La Ronda Forsey

How to Successfully Support Online Teachers

Special Issue

Adventist Education Online

Twenty years ago, finding Adventist teachers with online teaching experience was very difficult. The online school administrator had to grapple with hiring an experienced teacher with little technology experience, or a recent graduate who was a digital native1 but had limited teaching experience. Fortunately, since that time, many Adventist educators and administrators have realized that technology and online education are a valuable support to our educational system. They have become involved in the instruction or facilitating of online education for individuals or entire classrooms. Online classes empower Adventist education to reach many more students than brick-and-mortar schools alone.

Adventist correspondence education began as early as 1909 through The Fireside Correspondence School, which eventually grew into Home Study International, and most recently, Griggs University/Griggs International Academy.2 In the 1990s, K-12 Adventist online learning began with AE21 (using synchronous learning) and Griggs International Academy (using asynchronous learning). A number of our universities now offer online courses and degrees. After almost 25 years of experience in online learning within Adventist education, it is becoming more common to find teachers with online teaching experience. Yet, even qualified candidates continue to need training, professional development, and additional support with the development of new technology tools and approaches to online instruction.

Online education requires administrators who will provide support and mentoring to teachers―who are the school’s direct, daily connection with students.3 Administrators can accomplish this by building into the structure of the program formal, ongoing support, which can be offered by experienced instructors or program supervisors. Because teachers of online courses often live in rural areas lacking fast Internet connections, they may need help using innovative teaching strategies to connect effectively with students online. Communicating with online teachers, wherever they are located, must be a top priority for the administrator, to ensure that they do not feel isolated and that they understand and embrace the goals of the school. This article shares seven practical guidelines that will help online school administrators choose and support their online teachers.

1. Hire Qualified Teachers

Once a job is posted and the résumés start filling the inbox, the program administrator must carefully evaluate which candidates will make good online teachers.4 At the K-12 level, limiting the selection to certified teachers is the first step in sorting the résumés (see Box 1). At all levels, administrators should ascertain that teachers are qualified in their specific content area, verify their academic qualifications, and request references. Most importantly, attention should be given to the potential teachers’ spiritual commitment and faith life, along with the willingness and ability to integrate faith and learning.

Because only a few applicants will have online teaching experience, the administrator can arrange for a videoconference interview to assess the candidate’s technological and communication skills. The online interview and references will provide valuable data to use in evaluating the candidate’s aptitude for online teaching. Since many online teaching jobs are part-time contract positions, the program administrator also needs to determine whether the candidate is willing to commit enough hours to handle the responsibilities of the job.

If the classes are asynchronous, the schedule will be more flexible, but the teacher will need to devote adequate time to video conference interaction and providing prompt assistance to students’ questions. Before the interview, candidates should be provided with a teacher handbook so they know what will be expected of them. Policies that guide the hiring of individuals who may live outside of a state or country should already be in place. If not, then these need to be developed. The administrators should consult with the institution’s legal counsel to craft policies regarding benefits, applicable tax requirements, or other contractual issues. Finally, before teachers receive an employment contract, the school must conduct a background check5 on each one.

2. Provide an Orientation

A vital aspect of hiring and keeping qualified teachers is ensuring that they receive adequate support and training. Since Learning Management Systems (LMS) are complex and different from one another—and teaching online is quite different from classroom teaching―online teachers will need training, support, and regular communication from the administrator. Administrators must make multiple commitments: to support teachers through the period of transitioning to online instruction if it is a new experience; to assist them in learning a new LMS if they previously taught in a different one; and to help them enhance their skills. An orientation, initial technical training, and close monitoring during the first few weeks of the teacher’s work will set the stage for success.

Orientation for an online teacher should consist of a series of meetings and training sessions. During these sessions, the administrator, with help from the administrative team, can provide instructors with the teacher handbook; introduce the required curriculum guides and frameworks (or for higher education, the course syllabus); and introduce the LMS designated for the program.

Even though the teacher handbook includes guidelines for using the LMS, the real learning takes place when the teacher works one-on-one with the administrative team to learn the intricacies of the LMS system such as the various options for giving feedback to students, the types of assignments that can be posted, video formats, and features that provide the required support for students. After the teacher has been issued a username and password for the LMS, the training becomes more relevant since he or she has access to the assigned courses and students.

It’s often helpful to have a new teacher consult with the previous teacher to review the course and talk about specific aspects of the curriculum. The best scenario is for a new teacher to obtain support from the course design team, the administrator, and another teacher. If the teacher lives some distance from headquarters, orientation can be done via video conferencing. It is important that teachers have multiple contact options to get the help they need. Support and appreciation from the administrative team contribute to a teacher’s ability to successfully provide students with quality educational support.

3. Planned Teacher Meetings

Planning teacher meetings can be a challenge in an online school or program. Since teachers are often some distance from headquarters and mostly working from home, an online program might conceivably have hired teachers who live in a variety of time zones. Also, many instructors only teach a single online class, and possibly teach in a local brick-and-mortar school during the day. Having at least four meetings a year with the entire group of online teachers is recommended. This allows time for announcements and questions, followed by professional development that is specific to online teachers. Recording these meetings is a good option, in case a few teachers cannot make the appointment. Meetings should not be limited to these four times, and administrators might have to deliver the meeting in different ways to ensure that it reaches everyone. Suggestions include making a brief video presentation with announcements and updates. A group e-mail can also ensure that information reaches everyone quickly. Some of the most productive meetings take place when a small group of teachers assembles to give input or help make decisions about specific tasks. An example of this might be if all the math teachers are asked to meet with the program/school administrator to discuss the best way to handle tutoring for a student if the assigned teacher is on vacation or becomes ill. Administrators must ensure that policies and contingency plans are in place for such emergencies, including but not limited to an online teacher quitting mid-term, being fired, or not being able to fulfill the contractual agreement for any reason. Meetings enable teachers to have input and help ensure their “buy-in” to the mission and processes of the organization.

4. Communicate Regularly

There is rarely enough communication between administrators and teachers, even though it is the key to a successful school environment. This is true for any school, but especially for an online program. Online teachers should know the “big picture” of what is happening at the school in order to fill their roles effectively. They also need to receive announcements, newsletters, handbooks, etc.

Social media is also a good way to keep in touch with teachers. Creating a private Facebook page for teachers to join adds another avenue of building community with people living in all parts of the country. A school administrator or member of the program administrative team can be assigned to moderate and monitor the questions and comments posted on this page on an ongoing basis.

It is easy to assume that the teachers know what is happening in the organization and understand all the policies and procedures, but this is not always the case. The administrator can create a culture of two-way communication by making sure the teachers feel comfortable texting or calling at any time. In an online program, it is possible that an administrator and a teacher can work together for several years without ever meeting each other. This makes video conferencing invaluable to building relationships―in fact, it is really the most important form of communication used by administrators, teachers, and students in an online school or program. The next most important communication method is texting because it is fast and efficient. Administrators should keep track of conversations and know what is most effective for individual teachers to ensure a healthy working relationship through real-time interaction.

New teachers will have very different training needs than veteran teachers, but administrators should conduct an annual orientation for all teachers to cover policy changes as well as technology updates and reminders. It is very easy for an online teacher working from home to start feeling isolated or disconnected from the organization. Teachers need to be contacted on a variety of occasions, not just after a parent or student has complained. Giving teachers feedback from students and parents is important, but this should not be the only time a teacher hears from administrators.

Teachers also need reminders of best practices for using technology to give student feedback and enhance the course. For example, administrators can recommend that teachers provide students with feedback using the audio or video option, not just written responses.

5. Conduct Evaluations (Weekly and Annually)

For asynchronous online education, two aspects relate to teacher evaluation. The first is ensuring that each teacher keeps up with the work load and provides effective and timely feedback to students. In asynchronous online courses that are prepared ahead of time, feedback is the most important aspect of teaching. The administrator should regularly evaluate the teachers’ work by reviewing the LMS log.

Providing prompt feedback (no more than two days) enables students to learn more efficiently and keep moving in their course. Systematically monitoring the frequency and quality of the feedback given to students is invaluable in assessing the teacher’s effectiveness, and should be done at least weekly. Teachers who regularly get behind in their grading and in providing feedback to students will need to be counseled and warned, and perhaps have their teaching load rearranged or reduced.

The second aspect of evaluating online teachers is assessing the actual “teacher-student interaction” that takes place. Does the teacher give helpful, personalized feedback to each student? Do the students receive help or tutoring in a timely manner? Does the teacher grade fairly and consistently? Most of this can be verified via the LMS, but “end-of-course” student surveys also helpful in determining this information. Annual teacher evaluations should also be conducted. In many cases, the teacher completes a provided self-evaluation questionnaire, and then the administrator reviews the questionnaire in a video conference meeting with each teacher. This can be a learning experience for both the teacher and the administrator.6

6. Listen to Teacher Input

As a teacher works with students, he or she will recognize what works well in a course. Qualified teachers have been hired for their expertise, so it is important that administrators listen to what they have to say about a course and about how students perceive the curriculum. In an online program, the teachers have the most direct communication with students, so they are aware of issues that might not be communicated directly to administration. It is helpful to have a form for teachers to submit if they perceive the need for a change in the content or design of a course.

In other areas, such as philosophical issues and student complaints, the teacher should share these concerns with administrators as soon as possible. Performance evaluations should be a time when administrators listen to the teachers’ ideas about how to make program improvements. For example, if a teacher is struggling to implement a particular activity for students, the administrator can engage the teacher in helping to find a solution. Teachers are often good problem solvers, making them built-in consultants as administrators attempt to improve the system.

7. Promote Teacher/Student Interaction

The administrator sets the tone for how teachers interact with students. In reality, the best way to create an interactive culture is for the administrator to teach at least one online course per year that gives him or her direct, daily experience with how the system works and the options for interaction. If the administrator has direct experience with the LMS and one or more courses, he or she will find it easier to communicate ideas and innovation to the teachers and to troubleshoot problems.

All teachers need encouragement to do their best—especially in the area of teacher/student interaction. For example, an administrator who experiments with the discussion board can report his or her successful interactions and give suggestions on how to use them for other courses. Helping teachers find tools and resources that will enable them to successfully meet students’ needs is a key way to support student/teacher interaction. For example, if a teacher needs to meet with online students by appointment, the administrator can help the teacher find a digital appointment book that eliminates the need for e-mailing back and forth to find a suitable time to meet. The administrator can also facilitate discussion among teachers about how to best interact with students in providing feedback, instruction, and general support.

Conclusion

Being an online program administrators has unique challenges and rewards. It is vital to understand the significance of having a good working relationship with teachers, as well as the need to provide them with the tools and support to effectively guide students through their courses. Taking a hands-on approach with teaching, and leading by example are the best ways for an administrator to build a team of great teachers. Adventist education reaches a wide group of students, and online education can fill the gaps that might be difficult for the “brick-and-mortar” school. Having dedicated, well-trained Seventh-day Adventist teachers and administrators involved in online learning will help the church to serve more students with quality Christian education.


This article has been peer reviewed.

La Ronda Forsey

La Ronda Forsey, MSc, is Associate Dean of the School of Distance Education and International Partnerships at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and also serves as the Principal for Griggs International Academy, a homeschool and distance-education provider for K-12 students. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Religion from Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee; and a Master of Science in Educational Administration from the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Forsey has spent more than 30 years of teaching and educational administration with 13 years working in online education.

Recommended citation:

La Ronda Forsey, “How to Successfully Support Online Teachers,” The Journal of Adventist Education 80:1 (January-March 2018): 11-15. Available from https://jae.adventist.org/en/2018.1.3.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. “A digital native is someone who was raised in a digital, media-saturated world.” The term is generally applied to Millennials (individuals born between 1980 and 1999) and members of Generation Z (individuals born since 2000). See https://www.nngroup.com/articles/millennials-digital-natives/.
  2. For more about the history of Griggs University, see http://www.griggs.edu/article/68/about-gia/history. A timeline is also available at http://www.griggs.edu/site/1/docs/Griggs_timeline_20120612_FINAL.pdf.
  3. Scott McLeod and Jayson W. Richardson, "School Administrators and K-12 Online and Blended Learning." In Richard E. Ferdig and Kathryn Kennedy, eds., Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning (Pittsburgh, Penna.: ETC Press, 2014), 285-301.
  4. Yi Yang and Linda F. Cornelious, "Preparing Instructors for Quality Online Instruction," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 8:1 (Spring 2005): 1-16; Niki Davis and Ray Rose, Professional Development for Virtual Schooling and Online Learning (Vienna, Va.: North American Council for Online Learning, 2007).
  5. For a description of what is involved in a background check, see https://peoplefacts.com/industries/teacher-background-checks/ or http://www.amof.info/what-is-criminal.htm. Requirements vary across state lines and countries. For more on international background checks, see http://www.amof.info/i-criminal.htm or https://www.tieonline.com/view_article.cfm?ArticleID=328.
  6. Jayson W. Richardson et al., "Job Attainment and Perceived Role Differences of Cyberschool Leaders," Journal of Educational Technology and Society 19:1 (January 2016): 211-222.