Teachers in the distance education systems perform various roles and tasks. In spite of their complex responsibilities, the role of teachers in distance education is considered to be of low esteem and respect. This is partly due to the implementation of the system of teaching-learning in many so called distance teaching institutions that hardly care for quality and and the philosophy of the system. Most of the times, distance educators face problem of parity and recognition of their work as teaching. At some places the non-teaching staff also question the status of teachers in distance education. Being involved in the distance education system for the last 14 years, I tried to analyze the roles performed by the teachers in the distance education system. I realized that there are six Gowns that a teacher in distance education system put on depending on the time and context – the gown of a teacher, a technologist, a counsellor, an evaluator, a researcher, and overall a manager. It is the last gown that is more problematic to the teaching professionals, as teaching is only considered to be something that is done in the four walls of a classroom, and all other managerial activities are performed by other staff. In distance education, the managerial gown is put on by the teachers most of the times, leading to a thinking that distance educators are not teachers in real sense of the term. In reality, the meaning of the teacher is changing, and therefore, we need to look into these six gowns that a teacher in distance education put on from time to time. In fact, a true teacher in distance education is one who switch gowns at ease, and perform multiple roles with care, and passion. Let's look at these Gowns:
- Teacher: This is the core of a distance educator, and is the primary gown. As teacher's tasks involve, curriculum planning and design, and development/ writing of lessons in multiple media formats. Thinking about instructions and instructional design is part of the activities of a teacher in distance education. What subject can be taught though which media, and what support are required for the learners are decisions a teacher need to make. How best to present the materials that a learner can study the content and achieve the intended objectives is a matter of concerns for a teacher in distance education. Teaching is performed through a variety of media – print, audio, video, computers, Internet, assignments, tutoring, etc.
- Technologist: Every distance educator needs to be a technologist. Distance education by definition is a system of teaching and learning facilitated predominantly by the use of technology. In order to be effective, a teacher needs to put on the gown of a technologist from time to time while developing materials in print as well as other digital media such as audio, video, and computers. Understanding of technology to a reasonable extent and ability to work comfortably with technology to teach subject matter are important in distance education. Teaching with the use of a television camera in asynchronous and synchronous manner require different types of skills, and a good distance teacher need these special skills. The advent of new technologies have added additional responsibilities, and teachers in the distance education system need to remain update all the time. This need not be the case for the teachers in the classroom bound system.
- Counsellor: In a classroom bound system, the role of a teacher is mostly to transact the curriculum content. In contrast, a teacher in the distance education system needs to be a counsellor, who has skills of handling disadvantaged students with varieties of problems. A good distance teacher is a counsellor who has warmth, acceptance, genuineness and empathy. Apart from helping students to understand the content, a distance teacher also need to understand the problems of the learners and accommodate them within the framework of the rules and regulations of the institution. Good counselling is key to student success and retention in the distance education system. Most of the poor performance of the distance teaching institutions are due to poor counselling and guidance of learners.
- Evaluator: All teachers do evaluation, but distance teachers do more than evaluation. They need to have good monitoring skills, especially to monitor the delivery of their courses and programmes. A teacher's role in the distance education system does not end after development of the learning materials, they need to monitor the delivery of the programmes/courses to maintain the quality. Teaching through assessment of students' work is unique to distance education to have two-way communication and interaction. Providing teaching type comments in the students' work/assignments is vital to help them learn.
- Researcher: All teachers need to be researcher – to do research and to supervise research. The objective of research is to generate new knowledge and have insights into existing problems. Distance educators, apart from doing research in their own disciplines also need to do research in the systemic aspects of distance education, especially to improve their own understanding and develop themselves as reflective practitioners. This aspect is not taken care of in many distance education institutions when they try to identify separate cadre for doing systemic research. Instead enough opportunities need to be provided to the distance teachers to conduct research as part of their teaching gown. A gown of a researcher is a difficult one, and we seldom put this on.
- Manager: The managerial gown is the one that is seen most of the times. A distance educator performs the role of manager doing everything from planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting. This gown in what people see, as the other gowns are put on to limited effect. Planning for meetings, coordinating with the course writers, expert committee members, counsellors, study centre staff, preparing budget for courses/ programmes, organizing counselling schedules, identifying cousnellors and other related staff, directing various activities involved in the delivery, reporting the progress to the management, and many other activities fall within the roles of a manager in the distance education system. As teachers we do all of these!
Whatever may be the perception about distance educators, it is true that they switch gowns from time to time. The Managerial gown is probably more visible, and therefore, it needs more proactive action on the part of the distance educators to put on other GOWNS more frequently.
Special Thanks to Dr. Pankaj Khare for the graphics on this post.