During the next decade, thousands of educators in the U.S. will start a new professional journey by teaching one or more courses in an online environment. For some, this will be an exciting transition and for others it will feel like learning how to swim or ride a bike all over again. I am often asked what it takes to make a good online teacher. Many of the characteristics assigned to a successful face-to-face educator hold true for online teachers.
The results of a survey of Michigan Virtual online instructors identified communication as the foundation of effective online teaching. The other components instructors mentioned most often are relationship building and teaching methods. Online instructors have had to develop new ways to communicate with students, parents and mentors; connect with students; and present content, provide assignments and assess learning.
Online instruction requires that instructors rely on both their writing skills and their verbal skills with students, parents and mentors in order to initiate and sustain open, encouraging dialogue. Assignments and activities must be presented clearly and concisely. Much of the feedback students receive on assignments is delivered through email, text, discussion boards or pre-recorded audio files.
Instructors also repeatedly remark on the importance of timely, frequent feedback. As one instructor describes it, feedback is a means of re-working the problems and forming a richer, deeper connection with the material.
Because online instructors see communication as so critical to student success, they put a lot of effort into developing strategies for establishing and maintaining contact with their students and mentors. One instructor suggests using whatever mode of communication parents, students and mentors find most comfortable.
Instructors must learn to build relationships with online learners without the usual visual clues received in the classroom: teachers can’t see the understanding or confusion, personal connection or isolation, academic interactivity or disengagement when they can’t see student faces or body language. Many instructors use video clips to personalize communication and allow the students to see the real person on the other computer.
Another aspect of building relationships with students is offering opportunities for one-on-one communication. Students need to know the instructor is there, ready and willing to meet the student’s needs. That means being available and responsive to students, parents and mentors. Developing the expectation that the instructor will respond quickly is key to keeping the student engaged in the course.
One instructor pinpoints the foundation of relationship success: “It’s essential for students to trust you are there for them and that they are not alone online.” Teachers make it clear that they’re there for students by being respectful and responsive and making themselves available and accessible to parents, students and mentors. This strategy includes speaking with parents and students directly about achievements and struggles.
The best learning relationships are formed when teachers find a way to connect with the student. Using a friendly, conversational tone whenever possible goes a long way in making communication personal and connecting with students. Phone contact with mentors of low-achieving students may be especially important. Instructors suggest the following are critical for communicating effectively with online learners:
- Clear, concise announcements
- Clear, well-developed instructions
- Well developed rubrics
- Prompt and relevant feedback
- Video greetings and announcements
- Welcome letters/emails to mentors and students
- Classroom journals
- Individual emails
- Frequent postings
- Quick responses
Instructors shared several elements that characterize best practices in effective online instruction:
- Setting clear expectations for interaction and participation;
- Presenting well organized, engaging curriculum that includes convenient access to instructional materials, easily understood assignments, clear objectives and rubrics;
- Promoting group interactivity;
- Using multiple teaching strategies that incorporate a range of activities, a variety of materials, diverse resources and current instructional technology; and
- Initiating personalized interventions for struggling students.
Instructors attribute their effectiveness to three behaviors: managing their relationship with their students, communicating consistently and employing appropriate teaching strategies. They say that being effective requires more than the traditional teaching skills of knowing the content and explaining a concept in multiple ways. They must be tech savvy, use a variety of delivery methods, keep up with grading and be innovative with teaching, assessment and communication.
Top Ten Tips for New Online Teachers
- Be highly motivated and enthusiastic
- Demonstrate commitment to a student-centered learning approach
- Communicate in a warm and friendly manner
- Strive to improve student understanding
- Motivate students to assume responsibility for their performance
- Promote a safe and supportive learning community
- Establish high expectations for each student
- Provide timely, thoughtful reactions to all student work
- Offer high-quality feedback and continuous assessment
- Ask questions, learn from your students and get to know them
For a comprehensive review of the characteristics of effective online instructors, see the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) 2011 publication, National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. Access the Standards online »
Is Online Teaching in Your Future? was also published on the Virtual School Leadership Alliance website (May 12, 2015) and in the MACUL Journal (Summer 2014).