Characteristics of ‘Highly Qualified’ Online Teachers

By Katie Ash — June 16, 2009 5 min read

What specific skills do online teachers need? That is a question being asked more and more in light of the continued growth of e-learning in school districts across the country.

What complicates matters is that the answer depends on where you live. Because of the rapid growth of online education, providers of virtual education have implemented professional-development programs for such teachers at the local level, creating a wide-ranging system of teacher-training programs, each with its own set of skill priorities.

“Some programs are really well-developed, and other programs will only offer one class [on online learning], the training will be all face to face, and there’s no modeling of how to learn online,” says Lisa Dawley, a professor and the chair of the education technology department at Idaho’s Boise State University, who also serves on the board of directors of the Washington-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “You get these extremes in how people are being trained.”

Traditionally, teacher training has mostly occurred at the college or university level. But with the growth of online learning in K-12, says Dawley, it has been much easier for individual virtual schools or virtual education providers to keep up with the demands of professional development for online teachers than to create or modify the standards and teaching methods used by higher education institutions.

Being able to adapt to that growth is essential for online education, and many virtual education providers have built robust professional-development programs as a result. The wide variety of online teacher-training programs and teaching standards could make it difficult, though, for online teachers to transfer from one virtual education provider to another and to ensure a standard level of expertise among all online teachers.

Still, even though online teaching is a relatively new method of delivering instruction, several organizations, such as the Washington-based National Education Association, the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, and iNACOL have published guides outlining the skills that online teachers should have. Those guides are designed to help virtual education providers align their professional-development programs with best practices.

In a recent report published by the Education Policy Research Unit, based at Arizona State University in Tempe, and the Education and the Public Interest Center, based in Boulder, Colo., Gene V. Glass, the report’s author, calls for new regulations that would govern the level of involvement between online teachers and students, the certification of online teachers, and online teachers’ certification status across state lines.

Reaching Out to Students


1. Don’t wait for students to come to you with questions. Being proactive in encouraging communication is a good way to make sure students stay on track.

2. Be open to trying new technology tools. Technology changes rapidly, and an important part of your job is being able to explore new tools and decide what does and doesn’t work.

3. Experience online courses from a learner’s perspective by taking a virtual class. Being a student in an online environment is likely to help you pinpoint what works best.

4. Promote responsible online behavior. Just as in a brick-and-mortar classroom, encouraging appropriate behavior is an important part of teaching.

5. Encourage an active online classroom community. Some teachers find it helps to give students a place to socialize, such as in online forums. Giving students opportunities to build relationships with one another can help keep them engaged in learning.

6. Learn to manage your online time well. Virtual teaching requires a lot of advance planning to pull together the resources for each lesson and to have a backup plan if technical problems arise.

Many of the skills that are essential for online teachers are the same ones that teachers in brick-and-mortar schools need to have, says Teresa Scavulli, the senior director of the teacher-effectiveness division of K12 Inc., an online-learning company based in Herndon, Va., that works with about 55,000 students across the country. The difference is the tools that online teachers have and the way they use them to support learning.

In a virtual environment, “the verbal cues aren’t there, and the visual cues aren’t there, so you need to use the technology and the tools and good communication strategies to engage your learner and diagnose what’s happening around learning,” Scavulli says.

And because the teachers aren’t standing in front of a classroom and monitoring their students, it’s essential for online teachers to be proactive about engaging students in communication, says Cathy Cheely, the director of Virtual Virginia, the state-led online education program for middle and high school students in Virginia.

“You cannot sit back and wait for the students to come to you,” says Cheely. “You have to be the person to reach out to the student,” by picking up the phone, or sending an e-mail, or using whatever communication tools are available to keep students on pace.

Kayleen Marble, the lead teacher and writing specialist for the Arizona Virtual Academy, run by K12 Inc., has been teaching online for three years, after coming from a brick-and-mortar classroom. Just as in a traditional learning environment, one of the biggest challenges is engaging students in the content, she says.

“You’re competing with kids who are used to computer games,” she says. To pique students’ interest, Marble adds visuals to her online lessons, such as graphics and video clips, and creates interactive lessons that require students to click and move objects on the computer screen with a mouse.

Marble also makes use of a feature of Elluminate, the learning-management system used at her school, that allows her to create virtual breakout rooms that small groups of students can use for online discussions.

“I really try to use all of those different teaching modalities,” she says.

To be successful and make use of all the tools available to them, online teachers need to be comfortable with and passionate about technology, says Jeff Murphy, a director of instruction for the Florida Virtual School, the largest state-run e-learning program for precollegiate education. The most effective online teachers find ways to deliver content through Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, and online games, in addition to exploring emerging technologies with educational potential, he says.

“They’re constantly in the process of being trained and being a lifelong learner,” he says. “If you don’t deal well with change, this is not the right environment for you.”

It’s also imperative for online teachers to have experience being an online learner, says Barbara Treacy, the director of the Newton, Mass.-based EdTech Leaders Online, an organization that provides training to online teachers as well as online course-development resources.

At that organization, the online teachers undergo some of their professional-development online to give them that experience.

“They need the experience as a learner,” Treacy says. “We encourage them to be reflective about what our trainers and instructors are doing as we model and use the different tools.” Having that experience, she says, can make teachers aware of what works, and what doesn’t work, in an online classroom.


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