Should Online Students Get to Choose Their Instructor(s)?


photoBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

When students enroll in online classes, they often do not get to choose their instructors for and may not find out who the instructor for a particular class will be until the class starts. The question to consider is whether or not it would be of benefit for students to choose their instructors for online courses. Students have to rely upon the school to determine if the instructor has adequate experience, education, and knowledge to facilitate the class – and it is assumed the school has determined the best fit for the instructor and the course. It would be interesting to know how students would respond if they could review a list of instructors’ qualifications prior to the start of class – and would they be able to determine which instructor would best facilitate the course and help meet their academic needs.

The learning process involves the acquisition of information, including course materials and other sources that are designed to help students meet the learning objectives. The instructor is expected to implement activities that provide an opportunity for students to interact with the information in a way that results in knowledge creation and skill set development. An instructor’s expertise has a direct impact on class discussions, communication, working relationships with students, and feedback provided for class assignments. When an instructor has significant real-world experience they are able to enrich the learning experience by bringing the course materials to life. If an instructor has also had prior classroom facilitation experience they will be familiar with the process of developing meaningful feedback, effectively guide the learning process, and address students’ developmental needs.

photoIf students were allowed to choose the instructor, the most likely source of information they would receive would be the instructor’s biography. For schools that allow students to choose their instructors, the school website typically provides the instructors’ backgrounds — often the same introduction that is posted in the class. An Instructors will either project an image of working with the students by sharing knowledge and expertise, or an instructor may establish him/herself as an expert or authority from whom students are expected to learn.

It is imperative that instructors consider the impact of their introductions and the images they are attempting to establish – whether an introduction is posted on the school website or in the classroom. Students may not have a choice when it comes to who will facilitate a class; however, they will make a determination about their involvement in the class based upon their interactions with the instructor and the relationship that they are able to develop with the instructor. The introduction can create a positive perception of working together if it uses a warm and inviting tone.

The most important question related to this topic is whether or not students would be able to accurately match the instructor’s written background to their learning needs and the course objectives if they were given a choice. This could pose several potential challenges for the school, especially if the institution does not have a wide variety of instructors to offer for the courses. There would be scheduling challenges, which would require schools to create a large pools of available instructors. Another possible challenge would be assisting students if they cannot make a choice and need further guidance when signing up for a class.

The idea of allowing online students have a choice certainly has merit.

Online programs could list instructors’ credentials, background, experience, and work in the subject field (including published work). The instructors’ quality scores and teaching measures could also be used, although this is certain to bring about some debate because these measurements are often based upon student surveys and it is understood that if a student has a disagreement about their final outcome they may intentionally provide a lower rating or score. What’s important to remember is that students ultimately do have choices – whether they learn about your background prior to or at the start of class and you can shape their decisions through your involvement in the class. Use the introduction you develop as a means to create a welcoming tone and set the stage for productive working relationships. Students are likely to choose to be open to your facilitation of the class and willing to follow your instructional lead.

By Bruce A. Johnson, PhD, MBA

Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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