What it takes to succeed as an online teacher
With new technologies changing the way teachers reach their students, how can schools continue to ensure high quality instructors? In this ever-changing world, students learn differently and schools are adapting best practices to keep pace. Michigan Virtual University explains how it identifies instructors ready to take on the challenge of teaching classes online.
Despite great strides in ensuring a quality learning experience in a digital environment, the idea that online courses are impersonal and lack the quality of face-to-face teaching seems to persist.
“A lot of people see online education as reading a passage and taking a test,” says Anne Craft, Acting Executive Director of Marketing and Communications for MVU. “It’s actually a lot more than that.” She says MVU has a sophisticated research-based online teaching process that doesn’t just look at how kids learn, but specifically looks at how they learn online.
Students take online courses for a variety of reasons. Some may need an advanced placement or a foreign language course that is not offered at their school. Others may have an illness or injury keeping them at home. In many cases, students take online classes simply because of a scheduling conflict.
What it takes to be an online instructor
Prospective teachers need to understand while it’s important for them to become an expert in their chosen field, it’s just as important – maybe even more so – to build good relationships with students.
“It’s about building rapport and trust with students,” says Londa Horton, instructional lead for MVU’s iEducator 21st Century Digital Learning Corps. “Students will work for you if you build that trust.”
Surprisingly, personal contact with students is more evident in the digital environment than in a classroom.
In classrooms, assignments and instructions are usually given to students in groups, and individual follow-up is an afterthought. In the courses taught to high school students through MVU, it is quite the opposite. Students are responsible for working independently and conducting their own research, and they receive instruction and guidance on their coursework throughout the process to ensure their success.
Thus, it is essential that certified teachers wishing to join the staff of an online education program can communicate effectively with students via the methods used by students today.
“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 seeks recent graduates of Michigan education programs who appear to have the potential to teach in a digital learning environment. Qualified future teachers are placed in a two-year training program to kick-start their career with an online teaching assignment. The program provides a salary and other benefits to participants.
It’s somewhat inspired by the Peace Corps, in that it’s designed to be a life-changing experience filled with service, work experience, training, and resume writing. By the end of the program, students have a solid understanding of what it takes to teach in the digital learning environment.
Interview for a teaching position
The interview process for MVU teaching positions is nothing like the previous generation.
“We used to look at a resume in a suit-and-tie situation, and a lot of it was determined by intuition,” says Horton.
Now, hiring begins with the Applitrack online recruitment portal, where prospective teachers upload their credentials and apply for a job at MVU. MVU’s Human Resources department screens applicants, ensuring they have the necessary documentation to teach, including a valid teaching certificate, before the process goes any further.
“None will come to my office until they’ve gone through HR,” she says.
Horton says the more certificates applicants have, the more marketable they will be and the better their chances of getting a job teaching online classes from the comfort of a home office or even a coffee shop.
The hiring process is more than just reviewing a person’s certificates and credentials. Horton considers many factors, including the candidate’s use of social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Because they will be representing MVU, it is important that they use these popular platforms appropriately.
“How you use social media is a reflection of you and our organization,” says Horton.
Horton says she also administers a test to prospective teachers over the phone. She will listen for key words from the interviewee that demonstrate the teacher cares about children and will be able to connect with students on a personal level.
Eventually, future teachers will be face to face with an interviewer. And while today’s work dress code is a bit more relaxed than when your parents were interviewing for a job, Horton says it’s best not to show up in flip flops or similar casual attire.
Online Teaching Strategies
In a traditional teacher-centered classroom, students typically receive information that eventually ends up in a test or report. In an online learning environment, students often have to do a lot of their own research.
Educators should identify course objectives and design a curriculum conducive to independent study. Instructors then take on the role of facilitators of information, while ultimately leaving control of learning to the students.
The Illinois Online Network, which provides professional development for teachers online, has created several strategies to teach online.
They suggest writing teacher-student learning contracts to identify what needs to be accomplished in a given period of time. Traditional instruction, including lectures and discussions that can be conducted via video or other digital formats, can supplement the otherwise self-directed learning experience. Small group work can still take place in this environment, as can the assignment of special projects that enhance the experience. Students can also 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 must be able to connect with students on a personal level in a digital environment. The hiring process goes far beyond a traditional job interview. You need credentials, including qualification 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 discussions.
So while students can’t give their teachers an apple online, they can work with their teachers on an Apple from the comfort of their own home.
This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Virtual University of Michigan.