Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Barbara Treacy. She is director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Education Development Center.
When Jim Kinsella began teaching online, little was known about the best way to support students, train teachers, or build an online classroom.
It was 2001, and he was asked to be a pilot teacher at the Illinois Virtual High School, now known as the Illinois Virtual School.
The social studies and government teacher had long incorporated digital elements into his face-to-face classes at University High School, one of Illinois State University’s lab schools, and was curious how teaching online would affect teaching and learning.
“I wanted to see what the new technology would do, and how much you could bring to the students and how well they would do with it,” Mr. Kinsella said.
But making the move from regular-classroom teaching to a virtual setting is about more than just the technology, he and other experts on e-learning say. Individualizing instruction, creating an engaging and supportive online classroom, and learning how to communicate with students who aren’t physically present are among the most challenging aspects of online instruction for new virtual teachers.
Today, Mr. Kinsella teaches online courses for the Illinois Virtual School, Northwestern University, and Sevenstar Academy, a private Christian school in Cincinnati.
Intellectual curiosity initially attracted Mr. Kinsella to online learning, but the relationships he soon found he could build with online students hooked him.
“Online teaching is much more hands-on than face-to-face teaching,” he said. “The interactions that I have are one-on-one, so I get to know my students much better and in a much different way.”
Communicating with students and building relationships with them are among the hardest, and most important, parts of becoming an online teacher, Mr. Kinsella said.
“One of the big pitfalls of online learning is that high school kids have a tendency to disappear,” he said, especially right before tests or term papers are due.
To help combat that inclination, Mr. Kinsella requires his students to initiate contact with him by phone or through Skype, a free online videoconferencing service, at least once a week.
Solving Technological Problems
Mr. Kinsella was successful in his transition from the face-to-face to the online classroom, but it might not be the right move for every teacher, said Evan Abbey, the project manager for online learning for the Iowa Area Education Agency.
“Understanding the power of digital tools helps, but just because you can effectively integrate technology in a face-to-face classroom doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach in an online classroom,” he said. “It’s more than just being a tech-infused teacher.”
Of course, some comfort with technology is essential for online teachers, said Barbara Treacy, director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center.
“An online facilitator or teacher needs to be prepared for technological problems,” she said. “They have to be willing to be a calming front line of defense with technical issues.”
Becoming more comfortable with technology and learning-management systems, such as Blackboard and Moodle, was one of the reasons Matt Lozano began teaching online, he said.
After 10 years of face-to-face teaching, Mr. Lozano taught his first online course through the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Global Consortium, or VHS, last year.
“I really wanted to learn how to use [Blackboard] because in the future, my face-to-face courses will be using something like Blackboard,” he said. “We’ll have to interact with students online eventually anyway, and I wanted to be ahead of the game.”
Guiding the Students
What Mr. Lozano didn’t expect was how well he would get to know his students.
“At first, my perception was that it was going to be awkward and difficult to get to know them because they’re so far away, but the way the course is structured, I realized that they’re actually being required to express themselves even more than a lot of my kids in the face-to-face classroom would,” he explained.
For Mr. Lozano, the hardest part about the transition to an online classroom was getting used to allowing students to direct their own learning.
“I would say that in my face-to-face classroom, I am used to being the star. I’m used to presenting the material, and in an online environment you can’t do that,” he said. “I wanted to jump into a discussion and take it over, but I learned pretty quickly that that’s not necessarily helpful for those kids.”
Allowing conversations to go off on a tangent and land on topics that the students themselves found interesting was both challenging and rewarding, he said.
“It took some maturity on my part,” Mr. Lozano said, “to be able to trust them and give them little guiding remarks rather than jumping in with the answer.”
Liz R. Pape, the president of VHS, a network of over 660 member districts, said that many new online teachers reported a greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills in online discussions than they saw in face-to-face discussions.
“In an online classroom, the teacher is helping and fostering community, communication, and collaboration,” she said. “Problem-solving skills, creativity, innovation, and real-world applications of content knowledge—those are all higher-order thinking skills that you want to foster.”
Asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered by just one student is especially important in an online environment, said Ms. Pape, since the teacher is not there to facilitate the discussion in real time. And those teachers who go through training to teach online often note that those skills helped improve their teaching in a face-to-face classroom as well, she said.
In her first year, Kim Solomon, a 2nd grade teacher at the Chicago Virtual Charter School, a blended-learning environment in which students learn mostly online but have some in-person lessons with teachers, noticed that the online classroom required teachers to develop a tailored set of time-management skills, such as setting a daily schedule and sticking to it, keeping track of e-mails and phone calls, and planning each lesson well in advance.
“The administrators are not micromanaging us,” she said.
Learning how to evaluate students who are not physically present can be challenging for new online teachers, said Steven Guttentag, the executive vice president and chief education officer of the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which operates online schools in 21 states.
“[Teachers] in a brick-and-mortar school are used to talking to kids and watching them to see if they’re OK,” said Mr. Guttentag. In an online environment, teachers have to depend on data and online feedback to evaluate whether their students comprehend the curriculum.
Working With Parents
Online teachers also need to be prepared to work more closely with parents, Mr. Guttentag said. In many online-learning programs, students’ parents become their learning coaches, and therefore frequent and open communication between teachers and parents is essential, he said.
The teacher must establish “good customer relations” to foster productive discussions about student progress without allowing parents to overstep their boundaries, he said.
“It’s a fine line,” Mr. Guttentag said. “You have to be able to maintain your professionalism and authority as a teacher.”
Online teaching is not for teachers who are looking for an easier alternative to a regular classroom, said Jeff Murphy, the director of instructional support for the Florida Virtual School.
“You have to really care about students and want to go out of your way to help them be successful. And that does mean working long hours and staying on the phone for an hour to work with a student to get them to understand an important concept,” he said. “In this environment, the bell’s not going to ring.”
And just as in a face-to-face classroom, it takes time for online teachers to feel at ease in their environment.
“It takes most teachers at least a year to a year and a half to get comfortable in an online classroom,” said Mr. Murphy. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teachers Make the Move to the Virtual World