What it takes to succeed as an online teacher

With new technology changing the way teachers reach their students, how can schools continue to ensure a high quality of instructors? In this ever-changing world, students are learning differently and schools are adapting best practices to keep up. Michigan Virtual University shares how it identifies instructors ready to take on the challenge of teaching online courses.
An online class, like face-to-face instruction, is only as good as the instructor. Schools such as Michigan Virtual University provide intensive training to prospective teachers and a rigorous onboarding process that ensures the teachers they hire are qualified to work in this relatively new instructional environment.  

Despite great strides to ensure a quality learning experience in a digital environment, the notion that online classes are impersonal and lack the quality of face-to-face instruction seems to persist.

“A lot of people see online education as reading a passage and taking a test,” says Anne Craft, interim executive director of marketing and communications for MVU. “It’s actually a lot more than that.” She says MVU has a sophisticated online instructional process based on research that doesn’t just examine how kids learn, but looks specifically at how they learn online.

Students take online classes for a variety of reasons. Some may need an advanced placement or foreign language class not offered at their school. Others may have an illness or injury keeping them home. In many cases, students take online classes simply due to a scheduling conflict.

What it takes to be an online instructor

Prospective teachers need to understand while it’s important they become an expert in their chosen field, it’s just as important — perhaps even more so — to establish a good rapport with students.
“It’s all about building the relationship and trust with the students,” says Londa Horton, instructional manager with MVU’s iEducator 21st Century Digital Learning Corps. “Students will work for you if you establish that trust.”

Surprisingly, personal contact with students is more evident in the digital environment than in a classroom setting.

Londa Horton

In classrooms, assignments and instruction typically are given to students as a group, and one-on-one follow-up is an afterthought. In courses taught to high school students through MVU, it’s just the opposite. Students are responsible for working independently and conducting their own research, and they are given instruction and guidance on their course work throughout the entire process to ensure their success.

Thus, it’s essential that certified teachers looking to join the staff of an online teaching program can communicate effectively with students via the methods today’s students use.

“They don’t talk to teachers via Skype, email or cellphone,” says Horton. “These kids prefer texting.”

A digital learning ‘Peace Corps’

MVU’s iEducator program looks for recent graduates from Michigan teaching programs who appear to have the potential to teach in a digital learning environment. Qualified, prospective teachers are placed in a two-year training program to jump-start their career with an online teaching assignment. The program offers a salary and other benefits to the participants.

It’s patterned somewhat after the Peace Corps, in that it’s designed to be a life-changing experience filled with service, work experience, training and resume building. Upon completion of the program, students have a solid grasp of what it takes to teach in the digital learning environment.

Interviewing for a teaching position

The interview process for MVU teaching positions bears no resemblance to that of the previous generation.

“It used to be we looked at a resume in a suit-and-tie situation, and much of it was determined by intuition,” says Horton.

Now, hiring starts with online recruiting portal Applitrack, where aspiring teachers upload their credentials and apply for a job with MVU. The human resources department at MVU screens the applicants, ensuring they have the necessary documentation to teach, including a valid teaching certificate, before the process goes any further.  

“None will make it to my office until they get through HR,” she says.

Horton says the more certificates applicants have, the more marketable they will be, and the better their chance of getting a job teaching online classes from the comfort of a home office or even a coffee shop.

The hiring process is much more than looking at a person’s certificates and credentials. Horton looks at numerous factors, including the candidate’s use of social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Because they will be representing MVU, it’s important they’ve been using these popular platforms in an appropriate manner.

“How you use social media is a reflection of you and of our organization,” says Horton.

Horton says she also administers a test to prospective teachers over the phone. She’ll listen for keywords from the interviewee that demonstrate the teacher cares about kids and will be able to connect with students on a personal level.

Eventually, prospective teachers will come face-to-face with an interviewer. And although today’s professional dress code is a bit more relaxed than when your parents interviewed for jobs, Horton says it’s best to not show up in flip-flops or similar casual apparel.

Strategies for online teaching

In a traditional, teacher-centered classroom, students typically are given information that eventually winds up on a test or in a report. In an online learning environment, students often are required to do much of their own research.

Educators must identify course objectives and design a curriculum conducive to independent study. Instructors then take on the role of information facilitators, while ultimately releasing control of learning to the students.

The Illinois Online Network, which provides professional development to online teachers, has created several strategies for teaching online classes.

They suggest drafting teacher-student learning contracts to identify what needs to be accomplished in a given time period. Traditional instruction, including lectures and discussions that can be accomplished via video or other digital formats, can supplement the otherwise self-directed learning experience. Small-group work still can take place within this environment, as can the assignment of special projects that enhance the experience. Students also can be mentored in this environment, sharing the content of their learning experiences with tutors and professional staff via technology.

The evolution of teaching...and learning

Prospective online teachers need to be able to connect with students on a personal level in a digital environment. The hiring process goes well beyond a traditional job interview. You need the credentials, including qualifying certificates. Past practices with social media are also taken into account, as you will be representing a public institution.

Teaching in this environment is different from a traditional classroom and may involve a brief internship-type program, such as those offered by MVU’s iEducator. There are several strategies for teaching online courses, some of which are practiced in a traditional classroom, including lectures and discussion.

So while students may not be able to give an apple to their online teachers, they can work with their teachers on an Apple from the comfort of their homes.

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.
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