Across the nation, students are leaving their home school districts to attend online schools. These schools have something that public school districts simply don't and won't have: ad campaigns. To their credit, most of the advertising is pretty effective. It lures students away from their home schools with the promise of engaging, self-paced lessons in environments that are safe and supportive. Whether or not all of those claims are true is up for debate.
Innovative Teachers Take Note
School districts can offer online courses written by their own teachers or courses purchased through an outside provider. But just offering online courses doesn't guarantee that the program will be successful or the best option for your students. The most important quality of an in-district online program is the staff's ability to know their students personally, something that many online schools simply can't do. To have that, you need innovative teachers who will recognize the need for -- and make the effort to build -- authentic relationships through communication.
For these innovative teachers, one key to success is building a repertoire of tools that allow you to have authentic communication with your online students. There are two types of communication: one-way and two-way. Both are very important.
One-way communication serves two purposes. The first is to share information. The second is to reach out to students as a reminder that you're there. Many students (and their parents) will use this communication as a way to reach back to you.
You want to push information out often enough that students and parents get used to seeing it and even start looking for it. Once or twice a week is good. But don't settle for just one avenue of communication. Use in-course announcements, email newsletters, forum posts, automated voicemail messages (like PhoneVite), text messaging services (like Remind101), Twitter, and even video announcements (through a device-friendly site like Vimeo). However you handle the one-way communication, it's imperative to make sure that the information is getting to its destination. Don't assume that students will come to get it.
So how do teachers get the students to read those emails, watch the videos or follow on Twitter? There are ways to lead the horse to the water and make it easy for him to drink. Offer points (even a point or two can be a big motivator) for following on Twitter, signing up for Remind101, or watching a video. At the bottom of an email newsletter, offer points for responding to the email with an answer to a question, such as, "What's the best and worst part of taking a course online?"
In the traditional classroom, you'd never just stand in front to lecture every day. You lead class discussions. And there are times when you need to sit down with a student individually. This is where the authentic relationships are developed and maintained. The same need exists in an online course.
Emails are often the simplest way to communicate with students. But many students don't use email regularly. You can either require students to use email while enrolled in an online course (which I can tell you only works about half the time), or you can find another avenue to communicate.
Texting is usually a foolproof way to reach students individually. But most teachers aren't interested in using their personal cell phones to text students (or parents). A great alternative is to set up a Google Voice account. That allows you to send and receive individual (or group) texts to any number that can receive text messages.
Make sure your course includes a variety of forum discussions that allow students to engage with each other and with you. Some teachers like to sit back and observe the students as they participate in forums. But even in a classroom situation, it's the teacher's job to guide and stimulate meaningful conversation. The same should be true in an online class. Get in there and participate. It shows the students that you're part of the course, and that you care!
Set up a Skype account and hold weekly online office hours. Students can video conference or use the instant messaging window to communicate with you. Unlike the other forms of two-way communication, this one is guaranteed to happen in real time. For some students, this will be the only way they'll communicate with you.
Finally, never overlook the traditional power of face-to-face communication: parent-teacher conferences, one-on-one meetings with students, or conversations with guidance counselors, to name a few. In an online course, the humanizing power of facetime -- the original two-way communication -- can be the most effective way of connecting with your students.