Topic design basics

This resource introduces some basic topic design considerations, and offers a range of ideas for practice, with an emphasis on designing for online

Roles for teachers

The teaching role in the online environment will have within it the four characteristics of online – ideally it will be personal, active, structured and connective. How you express those characteristics and shape your own role online will be unique. We are teaching in a connected world that enables us to move beyond the 'set and forget' approach of providing rich online environments for learning and expecting that to be enough. However, looking at the online environment, it is difficult to see the teaching and, indeed, the learning: the activity in that space.    

Roles and tasks 

In general, it is helpful to think about online teaching roles and tasks as ranging across three areas of activity:

  1. setting up the environment for self-directed and self-paced learning activity
  2. actively teaching into that environment 
  3. responsively shaping the topic as it progresses, by making sense of what's happening 'behind the scenes'

Across the three areas there are a number of roles and tasks that can be mix'n'matched to suit the learning approach for the topic. Different roles and tasks will make sense at different points in the topic and they are not mutually exclusive, but potentially complementary – keep all the hats on your virtual desk.

Here's some ideas about roles to prompt your thinking:


One of the main differences in online teaching is that the topic environment is itself an active teaching mechanism, and can be set up to orient, guide, provoke, even assess, learners as they move through the topic. The teaching task here is to think like a learner, imagining them dipping into the online environment as it suits them. What do they encounter there that will engage them, stimulate their learning and advance their understanding in your topic? 

Expert thinker

What is the expert in the online teaching environment? While there are indeed a plethora of freely accessible experts that students can tap into, YOU are the expert they have a personal relationship with. You can model thinking and acting like an expert in your discipline even while you direct learners to access the work of other experts. This is valuable exposure into the mind of the expert!

Guide on the side

Online teaching is often referred to as being a 'guide on the side' (as opposed to a 'sage on the stage'). Guidance activity can include tasks such as orienting students to learning and assessment activities, and to participation and communication expectations. Guidance can also be provided at key points during the activities, such as checking for understanding and 'muddy points', directing attention to important things, linking forward to the next part of the activity or the next idea, looping back to reinforce or establish new connections, and providing feedback on progress. 

Meddler in the middle

A useful new idea is to be a 'meddler in the middle'. Meddling stirs up assumptions, provides new perspectives, prompts deeper approaches to the subject, and creates interest. Meddling is useful for subjects/concepts that are wicked (not 'solvable'), that are contestable, or that demand criticality.


The online environment enables teachers to moderate student learning in ways that are not possible face to face. Teachers can run reports to check that learners are accessing and completing set activities, and actively participating in the topic. Monitoring forum activity is another important aspect of moderation, checking that discussions are on track and that learners are getting their queries met.

Collaborator and co-learner 

The online space is a 'flat' space where the teacher is one of the participants in the topic site. This potentially supports a different kind of connection with the learners: one that is on equal footing, if you like. There is nothing to stop the teacher interacting in a discussion, or in an activity, alongside the learner, collaborating in the learning activity. In this sense the teacher is also a co-learner, learning about the learning as the topic progresses. The online topic environment makes sharing easy.

Teaching teams

If you are teaching in a team, there is a layer of organisation and communication required that will help to inform the shape of your teaching online. Some of the teaching will be to the whole cohort, and some will be connected to smaller groups. Online teaching teams need to work closely together so that there is continuity and consistency. Teams can use the structured online environment as a framework for their practice. Teaching resources such as lesson plans can be hidden from student view but available for tutors, or collected within a hidden module.