Note: A version of this paper appeared in Educational Technology magazine, Jan/Feb 2004.
Preparing K-12 Teachers to Teach Online
Greg Kearsley & Robert Blomeyer
Online courses have become
very popular in higher education and with the emergence of virtual schools are
becoming common at the K-12 level (see
This article describes some of the issues associated with preparing school teachers to teach online based upon recent work at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). While the focus of the discussion is K-12, most of these issues also apply to higher education faculty and instructors in the training domain.
Can anyone teach online?
One of the first issues to be considered is the requirements for an effective online teacher (Fuller et al., 2000). These include:
Although these don’t sound like particularly demanding requirements, many otherwise excellent classroom teachers are unable to satisfy them. Some teachers have great difficulty establishing a routine of being online regularly and spending so much time interacting with individual students. Sometimes this is an access issue and sometimes it is a matter of being comfortable using technology (see next section). Note that a passion for teaching and the subject matter involved is another requirement, but almost all teachers possess those qualities.
Preconditions for online teaching
In addition to the personal qualities just mentioned, there some preconditions that online teachers must satisfy such as:
While many teachers believe that access to a computer at school will be adequate for their online teaching activities, in most cases, this doesn’t allow for enough time online and a machine at home is needed. In order to teach well online, a high degree of comfort with the tools and systems being used is required (e.g., discussion forums, chats, Powerpoint, Blackboard, etc.). And teachers should have first hand experience as online learners in order to understand how to be effective in an online environment. The latter two preconditions are most easily satisfied by providing training via an online course using the tools and systems they will be using when they teach.
What competencies do online teachers need?
While there is no commonly accepted standards (yet) for the skills and knowledge needed to teach online, here are some competencies that are closely aligned to the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) established by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE):
The other side of the coin is how to convince teachers to try teaching online. Here are some of the benefits that may entice teachers:
In some cases, teachers are paid a supplement for online teaching and this is a financial incentive. In addition, teachers may be interested in learning to teach online because they feel that it will increase their career opportunities.
Certain teaching strategies are associated with effective online courses:
While some teachers may be familiar with, and use these methods in their classroom teaching already, for many teachers these are new approaches they need to learn. However, before they can use them well in online teaching, they need plenty of opportunity to practice the strategies – another function of online teacher preparation classes. Facilitation (i.e., getting students to interact with each other and the content) is probably the most important strategy that online teachers need to employ (Collison et al, 2000; Salmon, 2000).
The following behaviors are associated with effective online teaching:
These behaviors constitute criteria for evaluation of online teaching. For each behavior there needs to be a definition of minimal acceptable performance as well as exemplary performance. To assess online teaching effectiveness, these behaviors need to be evaluated during the delivery of online classes. Most existing teaching evaluation does not assess these kinds of factors.
One well established fact of online teaching is that it takes a lot more time and effort than traditional classroom instruction. Some of the considerations associated with this factor include:
The increased level of effort needs to be reflected in teaching loads and probably financial incentives. Burnout in online teaching is likely to be a bigger concern because of the extra workload. Needless to say, the workload issue is likely to be a contentious one for teacher unions and school administration.
Both students and teachers need a lot of support in online courses. This support can include:
While teachers should not be expected to provide these different types of support, they are usually the first contact that students make when they have problems. A well organized distance learning program will have properly trained staff to handle each of these types of support. For a good description of how frustrated students can get when adequate support isn’t available, see Hara & Kling (1999).
Completion of online training
Getting teachers to complete online training programs is difficult even under the best of circumstances. Reasons for non-completion include:
In order to deliver successful teacher training, these issues must be addressed in the design of the program. Ironically, these are all the same issues that online teachers have deal with as well. They apply equally to teachers and students.
Teachers and school administrators need to be able to address the following questions:
These are not easy decisions to make considering the many factors to be taken into account (see Black, 2002). The important thing is that these kinds of questions are asked and discussed on a routine basis rather than just assuming that online courses are the right choice. It is critical that there be an open dialog between teachers and administrators (as well as parents) regarding technology use since all parties have different points of view.
Development of online teaching materials
The materials used in online courses can be provided or developed by teachers themselves. Even if they are pre-developed, teachers may want to customize or supplement them. Some of the considerations here are:
For these and many other reasons, it is probably unrealistic for teachers to develop their own online teaching materials, although there are certain aspects, such as lesson plans or student handouts that may be done by teachers themselves. There are extensive collections of course materials available online that teachers should become familiar with during their training and encouraged to use in their teaching activities.
While almost all teachers who teach online must have appropriate state certification for the subject area and grade level they teach, this certification does not specifically cover online classes. Given the additional competencies and considerations outlined above, many organizations that offer online courses require that teachers have specific online teaching qualifications – usually fulfilled by taking their own training program. This can be frustrating for experienced online teachers who want to teach for multiple institutions, each of which requires its own certification. Another aspect of this issue is when teachers teach online courses with students in states that they are not certified for. What is needed is a widely accepted set of national standards (like ISTE NETS) that all certification programs are tied to.
While we know quite a lot about online learning, there is relatively little research about online teaching. In particular, issues such as how to assess online teaching abilities and what strategies work best for certain teaching situations aren’t well understood. Some examples of relevant research include Anderson et al. (2001) who propose three major online teaching roles, Rossman (1999) who describes successful facilitation techniques for asynchronous discussions, or Roblyer & Wiencke (2003) who propose a rubric to used to assess interactivity in an online class. A number of university faculty have published personal accounts of their online teaching strategies (e.g.. Furr, 2003; Morrison, 1997) and we need similar descriptions from K-12 teachers to provide the basis for research studies (i.e., collections of best practices). Achieving a better understanding of online teaching will allow us to design more effective online teacher training.
In addition to all the issues just discussed, there are some practical considerations to be considered such as when the training should be offered, its duration, and costs. In most cases the training is offered shortly before a teacher is about to teach online and is usually 6-12 weeks in duration. However, this may not provide adequate time for teachers to acquire and practice the competencies involved. In fact, most teachers don’t fully appreciate and understand the complexities of online teaching until they have taught their first actual course, even if they have completed a thorough training program. Programs that involve a supervised practicum (teaching an actual course) are clearly a good idea.
Costs for online teacher training programs vary widely, as well as who pays. In some cases teachers are paid to participate; in others they are expected to pay. The later includes the case where online teaching skills are obtained as part of a graduate degree program. When they are provided as required training by an institution, they are normally free to participants, sometimes with a stipend paid for completion.
Ultimately, teachers may receive adequate training to teach online as part of their basic teacher preparation (i.e., at schools of education), however, this is not likely to be true within the near future.
This article is based upon
presentations made by the authors at the NCREL Conference on Technology,
About the Authors:
Greg Kearsley is an independent consultant who designs and teaches in online programs. He developed the initial online teacher certification course for NCREL. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Blomeyer is a senior program associate at NCREL and is the program director for the online teacher certification program. His email is email@example.com
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