Online Teacher Identity

CURATED BY: Farzana Hafsa, Raffaella Borasi

LAST UPDATED: December 2019

Online teacher identity – that is, what kind of online teacher one aspires to be – can have significant impact on what, how and why one chooses to teach online; as such, it is important for educators preparing and supporting online teachers to understand how to account for it as well as influence its development. 

Insights from Research

Why is online teacher identity important?

Identity influences teaching decisions.

The kind of teacher you think you are and/or you want to be, your pedagogical beliefs and values, the educational goals you seek, will all impact the learning activities you will want to create for your students, as well as the training you will seek to continue to improve your teaching practice.

Identity influences teachers’ self-efficacy.

How you perceive yourself as an online teacher will also have implications for your level of confidence when teaching in this format and your belief in your ability to impact your students’ learning, which in turn will affect your willingness to explore innovative approaches.

What is online teacher identity?

There is no clear definition of teacher identity.

Despite agreement on the influence of identity on teaching, there is no agreed-upon definition of teacher identify and online teacher identity, and researchers have assigned different meanings to these terms in their work. We find Luehmann’s definition of teacher identity as “being recognized by self and others as a certain kind of teacher” (based on Gee’s definition of identity) to be especially valuable in the context of teacher education.

Agreed-upon elements of professional identity.

There is consensus, though, that identity is constantly changing as a result of a person’s experiences, is composed of multiple sub-identities that interact with each other, and is socially constituted (that is, influenced not only by personal factors but also interactions with others in specific professional contexts).

Online teacher identity as a component of teacher identity.

As most teachers think of themselves primarily as a math teacher, higher education faculty, or professional who also wants to be able to teach online, it may be more productive to think of online teacher identity as a component of a teacher’s broader professional identity. Yet it is still valuable to study online teacher identity as a “sub-identity”, since the kind of online teacher one aspires to be will affect important instructional and professional decision when teaching online.

What can influence the development of one’s online teacher identity?

Role of participation and recognition in identity development.

Gee suggests that identity development is constituted through the complementary processes of participation in activities and discourse within the targeted community of practice, along with recognition of that participation “as a certain kind of …” by self and others. In the case of online teaching, participation may not only involve engaging in teaching online, but also participating as a learner in online courses. Recognition of these activities may include many kinds of reflections/ debriefing where each novice online teacher’s experience is privately or publicly examined vis-à-vis their aspirations, beliefs and values as online teachers.

Identity-related challenges encountered by novice online teachers.

Common key challenges for people who are starting to teach online, as reported in the literature, include: fear of having inadequate technological knowledge and skills; negative perceptions about online education in one’s field; threats on one’s self-esteem as an experienced professional for veteran traditional teachers training to teach online. Negative prior experiences in online courses taken as a student also often contribute to negative perceptions about online learning and teaching. These challenges needs to be acknowledged and worked through as part of the process of identity development.

Recommendations for Practice

What are implications for how we approach the preparation of online teachers?

Teaching skills and techniques is not enough.

Teaching future online teachers about how to use specific digital tools or a Learning Management Systems is not enough – as when and how these teachers will use these tools will depend on the kind of online teacher they aspire to be.

Need to explicitly address identity development.

Preparation programs should be clear about what kind of online teacher they aim to prepare, and purposeful in supporting participants’ development of an identity consistent with those goals – by paying attention to key factors affecting identity development.

How can we support the development of an identity as a certain kind of online teacher?

Value of “experiences as online learners”.

One of the most powerful ways to affect one’s views of online teaching and learning is to have them participate as a student in online learning experiences that have been purposefully designed to illustrate affordance and limitations of specific online teaching practices. This represents a valuable form of participation even at very early stages of an online teacher preparation program, and has been shown to be especially effective at addressing misconceptions due to prior negative experiences with online learning.

Value of “scaffolded experiences as online teachers”.

The most obvious participation activity when learning to teach online is to actually “practice” online teaching with some expert supervision – and indeed this is already a common element of program preparing online teachers, especially when participants are current teachers. However, to encourage participants to engage in more innovative online teaching practices, it is also important to design online teaching opportunities that provide sufficient support to ensure success in these first online teaching experiences.

Value of structured reflections.

To fully leverage the power of “experiences as learners” and “experiences as teachers”, these experiences need to be accompanied by reflections and discussions purposefully designed to help participants see their implications for the kind of online teacher they aspire to be and receive recognition by self and others. In addition, assignments that ask participants to explicitly articulate the kind of online teacher they aspire to be, and/or to identify the progress they have made towards that goal and possible next steps, would provide other valuable recognition opportunities.

Next Steps to Learn More

Recommended Readings

  • Seminal reading about teacher identity and its impact on teacher preparation:
    • Luehmann, A. L. (2007). Identity development as a lens to science teacher preparation. Science Education, 91(5), 822-839. doi:10.1002/sce.20209.
  • For a valuable literature review on teacher identity:
    • Beijaard, D., Meijer, P. C., Vermunt, J. D. (2004). Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(2), 107–128
  • For an example of empirical study grounded in identity theory:
    • Richardson, J., & Alsup, J. (2015). From the classroom to the keyboard: How seven teachers created their online teacher identities. The International Review of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 16(1), 142-167. doi: - View Reading
  • To get a sense of how a course preparing online teachers informed by identity theory may look like and what impact it may have on the participants:
    • Borasi, R., Hafsa, F., & Miller, D. (2019). A course preparing online teachers with a focus on identity development.

Annotated Bibliographies

Related Projects

Investigating Identity Development in a Program Preparing Online Teachers (2017 - )

Project TEAM: Hafsa, Borasi |
AUDIENCE: General | TOPICS: Identity, Online, Teacher Education

Brief Description

What kind of online teacher you aspire to be and how you perceive yourself as an online teacher – that is, your online teacher identity – can have a significant impact on what, how, when and why you choose to teach online.   Yet most programs preparing online teachers ignore this important aspect.  How can we design online teacher preparation programs and courses that support identity development so as to purposefully prepare a certain kind of online teacher?  This project started with a dissertation study involving the in-depth study of a section of an introductory course preparing to teach online, whose design had been informed by identity theory.  Building on the data collected in this study, and continuing to expand it, we aim to shed further light on how one’s professional identity affects the aspirations and choices of novice online teachers, and what kind of professional learning experiences may impact those aspirations and choices.

Collaboration Opportunities

  • Looking for students who took EDE484A: Online Teaching & Learning and are willing to share their experience in that course as well as information about the online courses they designed and taught after taking the course

Key accomplishments to date

  • Completed a dissertation study entitled Investigating Teachers’ Identity Development in a Hybrid Course to Prepare Online Teachers, producing 7 individual case-studies of course participants (all but one of those enrolled in the course) as well as a cross-case analysis that document the significant impact the course had on the participants’ views of the kind of online teacher they aspired to be.
  • The dissertation study documented the value of engaging participants in a variety of experiences as online learners to illustrate affordances and limitations of online spaces as well as of specific online teaching practices.
  • The dissertation study also documented the value of having participants, as part of an introductory course, engage in experiences as online teachers, scaffolded in a number of complementary ways to ensure their success; this especially highlighted the value of an early Group Project, where students designed and delivered an online module on topics related to online teaching and learning to the rest of the class.
  • Engaging in a follow-up study with selected participants to document the impact of the course on the design of specific online courses.

Links for More Information

Online Teacher Preparation at Warner (2013 - )

Project TEAM: Fredericksen, Borasi, Miller |
AUDIENCE: Higher Education | TOPICS: Blended, Online, Teacher Education

Brief Description

Learning in online courses depends highly on the quality of the course design and implementation – and yet this quality varies significantly across online courses.  How can we prepare instructors to design and facilitate engaging and effective learning experiences? Recognizing this unmet need, Warner developed a sequence of courses to learn how to teach online, as well as an Advanced Certificate and a Master’s degree in Online Teaching – and is continuing to enhance these offerings. These programs are among a handful of online teacher preparation programs registered with New York State Education Department.

Initiative directly supported by the LiDA Center

Collaboration Opportunities

  • Welcoming doctoral students interested in studying/ evaluating these experiences

Key accomplishments to date

  • Designed an innovative sequence of three courses – EDE484: Online Teaching & Learning (hybrid-online), EDE486: Designing Online Courses (fully-online), EDE488: Practicum in Online Teaching (hybrid-online).
  • Since its launch in Fall 2013, over 200 students took the first course in Online Teaching & Learning – with consistent student satisfaction, as documented by the course evaluations; more than 30 students have completed one of Warner’s programs preparing online teachers.
  • 22 of these students designed and implemented new online courses at Warner, and as such were instrumental to the rapid growth of our “online start-up”.
  • Building on the training received in these courses, 8 of these students are involved in LiDA projects, as either paid graduate assistants or volunteers.
  • A dissertation study on the first course in the sequence has shown its effectiveness in engaging participants in valuable identity work; case-studies of 7 out of the 8 students enrolled in the course have been conducted, articulating the “kind of online teacher” each aspired to be by the end of the course, and the impact key design elements of the course had on them.
  • A fully-online version of EDE484 and EDF488 have been created
  • An adaptation of the sequence has been created specifically for UR faculty

Links for More Information

Preparation of K-12 Digitally-Rich Teachers at Warner (2016 - )

Project TEAM: Miller, Borasi, Borys |
AUDIENCE: K-12 | TOPICS: Blended, Teacher Education

Brief Description

Digital technologies have the potential to create new learning opportunities for K-12 students, and as such can further enhance any other reform initiative (such as the East EPO and Horizons) and lead to increasing achievement for all. However, realizing this potential will depend on what K-12 teachers actually do with these technologies. How can we effectively prepare K-12 teachers to leverage digital technologies in their classrooms? To meet this need, Warner developed courses as well as an Advanced Certificate that pre-service and in-service K-12 teachers can take as non-matriculated students or as part of another Warner degree program – and is continuing to enhance these offerings.

Initiative directly supported by the LiDA Center

Collaboration Opportunities

  • Welcoming doctoral students interested in studying/ evaluating this program

Key accomplishments to date

  • Designed an innovative graduate course and accompanying practicum – EDE484A: Digitally-Rich Teaching & Learning in K-12 School (hybrid-online) and EDF490: Practicum in Digitally-rich Teaching.
  • Our Advanced Certificate in K-12 Digitally-Rich Teaching was the first of its kind registered with New York State Education Department.
  • 77 students have taken EDE484A since the 2016 launch of this course, including 30 teachers from the Auburn, Geneva, and Groton school districts as part of a NYS Learning Technology grant awarded to their schools.
  • A $1.2M Noyce Scholarship grant has been awarded by the National Science Foundation to support full scholarships for 26 math and science pre-service teachers who will add the Advanced Certificate in K-12 Digitally-Rich Teaching to their teacher preparation program; 5 of these scholarships have currently ben awarded.

Links for More Information