Synchronous online learning: teacher role

Scientists have identified not one but as many as five roles in online teaching (four of them are added to pedagogical).

Over the past four years, synchronous online learning has gone from a dubious novelty to the norm. However, there are still no digital didactics, and the teaching features in this format still need to be fully formulated: what competencies are required for those conducting synchronous online classes? Researcher Maaike Grammens and her colleagues in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Ghent in Belgium tried to answer this question.

The scientists conducted a meta-analysis of 30 scientific studies on this topic, and the results were published in November 2022 in the scientific journal Educational Research Review. As a result, they created a kind of skill set (a set of skills) for teachers in synchronous learning. The results can be useful for practicing teachers and those who organize online learning.

How the study was done

Maaike Grammens and her colleagues studied more than three thousand scientific publications on the Web of Science and Google Scholar to understand what competencies teachers need in synchronous online learning. Scientists have selected 30 works entirely devoted to this topic:

  • 20 of them dealt with online learning in the context of higher education;
  • five concerned primary and secondary education;
  • in another five, the educational level needed to be specified.

As a framework, the analytics used a list of teacher roles online, which was proposed in 2011 by Professor Evrim Baran (she received her Ph.D. in curriculum, learning technologies, and human-computer interaction from the University of Iowa) and her colleagues:

  • pedagogical role (pedagogical role);
  • facilitator role;
  • the role of the instructional designer (instructional designer role);
  • social role (social role);
  • managerial role;
  • technical role.

True, it turned out that such a canvas for describing and systematizing teaching skills has two drawbacks. Firstly, the roles that Evrim Baran described are more suitable for teaching in an asynchronous format (and the differences between synchronous and asynchronous forms are, of course, significant ). Secondly, some of the competencies found by the Belgian researchers only sometimes fit into this scheme or belonged to several roles simultaneously.

As a result, scientists have added a new role for the teacher – communicative (communicational role). And the roles of the teacher, facilitator, and pedagogical designer – because the competencies required for them often coincided – were combined by Belgian researchers into an instructional role.

The result was an updated framework of five teacher roles in synchronous online learning:

  • instructional role;
  • managerial role;
  • technical role (technical role);
  • communicational role;
  • social role.

For each of these, the researchers identified key competencies — “sets of skills needed to work effectively in a specific context” — of synchronous online learning. Scientists called these sets clusters.

What do the roles and competencies of teachers in synchronous learning look like

It should be noted that the study is not focused on specific practical advice but only indicates the main points of effort for teachers who work in a synchronous online format. However, some ideas for practice are still traced in it.

Teaching role

Scholars define a learning role as “mastering the basic pedagogical competencies that form the basis for developing effective learning in various contexts, including videoconferencing.” Simply put, it is the ability to design learning, master teaching tools and activities for students, and apply all these skills online. Here are the clusters of competencies relevant to the teaching role:

Organization of the educational process

The teacher needs to understand how to build the learning process and be able to choose the right digital tools based on learning goals. In addition, teachers need to take advantage of the synchronous format (those not in asynchronous learning), for example, when giving additional materials that students may need.

If in an asynchronous format, preparing materials in advance and efficiently is possible. In a synchronous lesson, the teacher needs to “intervene positively in the learning process” and promptly provide additional information to students.

Synchronous online learning: teacher role

Stimulating active learning

In synchronous online learning, the teacher needs to ensure that students are actively involved in the learning process and think independently. To do this, you need to be able to select the right tools, push for mutual communication and look for techniques that would compensate for the shortcomings of the online format (for example, the inability to participate in non-verbal communication). In addition, the teacher should be familiar with the principles of group work in the virtual classroom.

Development and (re)creation of materials and tasks

Teachers must have skills in instructional design and development of teaching materials that will be most effective in synchronous online learning. For example, you can break tasks into small subtasks and leave pauses in your speech to ensure students understand the material.


In a synchronous environment, assessment has its characteristics, and teachers need to think about how to monitor student progress “here and now.” For example, researchers cite quizzes and online surveys that help collect data during the lesson and differentiate learning.


Teachers in synchronous learning need to be proficient in different ways of providing feedback. Given the ability to collect student data, feedback can be focused, personalized, and, most importantly, instant.

Attention to the individual needs of students

Unlike the asynchronous format, the synchronous format allows attention to the needs of individual students. For example, it can be expressed in various learning activities: single tasks can be combined with group tasks and visual context – with sound.

Student motivation

For some students, online can cause negative feelings, the researchers note. Therefore, teachers need to be able to involve them in the learning process and help them get used to the synchronous format. For example, the authors of a scientific work cite situations when teachers dynamically start online classes, creating a friendly atmosphere.

Managerial role

The authors of the study understand this role as “practical organization and administrative control of the online learning process.” At the same time, they note its particular importance for a virtual and synchronous environment. This role includes four skill clusters.

Control over the course

Managing the learning process online requires multitasking, the researchers emphasize: for example, you will have to simultaneously solve technical difficulties, follow the chat, and pay attention to both active students and those who prefer silent listening. This cluster also includes managing your time perfectly to start and finish the lesson on time.

Establishing and Enforcing Rules

The teacher needs to discuss the rules for participation in the educational process (for example, when to turn on the camera and microphone, how to raise your hand, and in what order to answer) and the rules of etiquette.

Equipment management (training materials and tools)

Researchers call equipment the materials necessary for the lesson, which must be prepared in advance: both physical (if he will demonstrate something to students – for example, a picture from a book) and digital (if he plans to use some services with the group, then you need to take care of access for each participant in advance).

Planning and organization of the lesson

But in this cluster, we are talking more about technical training. The requirements of the synchronous format are much more serious than the asynchronous one: you need to think about the stable operation of the network, test the operation of services and tools, and check all the settings. And in some cases, discuss the details of work with a “third party” in advance – for example, with the parents of students.

Technical role

Working in a synchronous format means that it is not enough for the teacher to perform exclusively pedagogical functions; he also has to play a “technical” role – at the same time, select the right tools and manage the process. This role brings together five competency clusters.

Technical support for students

The teacher should be ready to provide technical assistance to the participants in the class. In addition, he needs a plan in case a problem arises that cannot be solved immediately. Knowing who to contact for technical assistance is also worth it if you need help managing independently.

Possession of technical means

“Teachers teaching in a synchronous videoconferencing format need to know how to use various technical tools,” the scientists write. By obvious technical skills, they mean, for example, the ability to run online conferences, create breakout rooms, and share documents via chat.

Selection of adequate digital instruments

Based on the learning goals, the requirements of specific tasks, the abilities of the students, and the limitations of the technical means themselves, the teacher should choose only suitable digital tools.

Demonstrating a positive attitude toward educational technology

Educators must set an example for students, showing a willingness to experiment with new technologies. And so they should strive for confident possession of them, the researchers say.

Demonstrating Safe and Healthy Online Behavior

Educators need knowledge of digital literacy and a high degree of awareness of the information they convey to their students. An example here is the observance of intellectual rights: first, the teacher needs to observe them himself and encourage students to do so.

Communicative role

The interaction of the teacher and students in real-time distinguishes the synchronous lesson format from the asynchronous one. The communicative role of the teacher is to make this interaction as simple and unhindered as possible. It includes four competency clusters.

Facilitating and encouraging communication

The teacher must consider how he will encourage students to discuss and express their opinions. Researchers, citing colleagues, point out that correctly posing questions becomes especially important here. For example, you can ask closed questions via polls or chat, followed by open-ended questions that involve more verbal responses.

Competent use of communication tools

The teacher needs to pay attention to the peculiarities of using a microphone, webcam, chat, and other technical communication tools – and not from a technical point of view, but from a pedagogical point of view. For example, when teaching a foreign language, it is important to position the camera so that the class participants can see the teacher’s lips (this is important for understanding how new words are pronounced for them).

Synchronous online learning: teacher role

Choosing the right communication channels for specific learning scenarios

A teacher in a synchronous format needs at least a few strategies for interacting with students in different situations and understanding when they are effective. For example, in one case, feedback can be given by voice, in another by a text comment, and in a third by emoji in the general chat.

Communication Mastery

The teacher should be able to give clear explanations, summarize discussions, highlight their main ideas, and demonstrate their willingness to talk with any participant in an online class. In addition, it is important to ensure the audio quality so that the teacher’s speech is understandable to all students.

social role

According to the authors of the study, teachers in a synchronous online format should facilitate students’ social interaction and contribute to the formation of “authentic and sustainable relationships” – both with their students and students with each other. The social role includes four clusters of competencies.

Formation of an online community of students

The teacher’s task is to create a psychologically safe atmosphere, allowing the wards to interact with him and each other. We need an atmosphere of well-being and mutual assistance, a space where common goals are achieved through peer-to-peer learning.

Attention to cultural differences

This cluster implies, among other things, the willingness of the teacher to overcome their cultural prejudices. In addition, educators should allow students to share their cultural experiences.

Building authentic and prosperous relationships with students

This means the teacher’s desire to get to know the students better. The study’s authors believe it is worth finding time for informal conversations, for example, before class. In addition, you need to pay attention to students’ emotions and respond to them. In some cases (for example, when it comes to school lessons), educators can communicate with students’ families and invite them to watch online classes.

Help in building relationships between students.

Finally, educators should help students build relationships with each other. This is especially important because the format of synchronous online learning provides little space for socialization – unlike, for example, the halls of educational institutions, where there are always opportunities for friendly communication. Help can, for example, be the so-called icebreakers – entertaining activities at the beginning of each online lesson. In addition, group activities should be designed in such a way that it stimulates the exchange of opinions.

What conclusions did the researchers draw?

Belgian scientists say they have better-defined teachers’ roles in online learning than their colleagues did ten years ago, mainly due to introducing new functions and a new approach to distributing competencies.

In addition, the research work of Grammens and her colleagues emphasizes that the role of an educator in a synchronous online format is not limited to teaching. The described scheme can become a guide to action for those who have switched or want to switch to a synchronous learning format, the researchers summarize. But that doesn’tisn’t the only benefit. This study also clearly demonstrates to education managers how complicated the teacher’s role in the digital environment is. This must be taken into account both when assessing the workload of teachers and when planning to improve their qualifications.

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