Module 4, Online Instruction Strategies and Practices: Moving Away from Sage on the Stage

Figure 1: Traditional teaching model
Figure 1: Traditional teaching model

Best practices for online learning have been discussed and researched extensively as an increasing number of schools add Web-based courses to their programs. Some focus on the environment of the virtual classroom, such as Anderson’s “Community of Inquiry” model, which calls for social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence (Anderson, 2008). Others put the responsibility for the environment on the instructor, with the idea that students can learn best when guided with minimal structure (Siemens, 2008). Some discussions blend environment, educator practices, and content structure to build a comprehensive method of online instruction (Darrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). All of these studies and recommendations have value, and in combination they offer solid foundations for effective instruction in an online environment.

The graphic at the beginning of this post illustrates the traditional classroom idea, which some call “the sage on the stage” (King, 1993), and this is precisely the model we do not want to emulate in online classrooms. Rather than having the instructor lecture while the students listen and take notes, the best online classes place the teacher as “guide on the side,” a knowledgeable leader who conducts exploration into the material to be learned. The teacher in this case serves a number of roles: as a social guide, introducing students to one another and to the material; as a provider of structure, building cooperation among students; as a facilitator, helping students learn together; and as a member of the learning community, challenging students to explore further and to build learning networks for future learning (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).

The teacher as a guide serves not only to direct what should be learned, but also to clarify concepts and to prevent miscues. Students left to their own devices may believe they have understood a concept, but they may be creating “private universe” scenarios in which they interpret information incorrectly (Anderson, 2008). Teachers can correct these misconceptions. They can also act as the “concierge” of the information, guiding students to find the right answers and offering new ideas the students had not considered before.

The following graphic illustrates these roles for the instructor, and for the students.

Figure 2: Four phases of online course activity, based on Conrad & Donaldson (2011)
Figure 2: Four phases of online course activity, based on Conrad & Donaldson (2011)

Conrad and Donaldson (2011) divide the learning process in online courses into four “phases,” as the students move from newcomers and strangers to collaborators and partners. In the first phase, students meet each other, and activities are designed to help students become more familiar. Course assignments are on an individual basis at this point, but asynchronous class discussions are geared toward becoming familiar with one another.

In the second phase, the teacher pairs off the students, and activities are built around these dyads. Possible activities for this stage include peer evaluations of assignments, discussing various questions together and then sharing the results with the class, or finding websites on the given topic and sharing with each other.

Phase 3 is a group undertaking, with the class divided into groups of 3 or 4, working together on such projects as a group presentation, a wiki, or a topic-driven Internet scavenger hunt where students work together to seek valuable resources to share with the entire class.

By the time Phase 4 arrives, students are familiar with one another, and should be able to self-direct in activities of pairs, small groups, or individuals. Students might choose together what the next activity will entail, or they might lead activities by turns.

Each of these phases can be accomplished with simple technologies available today. Students should be encouraged to:

  • privately email one another or instant message,
  • use chat rooms and discussion boards,
  • hold small discussion on Skype or GoToMeeting synchronously, if possible, and to
  • participate in their pairs or groups as often as they can to build the relationships into a community working together.

As online learning develops into its own model of education, these strategies for guiding students will facilitate independent exploration of knowledge, critical thinking skills, and group problem solving, all essentials for working in today’s world. As educators, we will be the tour guides and stewards of our disciplines, sharing our knowledge and encouraging our students to do likewise.


Anderson, T. (2008). Teaching in an online learning context. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2nd ed., pp. 343-365). Edmonton, AB, Canada: Athabasca University Press.

Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Darrington, V., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190-193. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

King, A. (1993, Winter). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35. Retrieved from Walden Library database.

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. ITForum. Retrieved from

Photo Credits

Online classroom:!our-classroom/c1bcg


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