I’m proud to have served as a teacher for the past 25 years, and I can say without hesitation that working with thousands of talented colleagues is what keeps me in this field. Great teachers forge invaluable connections with students that facilitate deeper learning and nurture children’s social-emotional skills, and they take immense pride in crafting programs that encourage students to ask nuanced questions and think critically. But when it comes to virtual instruction, we’re constrained in what we do. Online schools across the nation face a dearth of qualified teachers. Virtual educators shouldn’t simply supervise a course—they should be actually teaching it, and most credentialing institutions don’t prepare or train educators for the rigors of quality online teaching. The problem is compounded when the model is misused by entities motivated primarily by profit, not proficiency. Much of the developed online curriculum in the marketplace leaves no room for teachers to actually facilitate coursework. Instead, they’re simply pushing buttons. If a child needs accommodation, those teachers have no room to provide any. There is no warmth, no relationship. The educator is simply administering tests, not imparting deeper learning concepts. So what makes a great online teacher? Quite simply, it’s what makes a great teacher. These aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. Teaching online shouldn’t be passive, and it is more than simply waiting for a student to turn in work or complete an exam. Perhaps even more so than in a traditional classroom setting, great virtual facilitators are deeply connected to their students and communicate at regular intervals and with tangible touchpoints to move them toward a deeper understanding of course material. And, a necessary component of this equation is a teacher’s role in developing coursework and curriculum for each unique student. To be successful, that curriculum must be project-based (which eliminates the possibility for students to abuse the virtual learning model by, say, researching canned test answers online) and should require kids to deeply grasp material and then demonstrate and present what they’ve learned. Flipping the script on online education is what motivates my team and me. We believe virtual learning has become overly automated, improperly relying on canned curriculum that both reduces the role and skill of the facilitator and denigrates the essential connection between teacher and student. Virtual education should emphasize that relationship and give teachers the resources and freedom to facilitate quality instruction that’s more than simply administering exams or clicking a button on a computer screen. If we want to move online education forward, we must encourage leaders across the country to better prepare aspiring teachers for this evolving field, and stop using canned curricula that essentially turn human beings into robots devoid of critical thought. It’s vital to the future of online education, and more importantly, to the children we serve every day.
Erin Jones is Director of Online Programs for iLEAD Schools, a network of 12 public, tuition-free charter schools in California and the Midwest. She has more than two decades of experience teaching art and photography at public schools across Southern California and in Seattle and is the proud parent of two adult children.