Preparing K-12 Teachers to Teach Online

Greg Kearsley & Robert Blomeyer

Online courses have become very popular in higher education and with the emergence of virtual schools are becoming common at the K-12 level (see Clark, 2001; Vail 2001). While most universities and colleges have established training programs to prepare their faculty to teach online, school systems are just beginning to address this need.  As McKenzie (2001) notes, preparing teachers to teach online needs to involve a lot more than the short workshops typical of inservice training. Hannum (2001) describes an extensive state-wide initiative in Colorado. The Concord Consortium and Illinois Online Network both have successful online teacher training programs. A number of online learning system vendors such as Apex Learning, Blackboard Inc., and eCollege also offer online teacher training programs, although these tend to be tailored to their systems. This article describes some of the issues associated with preparing school teachers to teach online based upon recent work at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).  While the focus of the discussion is K-12, most of these issues also apply to higher education faculty and instructors in the training domain.

Can anyone teach online?

One of the first issues to be considered is the requirements for an effective online teacher (Fuller et al., 2000). These include:

  • n     be able to sit in front a machine for at least an hour or two every day,
  • n     enjoy one-on-one interaction (as opposed to lecturing or group presentations),
  • n     be flexible in teaching approach and willing to experiment, and
  • n     be prepared to do a lot of writing/typing.

Although these don’t sound like particularly demanding requirements, many otherwise excellent classroom teachers are unable to satisfy them. Some teachers have great difficulty establishing a routine of being online regularly and spending so much time interacting with individual students.  Sometimes this is an access issue and sometimes it is a matter of being comfortable using technology (see next section). Note that a passion for teaching and the subject matter involved is another requirement, but almost all teachers possess those qualities.

Preconditions for online teaching

In addition to the personal qualities just mentioned, there some preconditions that online teachers must satisfy such as:

  • n     have convenient (home) access to computer/internet,
  • n     be very comfortable with the tools/system to be used to teach online, and
  • n     have first hand experience as an online learner.

While many teachers believe that access to a computer at school will be adequate for their online teaching activities, in most cases, this doesn’t allow for enough time online and a machine at home is needed. In order to teach well online, a high degree of comfort with the tools and systems being used is required (e.g., discussion forums, chats, Powerpoint, Blackboard, etc.). And teachers should have first hand experience as online learners in order to understand how to be effective in an online environment. The latter two preconditions are most easily satisfied by providing training via an online course using the tools and systems they will be using when they teach.

What competencies do online teachers need?

While there is no commonly accepted standards (yet) for the skills and knowledge needed to teach online, here are some competencies that are closely aligned to the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) established by International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE):

  • n be proficient using the basic elements of online courses: email, threaded discussions, real-time conferencing (chats),
  • n  be able to describe the characteristics of successful distance learners,
  • n  be able to describe techniques for effective online teaching,
  • n  be able to evaluate the quality of online learning programs,
  • n  be able to explain the ethical and legal issues associated with online education,
  • n  be able to explain the accessibility issues associated with online education,
  • n  be able to describe strategies for integrating online and classroom instruction.

These competencies are over and above the ability to determine the best way to use online teaching for a given subject and student and in addition to the personality characteristics mentioned earlier Why would anyone want to teach online? The other side of the coin is how to convince teachers to try teaching online. Here are some of the benefits that may entice teachers:

  1. n    convenience of when and where they teach,
  2. n    more individual contact with students,
  3. n    challenge of trying something new,
  4. n    wealth of online materials available, and a
  5. n    safer and less anxiety-producing teaching environment.

In some cases, teachers are paid a supplement for online teaching and this is a financial incentive. In addition, teachers may be interested in learning to teach online because they feel that it will increase their career opportunities. Online teaching strategies Certain teaching strategies are associated with effective online courses:

  • n     student-centered activities,
  • n     facilitation and moderating,
  • n     problem-based learning,
  • n     collaborative learning, and
  • n     peer evaluation.

While some teachers may be familiar with, and use these methods in their classroom teaching already, for many teachers these are new approaches they need to learn. However, before they can use them well in online teaching, they need plenty of opportunity to practice the strategies – another function of online teacher preparation classes. Facilitation (i.e., getting students to interact with each other and the content) is probably the most important strategy that online teachers need to employ (Collison et al, 2000; Salmon, 2000).

Online teaching effectiveness

The following behaviors are associated with effective online teaching:

  • n     providing timely and meaningful feedback,
  • n     creating learning activities that engage students,
  • n     keeping students interested and motivated,
  • n     ensuring students interact with each other, and
  • n     encouraging students to be critical and reflective.

These behaviors constitute criteria for evaluation of online teaching. For each behavior there needs to be a definition of minimal acceptable performance as well as exemplary performance. To assess online teaching effectiveness, these behaviors need to be evaluated during the delivery of online classes. Most existing teaching evaluation does not assess these kinds of factors. WorkloadOne well established fact of online teaching is that it takes a lot more time and effort than traditional classroom instruction. Some of the considerations associated with this factor include:

  • n     providing student feedback can be an open-ended task,
  • n     online courses are a 24/7 learning environment,
  • n     keeping up with technology requires a lot of time/effort,
  • n     teachers need to learn strategies to manage workload, and
  • n     teachers may want more compensation for online teaching.

The increased level of effort needs to be reflected in teaching loads and probably financial incentives. Burnout in online teaching is likely to be a bigger concern because of the extra workload.  Needless to say, the workload issue is likely to be a contentious one for teacher unions and school administration.

Online teachers need a lot of support

Both students and teachers need a lot of support in online courses. This support can include:

  • n    technical assistance,
  • n    administrative assistance,
  • n    instructional design assistance,
  • n    counseling, and
  • n    help for special needs.

While teachers should not be expected to provide these different types of support, they are usually the first contact that students make when they have problems. A well organized distance learning program will have properly trained staff to handle each of these types of support. For a good description of how frustrated students can get when adequate support isn’t available, see Hara & Kling (1999).

Completion of online training

Getting teachers to complete online training programs is difficult even under the best of circumstances. Reasons for non-completion include:

  • n  online teaching is not what they expected or not want they are interested in,
  • n the workload in an online class is too demanding for them and/or they lack the time management skills needed for online learning,
  • n  they are plagued by technical problems with their computer or internet connection that prevent them from participating fully, and
  • n  they are not encouraged to teach or learn online by their superiors, colleagues, or family.

In order to deliver successful teacher training, these issues must be addressed in the design of the program. Ironically, these are all the same issues that online teachers have deal with as well. They apply equally to teachers and students.

Making choices about technology use

Teachers and school administrators need to be able to address the following questions:

  • n When are online classes appropriate/inappropriate for a given subject, group of students, or school?
  • n When does it make sense to combine online and classroom learning?
  • n When should online technology be combined with other media (e.g., video or audio conferencing)?
  • n When is better to use technology in the classroom but not remotely?

These are not easy decisions to make considering the many factors to be taken into account (see Black, 2002). The important thing is that these kinds of questions are asked and discussed on a routine basis rather than just assuming that online courses are the right choice. It is critical that there be an open dialog between teachers and administrators (as well as parents) regarding technology use since all parties have different points of view.

Development of online teaching materials

The materials used in online courses can be provided or developed by teachers themselves. Even if they are pre-developed, teachers may want to customize or supplement them. Some of the considerations here are:

  • n    creating online materials is very time consuming and usually requires specialized design skills and use of authoring tools,
  • n    ownership (copyright) of materials usually resides with the institution not individuals, and
  • n    online materials need to be matched to curriculum standards and state/federal requirements (e.g., privacy of student records).

For these and many other reasons, it is probably unrealistic for teachers to develop their own online teaching materials, although there are certain aspects, such as lesson plans or student handouts that may be done by teachers themselves. There are extensive collections of course materials available online that teachers should become familiar with during their training and encouraged to use in their teaching activities.


While almost all teachers who teach online must have appropriate state certification for the subject area and grade level they teach, this certification does not specifically cover online classes. Given the additional competencies and considerations outlined above, many organizations that offer online courses require that teachers have specific online teaching qualifications – usually fulfilled by taking their own training program. This can be frustrating for experienced online teachers who want to teach for multiple institutions, each of which requires its own certification. Another aspect of this issue is when teachers teach online courses with students in states that they are not certified for. What is needed is a widely accepted set of national standards (like ISTE NETS) that all certification programs are tied t

Research Needed

While we know quite a lot about online learning, there is relatively little research about online teaching. In particular, issues such as how to assess online teaching abilities and what strategies work best for certain teaching situations aren’t well understood. Some examples of relevant research include Anderson et al. (2001) who propose three major online teaching roles, Rossman (1999) who describes successful facilitation techniques for asynchronous discussions, or Roblyer & Wiencke (2003) who propose a rubric to used to assess interactivity in an online class. A number of university faculty have published personal accounts of their online teaching strategies (e.g.. Furr, 2003; Morrison, 1997) and we need similar descriptions from K-12 teachers to provide the basis for research studies (i.e., collections of best practices). Achieving a better understanding of online teaching will allow us to design more effective online teacher trainin


In addition to all the issues just discussed, there are some practical considerations to be considered such as when the training should be offered, its duration, and costs. In most cases the training is offered shortly before a teacher is about to teach online and is usually 6-12 weeks in duration. However, this may not provide adequate time for teachers to acquire and practice the competencies involved. In fact, most teachers don’t fully appreciate and understand the complexities of online teaching until they have taught their first actual course, even if they have completed a thorough training program. Programs that involve a supervised practicum (teaching an actual course) are clearly a good idea. Costs for online teacher training programs vary widely, as well as who pays. In some cases teachers are paid to participate; in others they are expected to pay. The later includes the case where online teaching skills are obtained as part of a graduate degree program. When they are provided as required training by an institution, they are normally free to participants, sometimes with a stipend paid for completion. Ultimately, teachers may receive adequate training to teach online as part of their basic teacher preparation (i.e., at schools of education), however, this is not likely to be true within the near future.


This article is based upon presentations made by the authors at the NCREL Conference on Technology, Naperville, IL, June 2003. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent NCREL.

Deepa Singh
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