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6 Tips for the Successful Online Teacher

In recent intake interviews with new students of education at West Texas A&M University, I found that teaching online is the new Holy Grail for many young K-12 educators. They dream about how wonderful it would be to spend part of their day working from home in their bunny slippers and to conduct meaningful interactions with students via Skype while preparing dinner. To this group, teaching online means never having to be anywhere at any particular time, never having to wear uncomfortable "professional clothes," and never being asked a question without having time to research the answer.

After two decades in online teaching in both the corporate world and higher education, I regret to report that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the network connection. While online teaching offers many rewards for instructors, it takes a special set of skills and attitudes to excel at it. And these are emphatically not the same skills and attitudes that make an exceptional classroom teacher. Here's the mindset it takes to be a successful online teacher:

1. Forget Constant Validation
While it may be heretical to say it, many teachers are attracted to the profession by all the ego-stroking they hope to receive. They remember the worshipful glances that they bestowed on their own favorite classroom teachers, and now they want their share. But there is a world of difference between a warm face-to-face encounter and an e-mail--no matter how appreciative it might be. While there has been much discussion about how e-mail or even video interaction might not meet students' emotional and security needs, the emotional vacuum on the teacher's side has gone largely unnoticed.

Online teaching actually requires a much higher level of emotional security and confidence in one's own professional competence. This is especially true at the middle-school and high-school levels. These students are socialized to think of computer technology as a reliable appliance, like a refrigerator. Online teachers must work hard to humanize their approach and not be turned into a robotic extension of such an appliance by their students.

2. Know Thy Students
It's hardly news that a great deal of human communication is nonverbal--anyone who's sat through a long phone conference can tell you that. Now remove the verbal component from the equation and the chances of misunderstanding increase exponentially. It takes a great deal of time and effort on the part of online teachers to make sure they are really clear in their own communications, as well as to understand who they are teaching, what students are trying to tell them, and how well their students are succeeding in each course.

In my online classes, I find myself constantly at risk of wildly misjudging both people and their situations. I have had students whom I have mentally pigeonholed as headed for the dustbin--lacking both ability and enthusiasm--only to discover that they are top-notch performers who simply took a while to get the hang of the online process.

Several semesters ago, I was strongly tempted to ease one particular student out of the program. Her native language was Chinese, and I had concluded from her written work that she did not understand English well enough to pass. She soon taught me that reading comprehension and writing skill grow at dramatically different rates. Today, she is a stay-at-home mother making a good living by remotely providing webmaster services to three small colleges.

3. Lose Complete Control
Many classroom teachers thrive in the emotional sphere I call "command mentality." Like an orchestra conductor, they love the sense of control that comes with being in charge. They take this responsibility very seriously, and work like demons to get it right. They make sure all students are crystal clear on what is expected of them and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations. These are the instructors who adore the grading rubrics that have become so much a part of classroom teaching in the age of accountability.

For better or worse, fully online instruction can never provide the level of control they crave. To a great extent, online education operates on the honor system. You never know who is really doing the work on the other end of the wire. There is no combination of tightly timed tests, double-password protection systems, or retina-scanning identification gizmos that can change this reality.

The knee-jerk reaction to this observation is to point out that students cheat in regular classroom courses, too. That's true, but not nearly as easily and, quite possibly, not nearly as frequently. College students may understand the importance of acquiring marketable skills in their classes, as well as good grades. K-12 students are far more likely to just be searching for the shortest path to a grade by any means handy.

If you are confident that you can make a compelling case to your students about the satisfaction and benefits that derive from completing their courses legitimately, you have a future in online education. If you are comfortable only with more coercive methods of extracting effort from students, you need to rethink your game for this new environment.

4. Collaboration Resistance
The dominant educational approach of the last several decades has been constructivism, which puts a high value on collaboration. Many teachers new to online see its vast potential as a vehicle for group work, but my graduate students loathe it. They want to do their own assignments in their own way and don't appreciate collective responsibility for anyone else's limitations. All K-12 teachers know how group work can go wrong--the wallflowers, the "alpha dog" dominators, and all the rest. This can happen even when collaboration is attempted in the conventional classroom setting. The challenges of collaboration are multiplied in the less controllable environment of online.

5. Get to Work…Really
Quality classroom teachers succeed by absorbing oral and visual feedback from each class session as it unfolds, and making moment-to-moment adjustments in response. Except for a small minority of instructors working with expensive synchronous learning systems that provide continuous 1-to-1 visual and auditory communication, online teachers don't have the luxury of making real-time modifications to their instructional strategies. Their teaching must be accurate, complete, and spot-on right out of the chute.

Most of my graduate courses require that I make about 16 hours of technology-demonstration movies. Because I know my students so well, I never settle for the often-perfunctory movies that come with the textbooks. Instead, I tailor my movies to the specific interests of my students and to my ever-emerging understanding of where they are likely to stumble and fall. To do so involves a lot of work: It takes me at least 20 to 30 hours of effort to create one hour of video.

And most of this work has to be done before the course even gets under way. Some of my students live in towns so small that they might have just a couple of traffic lights. They have dicey internet service and personal hardware, which make downloading hourlong movies problematic.

To overcome this, I mail each student a DVD a week before school starts, which means that I have to complete my preparations for the entire semester before it even begins. Between preparation, correspondence, and time-consuming troubleshooting of student problems, I estimate that I put in 50 percent more effort in teaching technical courses online than I would teaching the same material in person.

6. It's Not Just a Day Job
Teaching online is less a job than a lifestyle. Committed online instructors find it hard to set reasonable boundaries on the workday. When students run into trouble, the instinct is to help them as soon as you can. This tends to happen between 10 p.m. and midnight.