Jul 04 2012

5 Tips for Going the Distance

Take online learning to new levels by following these educators' recommendations.

Adding online or distance learning courses to the mix can be disconcerting to teachers and principals who are used to face-to-face interaction. Here are some pointers.

Dispel the misconceptions. Many school administrators are likely to have uninformed or misguided opinions about online and distance education. Some may believe that the approach is subpar to traditional classroom-based teaching and that students aren't able or willing to learn successfully on their own.

"One of the key reasons I think our efforts took off relatively smoothly is because we did the hard work of communicating with our school principals in the district right from the start and defined for them what we were and what we were not," says Judy Bauernschmidt, director of student online learning for the 21st Century Virtual Academy, the online learning entity within Colorado's Jefferson County (Jeffco) Public Schools system.

Make sure technology follows academics. Consult teachers and curriculum and academics personnel early on so they can provide input on academic goals and requirements and experiment with the different technologies before a final purchase is made, says Thomas Brenneman, executive director of technology for Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools. "Having that acceptance and continuity throughout the process makes your chances for success a whole lot higher," he says.

Use your best teachers. Don't place underperforming or new teachers into distance and online classes. Coming up with lesson plans and connecting with students in an online or distance learning course requires experience. Teachers must have classroom management and instructional skills, as well as charisma, commitment, an open attitude and an ability to quickly spot student learning or commitment issues. In this environment, "top classroom teachers become superstars," Brenneman says.

But further development often is needed. Jeffco offers online certification for its teachers and ongoing professional development. KCPS, meanwhile, has created a mentoring program and organizes summer practice sessions so its teachers can test out new approaches among their peers.

Don't lose touch. It's important for students to have someone to call on for help when they need it so they can stay involved in their school. There are many ways schools do this.

KCPS, for example, has an assistant in each of its distance learning laboratories to serve as additional hands and eyes for the instructor and to provide direct aid for students struggling with the material. Millis High School in Massachusetts has an online coordinator to keep tabs on independent learners, intervene if there's an issue, and act as a liaison between students and nondistrict online teachers.

Keep students involved. Even though they're learning on their own time, students should still feel like they are part of the overall student body. Even full-time 21st Century Learning Academy students can go on field trips and attend orientation and other school functions within the Jeffco system. The school also employs community liaisons who connect with students, provide spaces for students to collaborate and handholding for families as they try to acclimate to life in an online school.

Join us on April 16, 2013 for a webinar focusing on outside-the-box thinking and innovative technologies that drive schools’ successful distance learning programs. Learn more and register here.


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