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Building a Successful In‐District Online Program

Jennifer Sayre

Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant
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Online education programs are growing at a startling rate. In 2009, there were 4.5 million college students enrolled in online courses. This year, that number will hit 19 million. So it is no surprise that school districts are tackling the daunting task of building their own online programs. In The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan writes, "It is time -- past time -- for education to evolve again." It is no longer an option but a necessity for high schools to offer courses online -- not only to retain students but to ensure that they are college‐ready.

It is time to embrace the moment, because online education is here to stay.

Here is some advice for beginners from someone who has lived through the experience.

5 Tips for Administrators

1. Build It with the End in Mind

When you're looking to design your own courses, employ teachers who know the content and are tech‐savvy. Provide them with professional development before they even begin designing the course. Pay them as much of a stipend as the district can afford. Then, when you're ready for students, use teachers interested and experienced in online learning (ideally the ones who designed the courses). Disgruntled teachers who don’t do a good job will start a domino effect that no one will like. Understand that design is an art that takes time and energy. And just like in the classroom, there has to be constant monitoring, reflection and revision of the curriculum. So you need people who know what they're doing and have the passion to do it right.

2. Give Online Teachers a Leader (and Voice)

Think department facilitator. Find someone who has experience with online learning -- at minimum, someone who is organized, patient and communicates clearly. Make sure this person is a leader and respected by his or her peers. Include him or her in your planning and decision making. The online teachers will feel like they have ownership in the program and will appreciate a go-to person who is not an administrator. You'll be glad to have a filter for the daily issues that inevitably arise.

3. Be Realistic About Schedules

Education is not one size fits all. Offering online courses shows that you recognize and understand this. Create job descriptions and course loads that allow your teachers to fit into the role. Don’t expect one teacher to be able to handle your entire high school math curriculum. That wouldn’t even be considered in the classroom setting. Looking at the amount and content of courses, determine a practical number of students that a teacher can handle. Don’t drown them in students -- the students' and the teachers' experiences will be miserable, the program will look bad, and you’ll start out with a reputation that will be hard to fix.

4. Develop an Online Policy

Review other districts' online policies before making one of your own. Include teachers in the process. Then follow your policy and update it annually. If you set caps on attendance, stick to them. If you have an inactivity policy for students who don't work, enforce it. Whatever you decide, follow it as closely as possible for the first year. Think of it as a student handbook. A clear, equitable policy will make any difficult decisions easier later on.

5. Support Your Students and Teachers

Check in with your teachers and listen to them. Modify as needed. Despite stereotypes, online teaching is very challenging, and even the best classroom teachers will struggle. It can feel lonely and secluded when their students aren’t sitting in front of them every day. The logistics of meeting expectations can be mind‐numbing. Recognize this and be empathetic. Establish support systems for the teachers. For example, create a space in your building where students can work online. Put someone in the room who can monitor the technology and the students, as well as offer support. If your online teachers are responsible for students in multiple buildings within your district, an online room monitor can also be a liaison between the teacher and the students.

5 Tips for Course Designers

1. Talk with Students, Not at Them

Build communication into your course. Include step-by-step directions. Create video instructions. Provide examples. Explain to and show the students how to do everything. Make sure they know how and when to communicate with you, and give them choices. Build in forums -- help forums, getting to know you forums, collaborative activities -- for communicating with you and with each other.

2. Let Them Work Together

What do students do online in their free time? Collaborate. It may not be about Shakespeare's sonnets or the Pythagorean theorem, but they're constantly communicating with each other and working together. So why remove that component from online courses? Build workshops and use forums. It won't require you to learn something new. Even if you’re using an LMS that doesn't include these tools, there are tons of free sites and programs that are available. Use Google Apps, Moodle, Forums, Toonti, Collaboratize Classroom or Edmondo, to name a few.

3. Make It Interesting and Engaging

Give the students variety, choices and challenge. Don't throw a bunch of worksheets or Word documents in an LMS and call it an online course. If you build a course that requires nothing but busywork, they'll be bored and won't learn much, and you'll go crazy with all of the grading. Think projects and big ideas. Get creative. The students will be more engaged, and you'll feel more fulfilled as a teacher.

4. Revisit, Revise, Redo

You're finished designing your course -- but it's not done. Just like in the classroom, you have to reflect and adapt. Fixing links, updating assignments and clarifying directions are just some of an online teacher's continual tasks. Learn a new web 2.0 tool? Incorporate it. Finding that students do poorly on a particular quiz? Fix it. The first few times that students take your online course, don’t be surprised if you find a lot that needs changing. Even with the courses you're most proud of, you'll need to change things once students are enrolled. Knowing that ahead of time will make it easier to swallow while delivering the course.

5. It's OK to Get Professional Help

Though you may feel totally alone as an online teacher, you're not. Teachers across the nation have struggled through what you’re doing. Network. There are online communities and non-profits specializing in professional development for online educators. Regardless of whether you're a beginner or a veteran online teacher, you'll be amazed at how much you can learn from others.

Please share your experiences of building or teaching an online course in the comments section below.

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

LesliewithGAVS's picture
Social Media Specialist for Georgia Virtual School

Great article and good tips to follow. If teachers are also looking to gain more skills in teaching online, we have just launched a professional development program where they can do so-casually, or more seriously, in order to earn badges. The #eteacherTOOL is open to everyone-ck it out

Jennifer Sturge's picture
Jennifer Sturge
Technology Integration Specialist, Calvert County Public Schools

Thanks for the great article. It was extremely helpful and informative. In the article, you mention online communities and non-profit organizations that can be of help to districts. I am wondering....can you share the names of the resources that you used to give me more of an idea of where to turn for help from a non-profit or community? THANKS!

Jennifer Sayre's picture
Jennifer Sayre
Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant

In Ohio, we have several organizations that can help with PD and networking (ITSCO, eTech Ohio, ODE). You're in Maryland, right? It might be good to check with your state's Department of Education to see if they have any support systems in place.
I also met many other teachers through PD offerings by Quality Matters. Quality Matters is the best PD I've ever had -- and I didn't know about until I had been teaching for 8 years. They offer PD courses that teachers/administrators can take (on-site and online).
As a district, we've also put out feelers to other local districts to see how they handle online courses so we can collaborate with them. We've gone on site visits to see what they're doing and have hosted many here. That can be tough if you're ahead of the game, though.
Even though the idea of online is not new, it can be challenging to find other teachers who are going through the same struggles. You have to actively look for them and try to develop a collaborative relationship.
I hope this helps! Good luck!

Jennifer Sayre's picture
Jennifer Sayre
Online Teacher Leader from Hilliard, Ohio and Sayre Online Solutions, LLC Consultant

Looks like a great resource! I've not heard of #eteacherTOOL before, but I plan to sign up. It seems like the information is applicable to all levels of online teaching. That's huge, because most of what's out there is targeted at teachers and students in the post-secondary setting. If the program is as good as it seems, I'll definitely share it with our online teacher team! Thanks for sharing, LesliewithGAVS!

LesliewithGAVS's picture
Social Media Specialist for Georgia Virtual School

Thanks Jennifer! I agree, there is so much out there for virtual teaching when it comes to higher learning, but it's often tough to find the right resources for K-12 teachers to get PD on this subject. We are hoping that the TOOL will help fill that gap. We hope you will join and give us your thoughts-we'd love to have them. If you need any more information, or would like to talk to one of our program directors any further about the program, please don't hesitate to email me directly, and I can put you in touch. leslie.houck(at) #eteacherTOOL

Pawelwilliams's picture

Thanks for sharing this useful tips with us. Its really useful. I will definitely follow all your tips.

Sai sree's picture

Great Article and the tips.
We are trying to teach using online tools to graduate students as we also feel that "Education is not one size fits all." Check our teachings at and give us your inputs.

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