Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Barbara Treacy. She is director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Education Development Center.
While the teacher training for online educators lacks consistency and structure at the state and national levels, long-running virtual school programs have learned much about what online teachers need to know to succeed.
Providing ongoing training in both formal and informal ways, pairing first-year teachers with mentors, and putting rookie virtual teachers in the student’s seat are key elements of comprehensive professional development for online teachers, experts say.
Although some schools of education have begun to include training for online teaching, most do not, said Lisa Dawley, an educational technology professor and researcher at Boise State University in Idaho.
Boise State has an online-teaching-certificate program, which can be taken on its own or as part of a master’s degree. The project-based program is taught online. In addition, BSU partners with schools, districts, and virtual education providers to offer training for online teachers.
As it is, most teachers do not learn how to teach online in their initial preparation. Rather, some receive their training through alternative certification, while most are trained by the virtual schools themselves, Ms. Dawley said.
While some virtual schools have well-rounded professional-development programs that give teachers the support they need, she said, many—especially smaller virtual schools and online-learning programs—do not have the resources to provide teachers with adequate initial and ongoing training.
“Everybody’s looking for training, and they don’t really know where to go to get it,” Ms. Dawley said. “The solutions aren’t quite scaling up fast enough to meet the demand.”
A report released in 2008, for which Ms. Dawley was one of the researchers, said that 17 percent of online teachers received 10 hours or less of professional development before they began teaching online.
Among new virtual teachers, training in the use of communication technologies was ranked most important, followed by appropriate uses of learning-management systems, time-management strategies, and student Internet safety, according to the report, which was based on a national survey of 885 K-12 online teachers. One area where more professional development is needed, said Michael K. Barbour, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Wayne State University in Detroit, is how to teach effectively in an asynchronous environment, meaning interactions with students can occur at any time, not just in the confines of a scheduled time period.
In asynchronous online learning, he said, “you’re trying to facilitate a discussion that isn’t happening in real time.” Most teachers from a traditional classroom background are more comfortable teaching synchronously or during scheduled time periods, he said.
In an asynchronous environment, teachers do not receive the same immediate feedback from students that they get in a face-to-face classroom, Mr. Barbour said, which can be challenging.
Online teachers in an asynchronous environment need to be more proactive in engaging students, he said.
More important than the initial training for online teachers, said Mr. Barbour, is providing follow-up training throughout the year.
After teachers experience what it’s like to provide instruction in an online environment, they have a much better idea of where they need extra help and support, he said.
Social-networking sites, such as Facebook, Ning, and YouTube, have started to become important tools in bringing teachers together as well, said Mr. Barbour, but there are few examples of a systematic use of such resources for professional development.
Curt Fuchs, the director of the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, which is operated by the state education department and provides 172 courses to K-12 students in Missouri, said his new teachers are paired up with more experienced online instructors who can answer questions and offer individualized advice when needed, such as how to motivate a student who is falling behind or how to facilitate student collaboration in a specific course.
Barbara Treacy, director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, emphasized the importance of multiple means of professional development for new online teachers. For instance, in addition to structured teacher-training courses and programs, having access to mentors, webinars, and professional learning communities is an important piece of professional development, she said.
Comprehensive and ongoing professional development is a crucial factor in the success of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, or VHS, said Liz R. Pape, the president of the Maynard, Mass.-based nonprofit organization. The consortium operates through a collaborative model, with more than 660 member districts. Each has one or more teachers who teach online courses through VHS; in return, the school receives spaces for its students to enroll in VHS classes. Each new teacher goes through a 10-week course on how to teach online with a cohort of other new online teachers, Ms. Pape said. The course is delivered virtually by VHS curriculum coordinators, most of whom are former consortium teachers.
The course itself is delivered through the organization’s learning-management system as a way of familiarizing new teachers with the technology.
In addition to getting a handle on the technical skills they will need to know, such as modifying a course document and using the grading features, teachers in training will also grade each other’s work and provide peer review, Ms. Pape said.
As with the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, new VHS teachers, after their initial training, are each paired with a mentor. They are also evaluated weekly by a faculty adviser, typically a curriculum coordinator or experienced VHS teacher, for the first few months on the job.
Susan Ettenheim, an art and computer teacher at the 500-student Eleanor Roosevelt High School in New York City, went through VHS training last year to teach an online Caribbean Art History course.
“[The training is about] welcoming you into the community and modeling the kinds of relationships you’d like to have with your students,” she said. “You learned things that the teacher needed to learn, and you learned it in the context of your own course.”
At the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, teachers go through similar initial teacher training, said Jeff Murphy, the school’s director of instructional support.
They complete three stages of training, involving several full days of instruction at the beginning and part way through their first year, he said. The training is provided both face to face and through the learning-management system. During that process, teachers connect with dozens of other teachers they can reach out to at any point—an essential part of the induction process, said Mr. Murphy. Teachers keep in touch mainly through instant-messaging programs, as well as through phone calls, he said.
And, again, each teacher is paired with an instructional leader he or she can reach out to for additional support.
In addition, at any point, FLVS teachers can access quick recorded webinar-like sessions that address specific issues about online instruction, such as tips on discussion-based assessment or motivating students, Mr. Murphy said.
The support system created that first year of teaching extends throughout a teacher’s career at the Florida Virtual School, he said.
“The professional development doesn’t stop with your new teachers,” Mr. Murphy said. “Using veterans to help other veterans is a great way of building professional learning communities.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Professional Development Seen to Lack Consistency