Preparing the virtual teacher

Ever considered becoming a virtual teacher? Holding school in your bedroom slippers may have some appeal to many teaching veterans, but for most of us, virtual teaching would require the acquisition of some pedagogical skills that John Dewey didn’t anticipate.

TLN’s membership includes several full-time online educators, including our colleague Shannon C’De Baca, who was a Milken award-winning science teacher in the “physical world” before joining Iowa Learning Online, the Buckeye State’s virtual public school network, as a chemistry teacher. Shannon shared some of the unusual (and not so unusual) aspects of her second-stage teaching career in a Teacher Magazine essay last May.

As Shannon noted, virtual teachers have some unique professional development needs. These teachers find themselves working with students using a variety of methods, including Web-based exchanges, phone conversations, and videoconferencing. Students may work on collaborative projects and yet never meet each other in person. Some programs even involve virtual teachers in face-to-face field trips, on-site science labs, and other physical gatherings of students.

A recent article iTechnology & Learning, “Virtual Learning 2.0,” puts it this way: “Professional development is a whole new ballgame for educators who teach online.” PD consultant Sara Armstrong, who specializes in project-based learning through technology integration, writes about some of the unique challenges involved in preparing teachers to be effective in a virtual learning environment. How, for example, do online teachers create a sense of community and promote collaboration and teamwork among widely dispersed students?

In her interviews with professional developers who work with virtual educators, Armstrong found that “good online teachers share many of the same qualities as teachers in traditional settings: caring about kids, mastery of their subjects, flexibility, and an interest in lifelong learning. Teachers of online courses also (must) consider online instructional design, engaging students through online materials, and individualized planning and management.”

Among the special skills required of virtual teachers, Armstrong says, are active listening, working virtually with big groups and small groups, designing courses for asynchronous delivery, “and understanding the ever-growing palette of online learning tools.”

The opportunities to teach in virtual settings are growing rapidly. More than two dozen states have now established state-wide or state-led virtual schools, and at least one state – Michigan – requires students to take at one or more online courses to graduate. In addition, there’s a burgeoning “private virtual school” industry — with both for-profit companies and non-profit organizations involved. Schools are even starting up in the Second Life virtual world!

If you’ve considered a second-career as a virtual teacher, be sure to check out Armstrong’s article to gain a better sense of the unique professional challenges involved – and perhaps to also gain some assurance that the close relationships with students so highly prized by accomplished teachers are still possible from a distance. Says one former “brick and mortar” teacher: “I had 34 kids in my last year (of physical teaching), which made it impossible to reach every kid. To be able to talk with every kid and get them what they need is heaven for me!”