New Online Teaching Model: Sage-on-the-Side?

Have you heard the online instructor [cheekily] described as a ‘guide-on-the-side’, contrasted with the traditional professor, known as the ‘sage-on-the stage’?  I’ve heard this term often –  my interpretation is that the ‘sage’ is the learned professor with great expertise and knowledge, the ‘guide’ the mentor or coach. The terms  ‘sage’ and ‘guide’ in this context, epitomize a collision between two  theories of learning, each with opposing views on the way we learn. The sage-on-the-stage labels a teacher-centered approach, essentially a directive teaching style, grounded in behaviorist theory. One such theory, developed by B.F Skinner, suggests the learner is a vessel, waiting for knowledge to be absorbed like a sponge. Contrast this approach to the constructivist model, of which educators Piaget, Bruner and Gardner support(ed), where the learner directs his or her own learning and ‘constructs’ knowledge by drawing upon his or her experiences and background while interacting with learning content.

What is the Sage-on-the Side?
I first came across the term, sage on the side while reading Campus Technology’s article ‘2012: What’s Hot, What’s Not’ which seems to describe the blending of theories of learning, constructivist and directive. Four technologists shared their views about upcoming learning trends and tools in educational technology. Consensus is, that college lectures as we know them, will transform given new technology (i.e. lecture capture, mobile devices), online learning and changes in learner styles.

We need a Sage AND a Guide
I do not suggest one theory is better than another – though I see parts of the theories being necessary in online learning as a new paradigm for college instruction emerges. Why?  First off, the  medium of delivery for online learning, the learning management platform (such as Moodle) forces change. And two, the learner has changed and the learning context. It’s no wonder that academia has been wary of online learning with this clash in ideologies. The instructor, (aka the sage) requires a completely different skill set for e-learning – he or she needs to be a mentor and the intellect. I  see the need for instructor’s knowledge (now more than ever) to be shared with students, especially since we have information available 24/7. These subject matter experts (sage or instructor), can help students discern, think and learn, but only with a skill set that can teach and communicate in the online environment.

Controversy about Online Teaching and Learning
Controversy about the quality of online learning should not be a new to most educators, but I suggest it is due in part to the lack of online skilled instructors. There has been a tremendous gap —- though top-notch instructors of face-to-face institutions may be excellent in the traditional lecture environment, they may be unprepared and lack the appropriate technical skills for teaching online. A new teaching model is needed – one that includes a subject matter expert with a specific set of competencies.

Essential Competencies for the Online Instructor
Colleges are beginning to recognize this need for additional skills and many have provided training programs and support. One such school, Penn State, developed Competencies of Online teaching Success, a video series geared to online educators to develop competencies for effective online instruction. University of South Wales, developed an excellent video series Learning to Teach Online, for online instructors.

Skills need by Online Instructors:

  • Communication skills for the asynchronous environment
  • Time management
  • Technical skills for LMS
  • Trouble shooter
  • Mentor
  • Instructional design skills to create an environment for online collaboration

I’ll leave you with a video from COFA, which describes how higher education institutions can adapt successfully to the changes and challenges of online learning.

18 thoughts on “New Online Teaching Model: Sage-on-the-Side?

  1. I was looking for models used for online teaching and came across this blog , quite interesting and thought provoking. I will be working with a team on teacher training program for online students , any suggestions ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like your blog post. I recently blogged on constructivist model and were wrestling with some of the same issues. This is the third time I have run across one of your blogs. We share a lot of the same interests and concepts. Keep putting out the great content.

    Derrick Meer, Via Response Tehcnologies


    1. Hi Derrick. Thank you for your comment! Also I am flattered by your kind comment. The constructivist model is one that is coming up time and again as educators delve into learning theory that supports online teaching and learning. Thanks also for the encouragement – it is readers like you that keep me motivated to keep writing :). Debbie

      I came across a blog that you may be interested in, I’ll post the link later on, when I get on my laptop. 🙂


  3. I agree that teaching online requires a totally different skill set for tutors, but can we really expect academics to effectively apply instructional design in an online environment where technology, media and platforms are changing so rapidly? I’m not so sure.
    I can think of two solutions to this issue: 1) special teams of technology enhanced learning experts to aid subject matter experts, or 2) crowdsourcing students to help in the application of eLearning.


    1. HI Andy,
      Thanks for your comment. Good question, ‘can we really expect academics to … apply instructional design principles in a rapidly changing online environment?’ (I adapted your question here). I am optimistic, and say ‘yes’, though I agree with your suggestion, to support the academic with tech savvy learning experts – however I do think that there is a need for a new academic, one that doesn’t use the teaching f2f classroom as the yardstick, but incorporates and adapts pedagogy to the changing tools. I see the younger generation of academics being able to view the technological tools and applications as just that, tools that support the delivery of learning. If one ‘tool’ changes, he or she ideally should be able to adapt by sourcing another tool to accomplish the learning objectives. The key is having the core instructional objectives established, as it is the objectives that drive the instructional strategy – which include the selection of learning tools. However, I do agree that an technology learning expert, will be a resource that even the new academic will benefit from having access to.

      Your blog post, learning, knowledge and and mentorship – does speak to this in a roundabout way.

      Thanks again Andy for your thought provoking comment.


      1. Hi Debbie
        Really enjoying this blog discussion – sage and guide- and comments etc. Would like to cite from it in a paper I am writing- but cannot see your full;name for citation purposes.
        Are you happy for me to do so and could you lert me have the details?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s