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The Rise of the Virtual Teacher

Online instructors—and their special skills—are becoming increasingly important to 21st-century schooling.

The growing use of online teaching in the nation’s public schools has placed a related burden on district administrators to ensure that they use high quality and highly qualified instructors.

Half the school districts in the country offer at least one online course, and 30 states have their own virtual school programs, reports Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL ). Virtual schools enable students with disabilities or those who are homeschooled to get the education they need. And virtual programs enable administrators to offer a broad range of courses that they otherwise might be unable to include in their basic curriculum because of budget constraints or inability to find qualified teachers for some math, science and language courses, for example. Students also can take virtual courses for credit recovery.

Administrators in districts that use online teaching say they are generally satisfied that their instructors meet the basic requirements for core academic courses—that they are state-certified or licensed, hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and have demonstrated competency in the subjects they teach. But how to monitor online teachers is a challenge. While some online teachers work regular school hours in brick-and-mortar school buildings, others work evenings and weekends from their homes or beyond. For example, Casey Ross, a former traditional classroom teacher in the Detroit and Port Huron (Mich.) public schools and now science department chairperson in the Michigan Virtual High School, says she was sold on online teaching when she started it part-time while holding down a regular classroom job. She often teaches from her sailboat while traveling off the Florida Keys or elsewhere. “I have a laptop and Verizon Wireless. I can work anywhere there is a cell phone signal,” she says.

It also works for her students, she maintains, because she can be in touch with them individually by phone and e-mail. “If they get stuck on an assignment, I get on the phone with them and we figure it out,” she explains.


Filling Needs

Some districts need online teachers for specific content areas, particularly given budget constraints. Superintendent Wayne Rush of the Glenns Ferry (Idaho) School District 192, a rural district with about 450 students, says the district had to reduce staff and drop foreign language two years ago because of declining enrollment and budget issues. Now the district uses online teachers from the Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA)—a state-sponsored, accredited, online virtual school created through the Idaho state legislature—for foreign language courses and for AP courses like psychology and higher-end math as well as to help students who need credit recovery in normal courses like English.

Glenns Ferry pays IDLA $50 per course per student. Rush calculates the district saves about $68,000 annually through online teaching, compared to what it would cost for regular classroom teaching, in addition to offering courses “that we were never able to offer before.”

Similarly, the Chicago Public Schools contracted with the University of Miami Online High School two years ago for an online physics teacher and with Apex Learning, a company that delivers online learning solutions, for a music teacher when the small CPS schools that needed them lacked the per-pupil funding to hire on-site certified teachers, says Sandi Atols, the Chicago district’s manager of distance learning. There are two separate payments. Her program pays the tuition—between $250-$299 per semester per student, totaling less than $25,000 annually. The schools separately pay for the time of the “mentor teachers,” who are in the schools about 20 percent of a school day to monitor and guide students during periods when they are online. The schools pay about $8,500 plus benefits per mentor every year.

Chicago also uses certified online teachers from the Illinois Virtual High School and outside vendors like Aventa Learning, an online learning program, for students such as those who had scheduling conflicts and needed credit recovery.

The Research Says

A study—“Going Virtual: Unique Needs and Challenges of K-12 Online Teachers,” conducted by Boise State University in partnership with iNACOL—found that most online teachers have seven to 15 years of traditional classroom teaching experience. Many still are teaching fulltime and online part-time, while others have moved into full-time online teaching. “They are teachers who know their subject content but want the flexibility or the interactive and dynamic environment of a virtual classroom,” Patrick says.

INACOL has published “National Standards for Quality Online Teaching,” a document designed to provide a set of quality guidelines for online teaching and instructional design that districts can implement and monitor on their own. The Southern Regional Education Board has a similar publication, “Standards for Quality Online Teaching.”

While documents like these detail what teachers should know and be able to do to teach effectively online, it’s still up to district administrators in most cases to be sure they are properly qualified, then monitor their work and assess how they perform.

Training and Feedback Are Key

In the Cobb County (Ga.) School District, about 190 out of 6,838 teachers teach online courses during regular school days and participate in two or three faculty meetings annually—also held online—and one face-to-face meeting with administrators that focuses on district policies and procedures. “We closely monitor teacher involvement with course statistics that tell us how often they are in their classes and how long they spend there,” says Cheryl Rowley, a program administrator in the Cobb Virtual Academy. “We also look at their grade books and the feedback they give their students.”

And 20 percent of the online teachers are stay-at-home mothers or retirees, and the other 80 percent are regular Cobb County classroom teachers who teach online in the evenings and on weekends.

Cobb’s online teachers are required to archive their e-mail, Rowley explains, so “if there are any issues, we can get proxy access to the folders for student or parent communication with that teacher.” Such issues can involve the amount of time teachers spend online with students, as well as the feedback they give students. Cobb also surveys students and parents at the end of each term, although, says Rowley, “it’s more about how they feel about online learning than about individual teachers.” Still, she continues, “if a parent isn’t happy with an online teacher, we are going to find out.”

At Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 as the country’s first statewide Internet-based public high school, teachers undergo four days of initial training face-to-face with administrators and students, including a day and night so they can get used to working later hours, says Jeff Murphy, director of instruction in the Florida school, which serves students in grades 6-12 throughout Florida and other states. They undergo four additional training days in the first 60 days.

For the first year, each new online teacher also is assigned a mentor—an experienced online teacher with a reduced teaching load. Most teachers have three to 10 years of traditional classroom experience in Florida schools, although some are recruited from out of state “if there is a critical need,” Murphy says. “It’s not easy to find Latin teachers, Mandarin teachers, AP calculus teachers,” he explains. All FLVS teachers possess a valid Florida teaching certificate and are certified specifically in the subjects they teach. And Florida’s certified teachers will also teach for the newly created Florida Virtual School’s Connections Academy, which is a partnership between the state’s public virtual school and the Florida Connections Academy. It was created last summer to meet a new state law that requires all districts to offer full-time, online learning to public elementary and middle school students.

Although online teachers work from their own homes, “we get tons of data” about their performance, Murphy reports. It comes from electronic surveys and other feedback from students and parents. “We ask them what communication with the teacher is like and whether they think the teacher cares about them,” Murphy says.

Florida Virtual School and the University of Central Florida are offering future teachers a first-of-its-kind training called virtual internships. It will give UCF education graduates an edge because they can teach in both traditional and virtual classrooms upon graduating.


Intriguing Students

The feedback from students often reveals that they are self-motivated and intrigued with the work. Ross of Michigan Virtual High School finds that online students are so much more responsive. “They took responsibility for their own learning, which I really liked,” she says. “There weren’t any of the usual classroom battles—discipline problems, kids talking and not paying attention. Online, they are by themselves. They take in more information and they are more personable. I become more a facilitator than a nag. I feel the students really benefit, and I love it as well.”

James Montesano, superintendent of the Paramus (N.J.) Public Schools, is starting a virtual high school program in his district this spring, similar to the one he administered previously as superintendent of the neighboring Dumont (N.J.) Public Schools. “It’s hard to run a comprehensive high school with all the course offerings that will really interest and excite kids. The course offerings are tremendous—Caribbean history, Mandarin Chinese, things like that. They open doors for selfmotivated kids who have a genuine interest in areas that we don’t cover in a regular curriculum,” Montesano explains.

Teaching at a Distance Takes Skill

While students are intrigued, ensuring teachers have the necessary special skills to teach online is another challenge. “We can teach them the technology,” says Jeanne Ross, principal of the Denver Public Schools Online High School, which teaches students throughout Colorado. “They have to be good teachers who are open to 21st-century learning.”

All the online teachers at the Denver online school are former DPS traditional high school classroom teachers who are certified by the state for the subjects they teach. They work during typical school hours from a single DPS facility, receive the same pay and benefits as DPS classroom teachers, and are members of the local teachers union, Ross says.

Being open to 21st-century learning takes “a great deal of professional development,” which DPS provides to its online teachers for 90 minutes weekly, Ross explains. “The most important thing, which we work on constantly with them, is to establish a presence online so students feel comfortable, just as they would in the classroom.”

Online teachers also undergo a program provided by the district to ensure they have “the warmth and caring” to teach online, Ross adds. “Attitudes are important. They have to respect their students, and students have to feel welcome,” she says.

“We are most concerned that our online teachers care about their students and understand each student’s individual situation,” Murphy adds. “We have a lot of students who don’t have a great home life, and teachers need to understand that” and work one-on-one with them.

Not All Are Qualified

While districts are using online teaching more and more, administrators emphasize that not all teachers are qualified to teach online. “We get a lot of inquiries, like from elementary teachers who are getting doctorates in distance learning and think they can come in and teach on the high school level, but they are not certified in any content area,” says Becky Nunnally, a program administrator in the Cobb Virtual Academy.

“I think there is a sense out there that if you’re a good classroom teacher you can translate that automatically into an online learning environment, and we don’t share that sense,” asserts Liz Pape, president and CEO of the nonprofit Virtual High School Global Consortium.

“It’s not necessarily a teacher’s years of experience that make them a good online teacher. They need strong written and oral skills to communicate with their students, they have to be motivating, and they have to be comfortable teaching electronically,” adds Lisa Watkins, manager of instruction at KC Distance Learning/Aventa Learning, which provides distance learning programs for middle and high school students.

“You need somebody who obviously has a comfort and interest in not just technology but also in technology as a vehicle for teaching, because for the teacher it is a very different environment,” Montesano agrees.

The Latest Professional Development

Patrick at iNACOL says online teaching has opened “a whole new range of 21stcentury professional opportunities” for teachers. Boise State University offers a certificate program in online teaching, and several other universities are developing similar programs based on the iNACOL standards, Patrick says. The University of Wisconsin sponsors the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. And the Southern Regional Education Board provides resources to help its 16 member states develop high-quality online teaching.

Professional development options also include programs such as PBS Teacher-Line, which provides standards-based graduate-level courses for teachers—appropriately, online. The Education Development Center’s programs include graduate-level training courses for online instructors. Aventa Learning trains its own teachers and also teachers in districts that use its online products.

Programs like those will help district administrators find instructors with “the whole new set of strategies and skills” that online teaching requires, Patrick concludes.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.