7 signs of a great online teacher

Diallyo Diggs wasn't looking forward to his analytical tools class. The MBA student says he didn't have the mathematical background necessary to feel confident in the subject matter. Fortunately, his professor, Doug Guthe, took the time to set up office hours outside of class to help Diggs review the material.


"I ended up doing very well in the class," said Diggs, "and I know a big part of that was due to the extra help and attention Professor Guthe gave me."

It's a story you might expect to hear played out on campuses across the nation, except Diggs and Guthe weren't on a campus -- or even in the same room for that matter. You see, Diggs is an online student in the MBA@UNC program offered by the Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Guthe is an online professor for the program.

Qualities of effective online teachers

As Diggs discovered, the best online teachers don't simply check out at the end of a class period. Instead, they remain engaged and accessible to students whenever needed.

Academic research and education experts point to a set of best practices for teachers working in the virtual classroom. These indicate online teachers must not only embody characteristics you would expect to see in a traditional classroom, they must also be skilled at transforming an impersonal learning environment into an individualized education experience.

At the 14th annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning, Bill Phillips of the University of Central Florida presented his research. It underscored the need for online teachers to encourage active learning, provide prompt feedback and maintain high expectations among other characteristics. In addition, he said online teachers need to create "swift trust," which means exuding authority and gaining student trust from day one.

7 signs your online teacher is great

If you wonder whether your online instructor makes the grade as a great teacher, here are seven signs they may be an education superstar.

1. Remains active and involved throughout the course

Dr. Lawrence Ragan, a director at Penn State's World Campus, says that perhaps the most basic sign of a good online teacher is that they show up and teach. Writing for the Distance Education Report, Ragan concurs that this may seem to be stating the obvious. However, he asserts that some are under the mistaken impression online courses teach themselves and that instructors simply accompany students as they navigate the course materials.

Instead, Ragan says online learning should be as dynamic as the classroom experience. Online teachers should be available and engaged throughout the course to explain concepts, lead discussions and make adjustments as needed.

2. Engages with students on a personal level

While online education is convenient, it can also be impersonal. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching found fostering student engagement is one area in which the best online teachers excel. This engagement means not only interacting with students but also encouraging student collaborations. The JOLT study pointed out good teachers make creative use of videos, chats and other technological resources.

3. Has a good screen presence

According to Phillips, the best teachers use a variety of tools to develop an effective online persona. For DeLaina Tonks, the Director of Open High School of Utah, part of that persona is a good screen presence

"We like to see how they come across in a video screencast," said Tonks. "Are they approachable? Are they someone students will feel comfortable reaching out to and communicating with? Are they friendly?"

4. Build rapport with students

The JOLT study says building rapport with students is another hallmark of the best online teachers. Videos, such as those used at OHSU to preview the upcoming week, can be one way students can get to know their teacher. In addition, the study said rapport can be built through flexible deadlines and individualized feedback on coursework and activities.

5. Is accessible to students

Great online teachers are accessible to students both in and out of the classroom. At OHSU, teachers use a variety of methods to connect with their students.

"I personally use Twitter, Google chat and video, ecards, texting, online gaming such as chess, and phone calls to engage my students," said Emily Andersen, a 10th grade language arts teacher at the online public charter school.

6. Encourages intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning

The JOLT study placed an emphasis on the importance of stimulating intellectual development. Just as in a traditional classroom, the best teachers are the ones that make the subject matter come alive. According to JOLT authors, teachers should create a learning environment in which provocative questions are asked and engaging technology is utilized.

7. Is tech-savvy

Finally, great online teachers should know how to integrate interactive technology into their course.

"It is helpful when teachers make use of slides, multimedia learning tools, breakout rooms, etc. because it helps make the class much more engaging," said Diggs.

In addition, Ragan writes that online teachers should have access to the same technology that is required of students participating in the class. What's more, they should run through each aspect of the online course on their own to gauge the performance and functionality of the online coursework.

Great online teachers do more than just post questions to discussion boards and administer tests. The best of the bunch are able to keep students interested and involved in a way that rivals anything offered in a traditional classroom.

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