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Editor’s Note: This evocative research to identifies key components within teaching-learning systems. — Teacher Identity and Power are flexible components in configuring online environments. They are as essential to the success of any online teaching-learning system as they are in the face-to-face classroom.

Negotiating Teacher Identity and Power in Online Poly-Synchronous Environments: A Heuristic Inquiry

Christopher Miles, Erin Mikulec

Keywords: identity, power, online learning, distance learning, distance education, teacher education, teacher training, synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, faculty development


The start of the twenty-first century has witnessed an explosion of interest in incorporating technology into higher education. A number of studies have undertaken the task of exploring how computers have been used, have affected learning outcomes, and how the computer has changed the practices of the classroom (see, for example, Johnson & DeSpain, 2001). A strong tendency toward a focus on the learner has contributed significantly to a more complete understanding of the media-enhanced classroom (see, for example, Zarghami & Hausafus, 2002; MacDonald, 2003). This bias toward learner outcomes, design, and implementation has resulted in a number of studies that focus on and attempt to treat pragmatic issues of design and implementation of distance learning from the faculty point of view. In these studies the usual suspects are present such as an increase in faculty workload, incentives for faculty to develop and teach in online formats and issues of sufficient time and training to successfully implement such courses (see White & Myers, 2001; Dibiase & Rademacher, 2005; Lawhon & Ennis-Cole, 2005 & Vodanovich & Piotrowski, 2005). However, there are few studies that focus on the issues that affect professors and lecturers of graduate student teacher training programs in terms of identity, power, and professional satisfaction and growth. While Bennett and Lockyer (2004) proposed that new teaching practices must be adopted in an online age, these were addressed in terms of how such practices must evolve to accommodate the needs of students. Though no one would dispute that meeting student needs is central to the work of educators, turning a blind eye to teacher identity and self-concept in this developing age of technology transforms the teacher into another online course tool or the proverbial “man behind the curtain.”  Specifically, concerns of this nature fall under the domain of identity and power. As the classroom experience becomes more high tech and the physical parameters of the classroom change, so too must we re-evaluate ourselves as teachers and understand how our teaching identities change along the spectrum of the virtual classroom and how identity interplays with issues of power.

Attaining a single general theory of identity has proven to be somewhat elusive in all areas of study that seek to understand it. Researchers today opt for a blended understanding of identity that mirrors a more interdisciplinary concept of multiple approaches or choose to unify currently existing theories within the same field, distinguishing differences of emphases (see, for example, Varghese, Morgan, Johnston, & Johnson, 2005; Stets & Burke, 2000; Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995). All agree that identity is discursively created, complex, and dynamic depending on the roles and contexts in which we display ourselves. Of particular interest for this study is Zembylas’ (2003 and 2005) poststructuralist perspective which links identity with power at the affective level. He claims that “construction of teacher identity is at bottom affective, and is dependent upon power and agency and an investigation of the emotional components of teacher identity yields a richer understanding of the teacher self” (p. 213). If this is the theoretical case, then issues of power must, by nature, be just as complex and dynamic. In fact, researchers such as Wood and Fasset (2003) advocate a conceptualization of power as “distributed, embodied, and malleable” (p. 286). It therefore becomes evident that research must also begin to examine not only the changing face of education, but also the affects of these changes on those who deliver it as well as the affects of these changes on those who receive it. McShane (2004) addresses this fact indicating a desire for more qualitative “inquiry into the professional lives and subjective experiences of online lecturers” (p. 5) and Novek (1998) identified depersonalization and fear of alienation of students as being major concerns in a study of 135 faculty members.

Traditionally, research on online and distance learning has identified two virtual environments, synchronous and asynchronous. However, we will argue that such interaction actually takes place in a poly-synchronous time-space continuum in which there exists a set of synchronistic sub-types. (See Figure 1) We define poly-synchronicity as the all-encompassing paradigm of time and space within the virtual learning environment. Within the poly-synchronous realm, we identify asynchronicity, synchronicity and a third which we will name dis-synchronicity as is defined as the experience of being involuntarily taken out of synchronous interaction by either human or technical means. It is important to define dis-synchronicity as not merely a technical glitch or interruption of connectivity to the internet. Rather, it is the locus of a socio-affective significant event. This study explores issues of teacher identity and power as they develop within these zones of cyber-interaction.

Figure 1. Model of Identity and Power in the Poly-synchronous Environment


Two faculty members at the same department were involved in graduate instruction in online environments. One instructor, via collaborative hybrid Interactive Video Network (IVN) and WebCT summer courses which included both synchronous and asynchronous modes. The other faculty member used a WebCT format in which both synchronicities were also used.

However, while the instructors were engaged in different online learning environments, both experienced similar feelings of loss of power and identity over the course of instruction. As these instructors, hereafter referred to as John and Ann[1], will be directly involved in teaching courses of a similar nature in the future, it becomes imperative that these issues of power and identity be addressed.

The germ of the present research began as a simple conversation between John and Ann as they shared stories of their experiences working in an online environment. Continued discussion led to the emergence of common threads between two different online teaching experiences, which in turn prompted them to engage in a heuristic inquiry of power and teacher identity in the online environment.

Patton (2002) posed the following as a guiding question of heuristic inquiry: “What is my experience of this phenomenon and the essential experience of others who also experience this phenomenon?” (p. 107). That is to say that this approach, unlike many others, involves the researcher as a primary participant within the study. In essence, the lived experience, undertaken through considerable reflection of the researcher, is at the heart of any heuristic inquiry. However, heuristic inquiry is not just the simple act of describing one’s experiences, but rather a structured approach to inner reflection that culminates in sharing one’s experience with others who have undergone the same process. As Douglas and Moustakas (1985) state, “Heuristics is concerned with meanings, not measurements; with essence, not appearance; with quality, not quantity; with experience, not behavior.” (p. 42). Therefore, as the educational environment continues to evolve as a virtual entity, placing instructors in new roles with new challenges and questions of identity, it is appropriate that any research of this kind look to those who deliver such types of instruction. As it is the efforts of those instructors who will continue to propel education in this direction, it is only fitting that an investigation of the perceived changes that take place within them as instructors be carried out in a firsthand and deeply personal way (See Hiles, 2001 and 2002).

By engaging in heuristic inquiry, instructors may find solace in knowing that they share many aspects of similar experiences with one another, lending credibility and consequently recognition of the effects of the changing face of education on faculty members. Kleining and Witt (2000: online) assert in their four rules of heuristic inquiry that, “The analysis is directed toward discovery of similarities…It tries to overcome differences.”  It is important to note that participants in heuristic inquiry need not have identical experiences, but rather that they discover commonalities. For example, as Miles and Huberman (1994) state, when working with qualitative data, “…you may find several routes to the same outcome. Or you may find that different cases have different routes to different outcomes.” (p. 208). West (2001) also states that “Using heuristics we need to be mindful that we are collecting stories about phenomena that have their own truth to participants”, nonetheless, he also states that “it [heuristic inquiry] provides access to material which an outsider would take a longer time to reach and maybe never reach. (p. 130). This will become key in our discussion of the similarity in issues of power and identity of John and Ann, who had different online teaching experiences.

In order to understand the heuristic process, we must give some attention to the phases of it set forth by Moustakas (1990). These six phases include: initial engagement, immersion, incubation, illumination, explication, and finally, creative synthesis.  In the first phase, initial engagement, John and Ann struggled to clearly identify exactly what had led to feelings of isolation, distance, and compromised power in their respective online courses. The second stage, immersion, was an ongoing task the two continued to reflect on previous as well as current work in the online environments and begin to recognize those elements of online instruction that contributed to the question at hand. During the incubation phase, John and Ann spent a considerable amount of time discussing, redefining and re-evaluating their thoughts on their experiences, as both prepared for another term in which they would teach their online courses. It was through this discussion that they were able to move into the fourth phase, illumination, in which new connections were made involving the teacher’s role in online instruction and the impact on identity. In the next phase, explication, John and Ann were able to more definitely classify the poly-synchronous modes that led to their concerns.  The remainder of the present research will represent the phase of creative synthesis, in which the two participant-researchers seek to construct a model of the poly-synchronous learning environment and subsequent impact on power and teacher identity.  As the reflections of the two instructors involved in the current study will show, these phases do not represent a linear process, but rather an ongoing evaluation of, in this case, the affects on teacher identity and power that result from delivering online instruction.

Teaching Contexts

John’s courses occurred over two summers. During the first summer he functioned as a facilitator in Mexico of the IVN portion of two courses, a graduate seminar in sociolinguistics and a methods course. For the first two weeks, students worked independently by completing various readings and assignments that were posted on a WebCT course page. For the next eight days, students met on-site at two universities, one in the United States and the other in Mexico. Both classes connected via IVN everyday for approximately five hours per day, with one meeting in the morning and the second in the afternoon. The morning and afternoon courses in the U.S. were taught by Sam and Karen, colleagues, while John maintained both courses at the site in Mexico, taking on the role of teacher and technology facilitator. The remaining weeks of the courses were again spent independently by the students completing the course assignments via WebCT and reflecting on material discussed during the IVN portion. During the second summer, John took full control of the entire online environment, both WebCT and IVN, and was the instructor of record for a graduate seminar in applied linguistics.  As a hybrid, the course’s first three weeks were conducted through WebCT. The next four days were taught through IVN from the university in the United States and then John traveled to Mexico to finish the next four days of the IVN portion from Mexico. The course then reverted back to the WebCT format until its conclusion.

Ann, meanwhile, taught two graduate courses wholly online via WebCT. The components of both courses consisted of various reading assignments, participation in discussion boards and a weekly one-hour chat. Ann was the sole instructor, as well as the technology facilitator, for both courses. Different from John’s courses, all of which were taught in English, one of Ann’s courses was conducted entirely in Spanish. In addition, both of these classes were taught over the course of an entire sixteen-week semester rather than during an intensive summer session. Enrollment in the English-language course figured at 18 students, and 8 students in the Spanish-language course.


Identity and Power within Poly-synchronous Modes

Through the inquiry, John and Ann found they experienced similar feelings regarding power and teacher identity that were conditioned under the various synchronous contexts created by online learning.

The Asynchronous Mode

It seems a logical assertion that the asynchronous mode would by its very nature produce issues of power and teacher identity as the instructor is not an active participant in the learning environment. In the case of Ann’s course, the asynchronous environment is defined as the discussion board component of both WebCT courses, to which students were asked to respond at threads begun by the instructor. The expectation was that students would post at least 45 substantive responses throughout the course of the semester.  At the beginning of the semester, Ann was able to maintain a positive sense of identity as the instructor for the course by posting discussion questions she believed would generate thoughtful discussion of the course material, rather than a workshop-like atmosphere where students would simply trade activities and techniques that they used in their own courses. Furthermore, since the goal of the discussion board was to promote autonomous learning and in-depth dialogue amongst the students, Ann felt that it was imperative to limit her involvement in the discussions to that of the one to post the original question; which seemed a natural approach so as not to wield too much power over the students in the development of the discussions. However, as the semester progressed, Ann noticed that the students were participating very little in the discussion board, and what few posts had been made were in fact the very type she had sought to avoid. This created an inner conflict for Ann because she began to feel certain that in a traditional classroom environment, students would be more responsive to discussion prompts and that in fact the anonymity provided by the online environment allowed students to take on a more passive role in the course. In this mode, Ann felt a diminished sense of power to adequately steer the discussion of the course and that her role had been reduced to simply that of Webmaster; ensuring that the infrastructure of the course was running smoothly rather than attending to content as well.

During the first summer, John’s role as facilitator precluded his involvement in the WebCT segment of the classes. However, during the second summer as instructor of record John’s asynchronous environment utilized WebCT’s discussion board component. Students were to post a total of at least 25 responses to both readings and other students’ postings in the hope of creating an autonomous student-centered learning environment where students could reflect on their own L2 acquisition as it pertained to the readings and to other students in the class. Like Ann, John too posted initial guiding questions based on the first readings of the course. Many of the students responded to the initial prompts, however, participation soon waned and became reduced to shorter blurbs that expressed agreement with what other students had posted. Some students elaborated and posted significant responses that tied chapter topics to their own L2 acquisition process. Others, on the other hand, were posting responses that still reflected uncertainty with WebCT itself. One student even talked to John face to face claiming that she did not find the discussion board useful at all.

In essence, John felt that a significant portion of his teacher identity had been removed the picture. Namely, his teaching personality or style, which contributes to the rapport created between teacher and students, had become compromised in the discussion boards. The discussion board was pure business and nothing of his teaching personality could be gleaned from the original prompts. In terms of power, John felt that it had been reduced to virtually nothing because of his original desire to create autonomy in learning. He also surmised that students were either unwilling to participate or were participating minimally because of a credibility gap amongst students themselves. The authority had been removed and students simply agreed with each other often, but were not being reinforced by a figure of authority.

To combat this, during the course of the semester he began to post more of his own responses to student responses. The effect was immediate. Once he became more involved students began to participate more. His responses became the magnet that created more threads in the discussion board. While pleased at the increase in student responses, he was also let down by the fact that the autonomous learning environment he had hoped to create could only be achieved via his direct authority, thereby creating what could only be deemed as a semi-autonomous environment. In terms of identity, little of his teaching personality could be construed due to the fact that it was pure business. Therefore, at the asynchronous level, more guiding and prompting needs to occur as many students may feel lost without it. True autonomy in learning, in John’s experience, is nothing more that wishful thinking as the technology remains very new to so many people.

The Synchronous Mode

In the case of Ann’s course, the synchronous environment was represented by the weekly hour-long chat, in which all students participated. Given the number enrolled in the course, students were randomly placed into chat groups, the end result being four groups of four students. These groups were re-arranged every three or four weeks during the semester so as to give students the opportunity to interact with different classmates. Each week one student was assigned the role of the facilitator, who moderated the discussion within his or her chat room. Ann sent the discussion questions to the facilitator several hours prior to each discussion.  Ann was also logged on to each chat room to participate in each group’s discussions.

Once the students became familiar with the chat system, the chat sessions ran very smoothly; the students were engaged in conversation and each group developed their own style of moderating the discussions. Ann began to notice that the conversations during the chat sessions moved at an astounding pace, with students quickly firing off questions and responses to one another. This presented a problem for Ann, who was trying to maintain a presence in all four chat rooms. Even when she focused on just one chat group at a time, she found it difficult to contribute to the discussion since every time she entered a new group; she had to play catch-up on the group’s dialogue up to that point. Although this was exactly the level of interaction Ann had hoped for in other aspects of the course, such as the asynchronous discussion board, in this synchronous environment Ann’s sense of identity was again diminished by trying to maintain discussions with four different groups, all of whom where engaged in a very fast-paced dialogue. In several instances Ann believed that her presence would not have been missed had she not logged on to the chats. While this kind of student interaction, as previously mentioned, may be the ideal from a teacher’s point of view, in the online environment, it led Ann to feel isolated and disconnected from the discussions with the students. Although Ann normally enjoyed the role of “guide” in discussions, this fast-paced synchronous environment left her feeling very much like a fly on the wall. Ultimately Ann began to believe that had the course taken place in a more traditional classroom format, she would have had more power to participate in the discussions in a way that would have allowed her to ask more questions of the discussion groups in an effort to add depth and insight to the activity at hand.

At the conclusion of the semester in which this course took place, Ann was asked to pilot a new feature of WebCT in the spring. This feature would allow for live audio conversation to take place during online meeting sessions rather than the typed chats which had been used before and could possible resolve some of the issues Ann had experienced in the synchronous mode during her other courses. Having been approached by the department head, Ann reluctantly agreed to the pilot, feeling that politically it would have been hard for her to say no. Ann’s willingness to teach the online courses during the fall semester had labeled her somewhat of a “techie”, and an adventurous one at that, willing to try new innovations. After careful reflection, Ann realized that her sense of identity and power were being challenged. Ann would have been less inclined to agree to the pilot had the request not been made by her department chair, who was very enthusiastic himself about implementing new technologies and incorporating them into the courses offered by the department. Since in the department head’s eyes Ann was becoming someone who would be willing to try new technologies in her classes, she felt that she could not refuse the request. Furthermore, Ann realized that her professional identity was also heading in a new direction, though not necessarily by her own choice, nor in one that she was comfortable with. Although Ann did enjoy learning how to use new technologies and their instructional applications, it was not her passion as an academic, and her involvement in such endeavors took her away from her true interests.

The synchronous portion of John’s first summer experience was unique as several themes emerged, from perceived unequal power, which affected aspects of his teacher identity. With Sam in the United States and John in Mexico, both classes were linked via IVN. Sam’s role as lead teacher implied that he would take charge of lectures. Again, students and faculty on site in Mexico interacted with those in the United States. Some very good topics of discussion were generated and the rapport of both sites was outstanding. It was determined early on that the presence of a faculty member serving at both sites would best optimize the usage of the IVN in case of an unforeseen problem with the connection. The result was generally very positive with John contributing to the lecture at appropriate points that highlighted what Sam was lecturing. While there was a significant amount of contribution from both faculty members, unequal power played a role in affecting issues of efficacy from John’s perspective because of the fact that John is untenured and Sam is tenured. This issue developed as a result of what Martyn (1997) referred to as the interlocutor effect. Martyn’s study dealt with learners’ production of language and how it changed in the presence of different interlocutors producing varying levels of comfort depending on the person being talked to, by extension, the same thing occurred to John during the collaborative teaching component of the IVN.

Given the previous discussion of unequal power relations, John often felt as if he had to rethink how he was presenting himself to the class. This is not a surprising discovery since aspects of identity certainly change if one believes that they are being watched. Furthermore, much of the discussion was collaborative and more akin to a conversation than a lecture. Conversation is collaborative as well and an individual who has more social power, as in Sam’s case, will tend to exude more control over the turn-taking mechanism. Karen, the teacher of the Methods course, disclosed this feeling too. As John watched her teach from Mexico, she was noticeably uncomfortable with the IVN component and often would email John revealing that she felt like she was being watched. Again, the interlocutor effect created by unequal power amongst the faculty participants caused both John and Karen to feel a little constrained and with heightened anxiety thus forcing them to renegotiate their teacher identities. During the second summer John split the IVN portion in two and spent four days in the US classroom and four days in the Mexican classroom in contact with both sites. This face to face component at both sites increased his comfort level with both classes and his sense of teaching identity was normalized.

The Dis-synchronous Mode

During the chat sessions, Ann also experienced issues of power and identity in what has been coined in this paper as the dis-synchronous realm. A feature of the WebCT chat function is that of a private message; one sent to another in the chat room that can be viewed only by the sender and the recipient. It was only by accident that during one session, a student in the chat room in which Ann was participating that a student mistakenly selected her to receive a private message intended for another student. The content of the message referred to an upcoming assignment, and that the students believed Ann’s requirements to be too demanding. While Ann had already been aware of these sentiments by several students in the course, the use of the private message system during the chat session led to feelings of being “taken out” of the conversation involuntarily, as these inter-personal mini-discussions were clearly taking place without her knowledge. Serious feelings of diminished power arose from this experience in the dis-synchronous realm. Although at times Ann had felt removed from the synchronous discussion of the chats sessions, she had been able to take strides in trying to maintain her presence in them. However, through the private message system, she was powerless to do anything of the kind.  The synchronous environment often produces moments of dis-synchronicity when the simultaneous nature of the discussion becomes compromised involuntarily. One can conceptualize the synchronous environment, both chat and IVN, as a wave that flows back and forth between the interlocutors. This wave, as any wave, will have its peaks and its troughs. At their peak, everything appears to be in real time, however, there are occasional moments when involuntary glitches, or troughs, occur. In an email correspondence John wrote to Ann he states:

In any event, there is about a two second delay in the transmission of IVN. Often this occurs at a transitionally relevant position to a next turn in a conversation. Well, what do we do when we watch TV? A lot of watching. You actually see for just a couple of seconds people just staring at you. The effect is actually quite chilling. When, in a normally flowing conversation, we approach the end of a statement, an audible and visual next turn is expected, but in this case, we see a sustained gaze. The two second delay is enough to produce a noticeable sense of deviation from the norm and internalize an emotional reaction.

In this case it was the gaze of the audience and teachers at the other end. The transitionally relevant place in the turn-taking mechanism of a conversation at times becomes compromised during the IVN component and affects delivery at the affective level.


Implications of this study indicate that teachers and stakeholders and those involved in the decision-making process of implementation of online course delivery, as well as teachers, need a more complete understanding of online teaching as it pertains to instructor identity and power. An example of this would be the hybrid collaboration that took place at this university. Teachers need to fully understand the issues of unequal power as it plays out in collaborative pedagogy. Different teacher personality traits and teacher identities may be more at ease with this type of course delivery as they interact with other members of the their own departments or other faculty.  Germane to this point is the issue of a more self-actualized faculty who understand themselves and their own capabilities and comfort with technology. Faculty need to be realistic with themselves before committing to participating in an online course environment by understanding that they may face challenges other than issues of training and logistics. They should actively confer with faculty members also involved in online learning in order to share their feelings and experiences as instructors. Such interactions would be beneficial in helping instructors feel less isolated during such courses, and prepare them for future courses. By highlighting the differences between online teaching and the traditional classroom teachers can develop their own coping strategies as they pertain to power and identity and come to terms with expectations that they may have which may affect the outcomes of the course. Furthermore, instructors must realize that issues of identity and power do not end with chat session. The ramifications of these issues are profound and will continue to manifest and impact a teacher’s identity and sense of power long after the conclusion of a course.

Additionally, expectations that stakeholders, such as administrators, and participants have about results of the online course are better understood through the experience of others during the process of delivery. While much research will continue to focus on student learning outcomes of online instruction, significant consideration must now also be given to the effects it has on those who teach it. Administrators and training specialists must be aware that teaching online is not simply a matter of uploading documents and managing copious amounts of email, but rather a serious undertaking by instructors who will be challenged in their sense of self and their role in a new instructional format. They must also become aware of type-casting, so to speak, certain instructors as those who are always willing to experiment in their courses with new technologies. Administrators and training specialists should actively seek feedback from instructors regarding online instruction that encompasses more than incentives and impact on workload. They should not lose sight of the human factor in what could be seen as the dehumanization of education.


In this paper we have identified teacher identity and power as issues which merit exploration in our emerging online learning communities. By defining the fields in which these concepts occur, a more coherent picture of identity and power as they relate to graduate lecturers and their thoughts behind the scenes is obtained. Asynchronously, Ann’s belief that students would challenge themselves intellectually via the face-diminished context of the online environment resulted in a diminished sense of power to control the discussion boards discursively. John’s experience within the context of being untenured and working with a tenured individual of considerable power affected his sense of efficacy in his affective teacher identity. Synchronously, both John’s and Ann’s teacher identity was affected discursively. Ann’s chat experience left her isolated and distant from the multitude of discussions, unable to respond enough and John’s awareness of “being watched” via IVN led him to be more disciplined with his word choice and self-presentation. Dis-synchronously, both John and Ann were involuntarily taken out of the synchronous mode either by the voluntary decision by another to exclude or an electronic glitch of timing. The common denominator in the two experiences at this level is again discursive. Ann lost her voice. She was effectively the unintended recipient of a message and remained powerless to do anything about it. In John’s case, the delay affected the turn-taking mechanism of normal conversation which had affective ramifications.

Given the dynamic nature of teacher identity and issues of power, every individual teacher who engages in some form of online teaching is bound to have a particular set of circumstances that affect their teacher identities. The shared experiences of John and Ann have supported the need for further investigation into online teaching contexts as they impinge upon concepts of our teaching selves which are inherently personal experiences.


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About the Authors

Christopher Miles is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. He teaches courses in the department of foreign languages and literatures and is involved in teacher training. His research interests are in social identity and second language acquisition. Currently, he is involved in research associated with synchronous electronic chat on students’ second language identities.



Erin Mikulec is currently teaching Spanish at Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee. Her current research interests include online learning environments and teacher education.



[1] Names have been changed

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