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Designing for Emergence: The Role of the Instructor in Student-Centered Learning

 Published on August 21, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris /  “When I ruled the world” by Courtney Carmody; CC BY 2.0 /  13

My experiences as a graduate student of writing studies and online education have repeatedly left me inspired by the various “–isms” (e.g., constructionismconnectivism) that put the student front and center, valued as a unique individual with the ability to rail against and contribute to established authorities. But I also worry that these ideologies tend to deemphasize the instructor to an extreme, especially when we talk about teaching online.  

Advocates of online learning often join the student-centered rallying cries, showing that online courses can facilitate personalized and active learning and focusing on ways the instructor can create community in the “classroom” (some of my favorites include Palloff & Pratt and Warnock). At the same time, at both writing studies and education conferences it’s not uncommon to hear comments like, “once you have it set up, the course really runs itself.”

Such comments make the design of the course an aside and devalue its facilitation, which I find concerning, if not downright alarming, because successfully teaching an online course is a very involved activity. In addition to creating lesson plans, assignment instructions, and exams, the online instructor selects and embeds the tools that enable students to interact with the course material and with each other, and she writes or records extensive instructions for using the tools in the course. (The face-to-face equivalent would be to explain how students should interact with the walls and the chairs and the whiteboards.) Then, once the course begins, she fields questions, facilitates student-student interaction, and evaluates the students’ performance. In other words, the instructor is a tangible part of online learning.

However, we seem to talk about instructor role so rarely that she becomes not only intangible, but at times invisible. Part of the problem seems to be that we’ve conflated instructor role with “authority,” and we’ve regarded authority as a dirty word.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Instructor Role

In an effort to bring instructor role back into the conversation, I’d like to think through three associated terms: authority, guidance, and presence. And I want to think about these terms in relation to a fascinating talk I attended at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences by Filitsa Dingyloudi.

In her talk, and in the conference paper (volume 2, p. 761-768), Dingyloudi distinguishes between Lave & Wenger’s communities of practice and Brown & Campione’s communities of learners, explaining that communities of practice emerge naturally because the community members have a common interest, whereas communities of learners are designed by instructors to put students in situations where they will engage in active and distributed learning. Dingyloudi ultimately called for a middle ground where both design and emergence exist, such that instructors create environments in which collaborative communities can emerge.

The question, then, is how do the ways we talk about authority, guidance, and presence account for emergence and design?


In the classroom, authority is almost unavoidably expressed through grading, is sometimes expressed through control (i.e., the instructor dictates what students are allowed to do when), and can be embodied in correctness (i.e., the teacher tells the students whether they are right or wrong). In each instance, authority connotes hierarchy, where few are superior to many, and draws to mind images of teachers (as sages, depositors) at the front of the room talking at passive students.

However, it’s important to remember that authority also exists in student-centered classrooms, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, in Kenneth Bruffee’s “consensus groups,” the instructor poses a problem to the students, who divide into small groups and come to a consensus on a solution to that problem. Then, the instructor calls the class back into a full-course discussion and the various small groups talk with each other, ultimately coming to another consensus as an entire class. Finally, the instructor shares what people in the academic discipline think about the problem, allowing the students to compare their consensus with the professional one.

In this scenario, the professional “insiders” to the academic discipline under study are authority figures, and the instructor is one such insider. The instructor is also a clear designer because she poses the problem, thus creating constraints that define the learning environment.

If the “professional consensus” is presented in a way that suggests the students are either right or wrong, that they either win or lose, then this expression of authority undermines the potential emergence from the small group discussions. But if the professional consensus is presented in a way that encourages the students to reflect upon and refine their own group’s consensus, or to develop critical arguments against the professional consensus, then emergence is supported and the authority of the professionals becomes a positive tool in the learning process.


Unlike the hierarchical nature of authority, guidance deliberately de-centers the classroom, placing the instructor on the sidelines while the students drive their own learning forward. As a guide, the instructor is a credible person who is responsible for assisting students and making helpful recommendations that will lead to success, but there is more explicit room for student agency and autonomy.

For example, some guided classrooms encourage students to contribute to the structure of the course by being part of discussions that establish deadlines and rubrics and learning outcomes. The instructor still provides the frame for the course, and she ultimately evaluates the students on their performance, but she evaluates them according to their own rubrics and in accordance with their peers’ perspectives, thus designing an environment that depends upon the students forming their own community. In this scenario, the instructor may not be an “authority figure,” but she is certainly a leader in the classroom.


When we talk about presence, we often mean something less directive than guidance — the instructor exists in the course, but her role is deliberately undefined so that the students will take charge of their own learning. Many arguments for student-centered pedagogy seem to hold this final category as the ideal, but it is not always clear what the instructor is actually supposed to do, or whether she is a necessary element of the learning experience at all.

* * *

The confusion over the instructor’s role is much less confusing when we realize that many arguments for student-centered environments are advocating for complete emergence, and it’s easy to see where these arguments come from. Scholars like Mimi Ito and Henry Jenkins have shown that interest-driven participatory online communities can facilitate impressively authentic and transformative learning. And James Paul Gee compellingly argues that the nature of authority is changing in our internet culture — we are moving away from valuing institutions and the expert specialists they produce and instead value the collaborative power of community. As Gee & Hayes argue in Language and Learning in the Digital Age, digital media enables people to “bypass official institutions and oversight to produce their own media, knowledge, products, services, and texts” and allows people “without official credentials [to] debate those who do have them” (3). Consequently, the world has become “too complex for this old-fashioned notion of experts” and instead requires “pooling different sorts of expertise in a collaborative fashion” (44).

So why not create a classroom that mirrors these online communities? Maybe we can, but we first have to acknowledge that we are still creating it.

The reality is that the instructor always designs an environment that allows for emergence. No matter how much we may want it to be the case, the environments in which students guide themselves do not spontaneously spring into existence in the courses that most of us teach because students do not come to our classes in the same way they would come to a community of practice. Instead, such environments are carefully designed and the instructor presence within them is deliberately crafted. It also requires a considerable amount of skill and finesse to be a teacher in these environments — as Keith Brennan has argued, “many of Connectivism’s finest practitioners … model and cheerlead. They scaffold and support.” They are active participants and leaders in the courses they teach.

If we start to believe that the instructor isn’t designing the learning environment, that her presence isn’t having a real effect on the way students interact with each other and with the course material, then we make the power dynamics of a course invisible, and that is precisely what most student-centered pedagogy seeks to avoid.

Designing for Emergence

The complicated task for any instructor is to balance design and emergence, to design for emergence, such that her presence facilitates collaborative communities. When we design collaborative communities within college courses, we must recognize the ways the authority of the higher education institution and the instructor’s position as an authority figure influence the dynamics of the course. We must also acknowledge that social structures (and injustices) do not disappear in collaborative communities — collaborative communities construct their own power dynamics that necessarily privilege particular individuals or groups over others.

One way to do this is for the instructor to directly talk with her students about how she designed the environment, and how some of her design decisions were dictated by the physical or virtual constraints of the course and the political and social values of the institution and community. Instructors can also ask their students to reflect upon the ways the “physical” space of the course and the presence of the instructor changes the ways they approach their peers and the course content, and to reflect upon the social dynamics of the collaborative communities they create. Finally, administrators and policy makers need to recognize that courses never just “run themselves.”

I believe in student-centered learning, and I believe there is huge potential for this kind of learning to occur in online environments. But the instructor is a key element of that learning, and we need to talk more explicitly about what her role is and the specific ways she negotiates and leverages her authority, guidance, and presence to design learning environments in which emergence is possible.

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13 Responses
  1. Thanks for this article, Mary. I’ve been thinking along some very similar lines recently with regards to the role of the online instructor and the methodologies we employ in the online environments we design and the disconnect that often exists between the two. As I read this article I couldn’t help but be reminded of Seymour Papert’s quote “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” I’ll be checking out Filitsa Dingyloudi’s conference paper as well. Thanks again for carrying the conversation of online teaching forward in this direction.

  2. Thanks for this. Just been reading about ‘productive failure’ along with the learning power of confusion and ambiguity and all of these discovery-type models include carefully watching for students becoming lost or frustrated. Maybe if we called teaching accompaniment and support the bad taste of authority would wash away?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Scott, and for posting those links! I particularly appreciated the point in Vicki Kunkel’s piece about not giving online students feedback after every decision making moment—there’s a very tricky balance between supporting students in online environments so they don’t feel isolated but also giving them space to fail productively.

  3. You mention at the beginning the “worry that these ideologies tend to deemphasize the instructor to an extreme”. Perhaps that injustice done to the role of the teacher follows (sometimes at least) from a too-narrow notion of a child-centred education. (You seem to be talking more about adult education, but the argument defending a stronger notion of the teacher emerges more clearly when we talk about the education of children.)

    Perhaps that notion of a child-centred education rests on a mistaken presupposition: the assumption that the child is a being centred on itself, in the sense that it has some essential self hidden deep within and the process of maturation and education involve (at their best) the bringing out of that previously hidden interior essence. The truth, of course, is that the child has a life with a centre or centres that are outside of itself.

    I have a 15-year-old Greek student, and when I ask him what the most important thing in his life is, he tells me it is American wrestling. In a quite spontaneous way, he has let that sort of wrestling become the measure of all things. There is a hierarchy here which he has looked for and found. Children like this need hierarchy, and the only way towards a critique of hierarchy in cases like this is through an initial acceptance of it.

    As a teacher, I find myself in competition with the wrestlers. Surely as teachers we need to rise to the challenge. If we stand aside (with a mistaken sense of where the centre lies) to let the children actively pursue their interest in the worst kind of commercialised wrestling, the project of education (and with it much besides) is doomed to failure.

  4. Ronald

    Many discussions on student-centredness and teacher authority confuse IMHO:
    1. learning versus education
    2. education without a learning contract
    3. education with a learning contract

    Learning, is IMHO a natural process almost continuously going on in living creatures, especially in animals and humans.
    Learning goes by a rhizomatic, chaotic, often non-intentional process, most of the time through some kind of trial and error process.

    Education is an intentional situation where learning is deliberately facilitated one way or another.
    A learning contract is a mutual agreement between parties to have the “learner” reach certain learning objectives within a certain time frame and financial frame, facilitated by the “teacher”.

    In education without a learning contract, the role of the “teacher” can be limited to offering the “learner” access to learning facilities. E.g. internet, libraries, internships, tutorials, help sessions, discussion groups, peer learners etc.
    The learner is free to choose her/his own learning objectives and her/his own learning path in her/his own time frame.
    Rhizomatic learning and full self-determined learning have full opportunity to develop. Formative assessment is voluntary and only meant to help the learning process where the learner wants this.

    In education with a learning contract, the learner and the teacher both have more obligations than in the non-contract situation.
    – The learner has the explicit obligation to put in effort to reach the agreed learning objective(s).
    – The teacher has the explicit obligation to facilitate for the learner a learning path that has a more than reasonable chance of successfully reaching the agreed learning objectives within the agreed time frame and within the agreed financial borders.

    This means that the teacher must provide learning paths that suit as much as possible each individual learner. This includes formative assessment and remedial teaching/learning activities. The teacher must also provide summative assessment by which the learner knows she/he has reached a certain learning objective.

    Rhizomatic learning has less room in this situation because it can endanger the getting to the learning objective within time. Self-determined learning has less room too, because the same reason and is often limited to self-paced learning instead of setting one’s own personal learning goals.

    The role of the teacher as to self-determined learning here, is to facilitate flexible delivery of learning content, assessments, feedback and remedial learning materials.

    Very often in education there’s a third party e.g. a (part of a) governement or a bussiness company that has a contract with the teacher to teach certain content to the learners within a set of time and financial conditions.
    The tighter the conditions are, and the more defined the content is, the less there is room for teachers and learners to determine what and how to teach respectively to learn.
    In many cases the governement defines in laws which assessments students most pass at the end of their courses. In such circumstances implementing rhizomatic learning and self-determined learning becomes almost impossible.

  5. All about education 08/29/2014 | Musings on education, teaching, lifelong learning and world events

    […] Designing for Emergence: The Role of the Instructor in Student-Centered Learning – Hybrid Peda… […]

  6. Dear Mary, I found the article very inspiring, resonating strongly with some of my own ideas about the continuum from *design* (a potentially asynchronous dimension) to *emergence* (the here and now of the classroom), all of which is mediated by the teacher’s presence. To capture this dynamic, I use the metaphor of dice-board games, where the curriculum (the board) can be traveled in different directions by the players, depending on the circumstances. I develop this metaphor in “Teaching as Structured Improvisation” (http://atlanticuniversities.ca/sites/default/files/documents/AAUTeachingShowcaseProceedings/2012Proceedings.pdf, p. 31.)

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