Teacher or Facilitator?

By Linda Lyle

There are two different approaches to teaching online education in an online classroom: functioning as teacher or a facilitator. I think the role of a teacher really goes without explanation, but what exactly is a facilitator and how does it differ from the role of teacher? In order to answer these questions, it will help to compare the two concepts in relation to their interactions with students.

Traditionally, a class is taught by a teacher mainly through lectures. The teacher presents information in an oral presentation while students listen, take notes and occasionally ask questions. This method sometimes leaves little room for class discussion or hands-on work; the teacher is the focal point and usually takes most of the class time. Grades are usually based on written exams. This method of teaching is often hard to duplicate in an online environment, but it can be done through video lectures and PowerPoint presentations.


A facilitator, on the other hand, is an instructor who leads the class in discussions based on the material covered. This is a student-centered approach. Facilitators rarely lecture; instead, they lead the class to discuss the material and share personal insights from real-world examples. This approach allows students to apply the information to their own situations, making the learning more meaningful to them.

While both approaches are effective, online learning is better suited to a facilitator approach to teaching because of the delivery system, student learning styles and student interaction. Because information in online classes cannot be delivered in person, it is usually delivered through reading assignments, posting discussion questions and various electronic presentations (e.g., video, PowerPoint or audio). While lectures can be delivered through these methods, the impact is not quite the same. Also, studies have shown that there is diversity in learning styles among students, so focusing on only one method of presentation limits the effectiveness of the instruction. Another issue is the amount of student interaction with the instructor and other students in the class. In an online classroom, student interaction is only limited by how much time and energy the student puts into the course since it is usually asynchronous. This means that students have 24/7 access to the online classroom to post discussions and respond to others.

What does this mean for students? It means that many online classes use the facilitator approach, which requires more input from students than a traditional classroom. Students can’t hide in the back of the classroom because all postings from students are monitored and saved, so an instructor knows exactly how much time you have spent in the class as well as how much you've added to the discussion. Most online classes require you to post answers to discussion questions regularly in order to receive participation points, whereas in a traditional class, the teacher only took roll. Some students may see this as a negative, but the truth is the student gets a lot out of the arrangement as well. The more you interact with the material and can apply it to your situation, the more you will be able to learn. After all, isn’t that why you took the course in the first place?

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