What does it take to be a great online instructor? | VHS Learning

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What does it take to be a great online instructor?

Here’s how one online school trains its teachers to be best in class in the virtual learning environment

By: Stacy Young | February 28, 2020

With the growth of online learning, more and more students are coming to us with virtual learning experience. Even with this experience working in their favor, it is important for students to have a seamless transition from a face-to-face to an online class.

We know the online environment is different, so we want to make sure students are able to forge relationships with their teachers, communicate their needs and feel comfortable advocating for themselves. To make this happen, online teachers must set a tone that the online world is indeed a setting for high academic rigor and a safe place for students to ask questions, make mistakes and take academic risks that support their growth as learners. 

Creating meaningful learning experiences

Students require effective instruction and a high-quality curriculum to succeed online. That’s why teachers must build on the best practices of face-to-face teaching and incorporate specific instructional adaptations to make an asynchronous, paced online course an environment in which students can thrive. And teachers need courses that are designed, embedded and compatible with their teaching styles. 

Learner engagement and communication are foundational to maintaining an inviting tone and building strong relationships among students and teachers in the online classroom.

Students must know that an actual teacher is reviewing their work and providing individual feedback—making distinctions between typos, skill gaps or misunderstandings of content—to support them. In short, we want the feedback to be personal. Such targeted feedback is limited in self-paced online programs. Many students benefit from the follow-up questions and additional strategies—beyond the “next step”—that teacher-led online courses provide. 

Online teachers must set a tone that the online world is indeed a setting for high academic rigor and a safe place for students to ask questions, make mistakes and take academic risks that support their growth as learners. 

Prepping teachers for the virtual world

At VHS Learning (formerly known as The Virtual High School), we provide a series of unique and robust professional development opportunities to ensure our teachers are prepared to create meaningful learning experiences for their students. Our Online Teaching Methodologies (OTM) course is conducted entirely online and offers teacher resources, strategies and collaborative activities with peers. OTM’s design is based on the courses the teachers will be teaching. A requirement for all of our teachers, OTM is a graduate-level course that is aligned to the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching.

OTM is broken into a series of modules over a four-week period. It addresses the landscape of online learning, learner engagement and communication, and student growth through feedback. Meeting the needs of all learners is also covered, including varied strategies and accommodations to help students overcome a spectrum of learning challenges—from a documented learning disability to an unexpected medical or social-emotional crisis. Teachers practice identifying accommodations and developing makeup plans to help all learners access the curriculum and meet expectations. Teachers collaborate with their classmates, and they complete the same types of assignments that students complete in our online classrooms. 

One of the unique aspects of our program is our paced, asynchronous courses. All students go through the work as a cohort, and teachers nurture the online community by maintaining a vibrant, engaging homepage; facilitating student discussions; and fielding individual and shared questions in a group message thread—all of which are important for success in the virtual environment. (These practices are modeled by OTM facilitators, as well.)

After teachers complete OTM, they’re enrolled in Brightspace Fundamentals Training. It includes lessons and resources around the technology teachers will use while teaching. Then, teachers take part in a faculty advising or mentoring program. 

Faculty advisors observe online classes and provide teachers targeted feedback. Most of our teachers teach an online class as part of their school’s membership with us. In these cases, we share summative feedback with the building principal to provide a picture of the teacher’s strengths and challenges in an online setting.

PD is key to promoting teacher growth and satisfaction, which are integral to today’s virtual learning environment.

Stacy Young is the associate dean of faculty at VHS Learning.