Professional Development Opinion

What Do Online Teachers Need To Succeed?

By Urban Education Contributor — November 16, 2017 5 min read
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This post is by Michele Nickels, Director, and Dawn Nordine, Executive Director, of Wisconsin Virtual School (@wiwdlc).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Learning About Training Needs of Online Teachers.

What do online teachers need to succeed? To find this answer, Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS), an online and blended learning supplemental program that partners with school districts throughout Wisconsin, collaborated with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest‘s former Virtual Education Research Alliance (VERA) to conduct a study that resulted in the report titled Professional Experiences of Online Teachers in Wisconsin: Results From a Survey About Training and Challenges.

The experience collaborating with the researchers—from creating the survey questions through distributing the survey, analyzing the results, and determining next steps—was invaluable to informing the direction that WVS has chosen to support the professional learning of our online teachers and address what they need to succeed.

This work began with VERA bringing together stakeholders from across the Midwest region, including WVS, to investigate research questions pertaining to effective high school virtual learning programs and student success in online courses. A previous study conducted by the alliance had found that lack of teacher training and concern about course quality were the biggest challenges for schools implementing online learning in Iowa and Wisconsin, respectively, regardless of the provider. In response to these findings, VERA developed a survey to investigate online teachers’ training and experiences. The alliance analyzed responses from WVS teachers about their training as it related to online instruction, the challenges they encountered while teaching online, and the type of training they thought would help them address those challenges.

Since WVS embeds its professional learning opportunities in the inTASC Model Core Teaching Standards and iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, the alliance grounded the survey questions and evaluated the findings in connection to the crosswalk of these nationally recognized teaching standards.

The survey revealed three major findings (also illustrated in this infographic):

  • All WVS teachers reported participating in training or professional development related to online instruction, though topics varied. More teachers participated in training that occurred while teaching online than prior to teaching online or during preservice education.
  • Teachers most frequently reported challenges related to student perseverance and engagement.
  • Teachers preferred unstructured (such as mentoring, online forums, or Internet search) to structured (such as a graduate course or workshop) professional development for addressing challenges related to student perseverance and engagement.

Additionally, the survey revealed and confirmed what we thought to be true about the professional learning that teachers need. As we anticipated, four focus areas surfaced for WVS professional learning: (1) assessment and data use, (2) online course development and customization, (3) classroom management and facilitation, and (4) special needs and assistive technology.

We saw these themes echoed in comments from WVS teachers:

  • “Training for online changed what I do in [a] face-to-face classroom.”
  • “Flexibility in [professional development] is needed.”
  • “Online teacher [professional development] needs to include the importance of positive and constructive feedback and great communication!”

The results of the survey led to policy and practice changes. We found it imperative to connect our “teacher voice” from the survey to our current practices and collaborations. Current practice changes include the following examples. Teachers are now participating in the Quality Matters Applying the QM K-12 Secondary Rubric workshop, which focuses on connecting assessment and data use to online course development and customization. WVS teacher training must now connect all we do to the four focus areas mentioned above and include digital content that teachers can access anytime based on need. We also reflected on the best fit for structured (such as graduate course or workshop) versus unstructured formats (such as mentoring, online forums, or Internet search) to include “teacher voice.”

Lynn Sessler Neitzel, a WVS online world language teacher, told us: “What I really like is the freedom of ‘pace’ to work on items, explore, and ask questions. It is really allowing for ‘teacher choice’ like we offer ‘student choice’ in our learning--taking ownership of our own learning as educators.”

We also used “teacher voice” to inform our collaborations such as an annual professional development event, the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative Unconference, a Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA) book study, and also to shape our Google Plus Professional Learning Communities and synchronous session opportunities. The survey results suggested that teachers should share best practices with other teachers to enhance their professional development, which lead a couple of WVS teachers to contribute their knowledge to the development of Michigan Virtual’s Teacher Guide to Online Learning.

So where did we go from here?

There is a need to continue to survey our online teachers in order to connect the teacher voice and choice to current practices and collaborations. We have chosen to repeat the survey in the 2017/18 school year. We anticipate seeing a shift in need based on professional development being offered as a result of the original survey, changing landscape in online learning, and changes of staff. Keeping tabs on what teachers need to be successful will drive student success.

The full report on online teachers’ training and challenges is available on the Institute of Education Sciences website. The survey is located in Appendix A and available for anyone to use. In addition to online programs, traditional brick-and-mortar schools that sign up their students for online courses could benefit, as we did, from using the survey to identify challenges and desired supports for their teachers.

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