pedagogy and teaching. What is the bottom line? What aspects of teaching and pedagogy cannot be compromised?

The impact of MOOCS

The ‘massive’ numbers of students in some MOOCs has raised questions about whether teaching, as we have known it, is possible in these learning environments. In this technological age we have the means to automate the teaching process, so that we can reach ever-increasing numbers of students. We can provide students with videoed lectures, online readings and resources, discussion forums, automated assessments with automated feedback, and ‘Hey Presto’ the students can teach each other and the qualified teacher is redundant. We qualified teachers can go back to our offices and research this new mechanized approach to teaching and leave the students to manage their own learning and even learn from ‘Teacherbots’ i.e. a robot.

Is there a role for automated teachers?
Recently I listened (online) to Sian Bayne’s very engaging inaugural professorial lecture, which was live streamed from Edinburgh University. Sian is Professor of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, here in the UK. During this lecture, Sian spent some time talking about the work she and her team have been doing with Twitterbots, i.e. automated responses to students’ tweets. The use of a ‘bot’ in this way focuses the mind on the role of the teacher. The focus of Sian’s talk was on the question of what it means to be a good teacher within the context of digital education. Her argument was that we don’t have to choose between the human and non-human, the material and the social, technology or pedagogy. We should keep both and all in our sights. She pointed us to her University’s Online Teaching Manifesto, where one of the statements is that online teaching should not be downgraded into facilitation. Teaching is more than that.


Sian and her Edinburgh colleagues’ interest in automated teaching resulted from teaching a MOOC (E-Learning and Digital Cultures – EDCMOOC), which enrolled 51000 students. This experience led them to experiment with Twitterbots. They have written that EDCMOOC was designed from a belief that contact is what drives good online education (Ross et al., 2014, p.62). This is the final statement of their Manifesto, but when it came to their MOOC teaching, they recognized how difficult this would be and the complexity of their role, and questioned what might be the limitations of their responsibility. They concluded that ‘All MOOC teachers, and researchers and commentators of the MOOC phenomenon, must seek a rich understanding of who, and what, they are in this new and challenging context’.

Most of us will not be required to teach student groups numbering in the thousands, but in my experience even the teaching of one child or one adult requires us to have a rich understanding of who and what we are as teachers. Even the teaching of one child or one adult can be a complex process, which requires us to carefully consider our responsibilities. For example, how do you teach a child with selective mutism? I have had this experience in my teaching career. It doesn’t take much imagination to relate this scenario to the adult learner who lurks and observes rather than visibly participate in an online course. In these situations teaching is more than ‘delivery’ of the curriculum. It is more than just a practice or a method. We, as teachers, are responsible for these learners and their progress.

The ethical question

Ultimately the Edinburgh team referred to Nel Noddings’ observation (Ross et al., 2014 p.7) that ‘As human beings we want to care and be cared for’ and that ‘The primary aim of all education must be the nurturance of the ethical ideal.’ (p.6). Consideration of this idea takes teaching beyond a definition of pedagogy as being just about the method and practice of teaching.

As Gert Biesta (2013, p.45) states in his paper ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher’

…. for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching

So a question for teachers has to be ‘‘Why do we teach?” and by implication ‘What is our role?’

For Ron Barnett (2007) teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. He recognizes that students are vulnerable and that the will to learn can be fragile. As teachers we know that our students may go through transformational changes as a result of their learning on our courses. Barnett (2007) writes that the teacher’s role is to support the student in hauling himself out of himself to come into a new space that he himself creates (p.36). This is a pedagogy of risk, which I have blogged about in the past.

As the Edinburgh team realized, we have responsibilities that involve caring for our students and we need to develop personal qualities such as respect and integrity in both us and them. This may be more difficult online when our students may be invisible to us and we to them. We need to ensure that everyone, including ourselves, can establish a presence online that leads to authentic learning and overcomes the fragility of the will to learn.

Gert Biesta (2013) has written that teaching is a gift. ‘….it is not within the power of the teacher to give this gift, but depends on the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student. (p.42). This confirms Barnett’s view, with which I agree, that teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. Teachers should use all available tools to support learners as effectively as possible. Pedagogy is more than the method and practice of teaching and I doubt that teaching can ever be fully automated. As teachers, our professional ethics and duty of care should not be compromised.



Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. IRRODL, 14 (3), 202-227. Retrieved from:

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. California: University of California Press.

Ross, J., Bayne, S., Macleod, H., & O’Shea, C. (2011). Manifesto for teaching online: The text. Retrieved from

Ross, J., Sinclair, C., Knox, J., Bayne, S., & Macleod, H. (2014). Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 57–69.

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.



10 comments to Some big issues in online teaching

  • Thank you so much for posting this for me Lisa. As you know, I wrote this at the beginning of March when you first invited me. I haven’t changed my mind about anything I have written, but of course if you had invited me this month, I probably would have written about something different. At the time, the role of the teacher in open online learning was very much at the front of my mind and this writing reflects the reading I was doing back in March.

    We all know, though, that these days everything moves on so fast, and whilst I haven’t changed my mind about what I wrote, I have noticed that Sian Bayne has published a paper about Teacherbots since then. So for anyone who is interested in whether the role of the teacher can be automated and what the role of the teacher should be in open online learning environments such as MOOCs, then here is the reference.

    Bayne, S. (2015). Teacherbot: interventions in automated teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 455–467. doi:10.1080/13562517.2015.1020783

    I like the way Sian manages to relate this discussion of teacherbots to the quote from Clarke: ‘Any teacher than can be replaced by a machine should be!’

    Clarke, A.C. (1980). “Electronic Tutors”. Omni Magazine, June. p.96

    • Lisa M Lane

      Interesting about Teacherbots – I know the Clarke quote, but I wonder who determines whether they “can” be replaced by machine? If teaching is perceived as just public speaking without interaction, it could likely be replaced. Certainly inquiry techniques make this impossible. But I am curious about the space in between…

  • Louise

    Hi Jenny
    I have read quite a bit of your work and thank you for this. I believe that you would be familiar with George Siemens metaphors of educators (2008) and Stephen Downes (2010) Twitter research where he identified 23 roles for educators in these environments and counting. Downes made the point that we can’t expect one educator to take on all the roles and so advocates a number of educators supporting larger groups of learners. With MOOCs in mind, with say the 51,000 participants and in light of the importance of pedagogy (whatever that may look like) in these environments, my question is; how?

    • Hi Louise – sorry about the delay in replying to you and thank you for your comment.

      Yes I am familiar with George and Stephen’s work – and whether or not it’s for larger groups of learners, I think learners always benefit from a range of perspectives and different pedagogical philosophies and approaches. This is why this blog of Lisa’s and her team is such a great idea – we can see evidence of these different pedagogical perspectives.

      To answer your question of how we might ensure this with larger groups of learners, the best example I can think of is the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) run in Coursera by Al Filreis and his team from the University of Pennsylvania. He gets over 30 000 participants on his MOOC each year and employs a number of strategies to ensure tutor presence and interaction with participants.

      First he has a team of teaching assistants from his University – there must be about 10 – and these 10 have weekly ‘office hours’ in a forum, where participants can have direct contact with these qualified teaching assistants. They are all so different from each other that participants can choose who they think they would best relate to.

      In addition to this he has a large number of alumni volunteers, who take responsibility for being present in the forums, answering questions and keeping discussion going. I think, am almost certain, that he has a meeting (online) with this large team of volunteers from around the world before the start of the MOOC.

      And then he has his wider network of professional poets who drop in, help out with webinars etc.

      So it can be done, but as you say, not on your own. Lisa is a good example of someone who seems to have a very enthusiastic team around her.

      But my perception is that it does take a good leader to pull this off.

      I wonder if I have answered your question 🙂


  • […] and author of a number of papers on the subject of digital learning and MOOCs.  Her blog post Program for Online Teaching cuts to the core of what it means to be a teacher in these environments.  George Siemen’s […]

  • Hi Lisa – thanks for this comment. ‘… the space in between….’ For me that is the point that Sian Bayne was raising in her paper, i.e. it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. At least that’s how I read it. Nevertheless, it did raise for me the question of what it is about the ‘human’ teacher that I value. What cannot be replaced?

    • Lisa M Lane

      Love the way you phrased that – what is it about the human teacher that we value? Made me think about answering questions. How do we answer a question, versus how something automated answers a question? The ways in which we can tailor our response to the learner comes to mind. These are indeed big issues.

  • Thanks for this, Jenny. Regardless of the topic, your writing always inspires me to pause and take a professional reading — in this case, a reading of how I’m connecting with my students.

    It’s been years since I thought of William Purkey’s concept of inviting students to learn (see Zeeman’s comparison of Purkey’s and Glasser’s model But the mystery of firing synapses connected invitations and gardening as I read your post. Much of the teaching I’ve been doing recently is about organic gardening and sustainability. And my students have varied from third graders to recent immigrants to the elderly. This teaching, side-by-side, with hands in the soil, is far different from online teaching in the physicality but not in the psychological. My gardening students have reminded me of the great power and great responsibility (thank you, Peter Parker 😉 that I have as I engage in Biestra’s “fragile interplay between the teacher and the student.” I think we can invite others to learn and understanding them, the context, and ourselves can make those invitations they will not want to refuse.

    How I send those invitations, in person or by bot, I think others will accept if they can sense the honest desire to help them learn.

  • Cris – that’s a great comment – thanks. Your gardening class sounds great and must be very satisfying. Thanks too for the link to an interesting article, which I will be adding to my Mendeley 🙂

    ‘How I send those invitations, in person or by bot, I think others will accept if they can sense the honest desire to help them learn.’ This is a great comment and now you have made me think!

    I certainly got the sense that this is how Sian Bayne and her team were approaching their use of ‘bots’, but whilst I would not question the honest desire of Sian and her team, I’m not sure that a ‘bot’ can have an ‘honest desire’. So does it depend, when using ‘bots’ on the extent to which the ‘human’ behind the bot can remain present?

    The work and concerns of Sherry Turkle come to mind –

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