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Seeking and Supporting High-quality Instruction
Ensuring high-quality teachers is important in any educational setting, whether in the traditional classroom or in an online learning environment. While many traditional schools lack the capacity to train or the resources to hire instructors for advanced curriculum, when they partner with an online course provider, the provider is responsible for ensuring that instructors are effective and qualified. Thus, when seeking out advanced course work from an online provider, school and district leaders will want to inquire about initial instructor preparation, ongoing support available for instructors' continued development, and evaluation of instructor effectiveness. District and school leaders interviewed for this guide suggest looking for providers that invest in all of these areas.
Selecting and Training Instructors
For the providers highlighted here, online instructors are usually regular classroom teachers who teach online courses part time. To teach for these providers, instructors have to meet certain expectations and requirements. 33 It is important to note, here, that these highlighted providers fall into one of two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: those that deliver courses almost exclusively to students in the provider's home state (i.e., COL, IOAPA, MVS) and those that deliver courses to students in other states (or internationally) as well (i.e., FLVS, CTY, VHS). The two types of providers often take different approaches to instructor selection.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), online instructors, like all K–12 teachers, must be highly qualified. Each of the state-based providers featured in this guide requires instructors to be certified in the content area in which they teach and in the state served by the provider (e.g., MVS instructors must be Michigan-certified and highly qualified). On the other hand, providers serving students in multiple states (e.g., VHS) would find it prohibitive to require instructors to be certified in every state where their online students are located, so they have slightly different requirements. VHS, for example, requires instructors to be certified in the subject area of the online courses they teach, but it does not matter in which state they are certified. As it happens, 85 percent of VHS teachers also hold master's degrees and 19 percent of those also hold a doctoral degree or other additional credentials. At CTY, K–12 instructors are not required to be state-certified teachers, but they must have earned at least a bachelor's degree in the content area they are teaching; most of them have advanced degrees, including Ph.D.s, and have had proven success in that field of study in addition to online teaching experience. For example, CTY writing instructors are published authors and several of its instructors have extensive experience with online learning in the corporate environment.
Instructor training. Online instructors should be skilled in learning theories, relevant technologies, and teaching pedagogies appropriate for the online environment. SREB's Standards for Quality Online Teaching 34 recognizes that while the skills needed for online teaching are largely the same as those needed for success in a traditional classroom, some skills are even more important in the online environment. For example, a teacher's ability to communicate effectively in writing, important in a traditional classroom, becomes essential in an online course where virtually all communication is likely to be in writing.
Some providers, like COL and IOAPA, do not offer any training for instructors, instead requiring that candidates have all necessary skills. As a very small program with a small staff, COL simply does not have the resources to train online instructors. However, its board of directors, which includes pedagogy and instructional technology experts, has the final say on who is accepted to teach in the program. The application itself asks specific questions about how the instructor will deliver the course online and interact with the students, and candidates must answer in short essay format. They also must provide specific examples of assignments they have developed and their instructional techniques. Additionally, instructors are required to be Colorado-certified and hold a degree in the subject area. Once hired, they receive an orientation and have access to the help desk of the platform provider, which in COL's case is eCollege. For its part, IOAPA does not offer its own training because it primarily licenses courses from Apex Learning, which has its own professional development program for its instructors. IOAPA is an example of a program that licenses courses from a third-party provider so it does not need to create an infrastructure to either develop courses or train instructors.
VHS, FLVS, and MVS, on the other hand, have created and manage their own internal development programs. At VHS, for example, instructors must successfully complete a 10-week online professional development program before teaching their own course. Even so, as they teach their first course, all new instructors work with an experienced facilitator, who serves as a mentor and demonstrates how to prepare online resources, lead group discussions, and grade assignments. According to VHS's new-teacher survey for 2005–06, 42 out of 44 new VHS instructors said that the professional development program was "very effective" or "somewhat effective" in helping them plan and implement a VHS course of their own, 41 said the training helped them use technology while teaching, 35 said it helped them foster online group activities, and 37 indicated that the professional development helped them effectively generate online discussions among their students. 35
FLVS takes a different approach, hosting a twoday, face-to-face training session for its new instructors, after which the instructors also must complete a 12-hour online class (over the course of one or two weeks) prior to teaching. Among other things, the online course familiarizes them with the FLVS online system and teaching tools. Once they start teaching, new instructors are partnered with a mentor, who is a more experienced online instructor with whom they meet weekly for the next year. Both of these professional development (PD) programs are constantly tweaked based on teacher and other stakeholder satisfaction survey reports about the effectiveness of the PD courses, as well as the effectiveness of the instructors after they receive the training.
CTY instructors receive training from their regionally based instructional supervisors, who serve as mentors and liaisons between instructors and CTY. CTY instructors are already highly qualified in terms of subject area, but the supervisors see to it that instructors are interacting with students and understand how to use the various platforms and software. Additionally, supervisors conduct instructors' performance reviews.
Supporting Instructors to Ensure Effectiveness
Like their students, online instructors require support in order to perform optimally. FLVS provides this support through its instructional leaders, of which there is one for every 50 to 60 online instructors. Among other things, an instructional leader monitors instructors' communication logs, and if it becomes apparent that an instructor is not reaching parentcontact goals (i.e., not adequately keeping in touch with the parents of online students), the instructional leader may contact the instructor to inquire about needed support or may assign another more seasoned instructor to serve as a peer mentor and help the instructor increase call volume. Additionally, FLVS has three learning community leaders who each oversee six instructional leaders. Cross-team content area managers also are assigned to support instructors by regularly communicating about course updates (e.g., addition of new content, modification of existing content) and sharing information about the latest instructional tools or supports (e.g., listing links to helpful Web sites, describing techniques for engaging students, proposing ideas for group activities). In 2007, FLVS also implemented a "co-teaching" model, which pairs two full-time instructors with an adjunct (i.e., part-time) instructor. The adjunct instructor provides additional student support, allowing teams to participate in more professional development opportunities.
MVS provides extensive instructor support facilitated by an instructional manager, who is similar to the FLVS instructional leaders and the CTY instructional supervisors. To help manage and mentor new instructors and maintain consistency within each subject area or department, MVS also has created the position of department chair for each subject area. These individuals support new instructors and familiarize them with the platform used in the courses. The instructional manager stays in contact with the department chairs and also handles all requests for professional development.
CTY instructors are supported by instructional supervisors, each of whom works with approximately 10 instructors. CTY also gives instructors a handbook with tips and resources for handling issues that can arise in an online environment (e.g., technology problems, providing encouragement for students).
VHS instructors receive ongoing professional development and support through the online Community of Virtual Educators (COVE). Each VHS instructor creates a personal professional development plan and has access to a variety of trainings given online by COVE professional development staff, referred to as "lifeguards." Any changes to the platform used to deliver courses (e.g., introduction of a new online grade book) also are communicated through the COVE, with the lifeguards helping instructors to understand the new features.
Both MVS and FLVS have implemented a lead teacher role for the instructor who has developed an individual course and teaches its initial section. As more sections are added, this instructor guides and supports those who teach additional sections.
Each provider featured here monitors instructor performance to ensure that students are being adequately supported in the online classroom. MVS teachers are required contractually to respond to e-mails from students and site coordinators within 24 hours, to grade assignments within 48 hours, and to grade tests within 72 hours. Instructors are informed at the beginning of their contracts that all such actions will be monitored by MVS's online course management system, which also will monitor each student's progress. MVS has a formal instructor evaluation process, which includes a short, electronic student survey administered on completion of each course. Students are asked very specific questions related to their instruction, for example, "How would you grade the communication and responsiveness of your teacher?" Feedback is sent directly to the instructional manager, with only the aggregate information given to the instructor. The instructional manager combines all the data from the student and teacher surveys, tracking these data by department and individual courses.
FLVS leaders regularly examine instructor performance. FLVS instructors are required to make monthly contact with parents of online students. They log each effort (e.g., completed call, attempted call, e-mail message) so they and other FLVS staff (e.g., managers) can monitor their performance. FLVS focuses on this aspect of instructor responsibility because, in conducting internal pilot studies about the relationship between voice-to-voice contact and student success (looking at the effect of teachers who made frequent calls versus those who made no calls), the provider found that the voice-to-voice contact correlated with a higher degree of student success.
During instructors' first semester of teaching, VHS mentors submit regular evaluations of the new teachers to the VHS curriculum coordinator. Based on these evaluations, the mentor and the curriculum coordinator then decide whether new teachers need to continue being coached during their second semester of teaching. When a new teacher needs continued mentoring, he or she is said to be "retained in coaching." During the 2001–07 school years, the percentage of new teachers retained in coaching generally fluctuated between 12 and 17 percent. The one exception was the 2005–06 school year, during which 22 percent of teachers were retained in coaching.