Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Standards for Online Teaching: Do they really tell us what a great teacher is?

By Mark T. Burke

I want everyone to try a little experiment.  Grab a coloring book.  Yes, a coloring book. Borrow one of your kid's or go out and buy one.  Remember to get crayons or markers too.  Now grab some type of timing device, a stop watch, clock, etc.  Pick one of the pages and make a copy (we'll use the copy later), start the timer and begin coloring.  Oh, and make sure you can't see the timer while you're coloring....and make sure it doesn't make a tic-toc sound, we aren't in the final round on Jeopardy.

When you're satisfied with your work, stop the timer, record your time and admire the results.  Place your creation in a location where no one else can see it. Now, recruit a friend, give them the copy of the same picture and have them complete the same process.  After they finish, tell them to stop the timer, record their time and bring their creation to you. Now compare the times for both.  Compare the pictures.  Are they exactly the same?  Most likely not.  Is one picture more vibrant than the other?  Maybe.  What about the times?  Did one of you take considerably longer than the other?  Why?  It's the same picture.  Why would it take one person longer than the other?  Did you both stay within the lines? Come on, be honest here!

This little experiment demonstrates how I think about the standards for online teaching.  The standards are represented by the black and white lines on the coloring book page.  The standards provide the guidelines to "stay within."  Like the coloring book, if we stay within the guidelines of the online teaching standards, the end result will resemble what the expected outcome should be. For our coloring book page, we should have a creation that's more pleasing to look at with added color and details. For online teaching, following the standards should result in successfully helping kids.

Just like our experiment though, the guidelines leave a ton of room for interpretation.  Look back at the two pictures created by you and your friend.  They are most likely very different.  The nuances are different, the use of color is different.  In fact, one of your pictures may be beautiful while the other one could even be...ugly!

Now I am not saying we don't need standards.  Having standards for everything now-a-days has become...well...standard.  I actually think standards do help us.  They aren't intended to set "minimum requirements." Standards give us the "buckets" we should be filling across areas of our profession.  Before we go further, what are the standards for online teaching?

One group has surfaced as the true leader in online teaching standards.  

SREB:  Standards for Quality Online Teaching

The SREB standards have also been adopted as the iNACOL standards as well, found here in their own guide and scoring document.

I confess.  When I read the standards and look at the documents, I cringe a bit.  These documents make teaching online sound cold and calculated.  The "score" column in the iNacol document could be talked about for hours by itself.  But those are different topics for different days.

I cringe because I believe if we take these documents literally, teaching becomes mechanical.  Our experiment proves that even with guidelines, the end results of two different people can be dramatically different.  These documents leave out the ART added through the skills of the professional online educator.

So what's missing and how can we fill that gap?  There are a few areas that I think really need to be brought out more and emphasized.

First:  A great online teacher will LIVE the life of an online teacher.  The true art of online teaching is how well teachers integrate their skills, outlined well in the standards but not tied together all so clearly.  How do they exemplify this skill.  It boils down to their openness in all communications, keeping communications flowing naturally through various means (email, electronic publishing, telephone, chat, social media etc).  Yes, I believe great online teachers embrace and live the life of a professional, online, openly sharing and communicating WITHOUT prompting.  They do so to and with their students, fellow teachers, school administrators and colleagues at large.  Great online teachers are "out and about" on the web, not hidden behind their computers just treating online teaching as a second job, or a checklist of things to be done.

Second:  A great online teacher needs only advice, not constant pushing to learn new things.  A colleague of mine says it well.  "Teachers should be able to teach themselves."  I agree.  Being a great online teacher means being a self motivated learner who willingly and eagerly learns new things. An online teacher should never have to be told twice to learn a new piece of software, or how to establish communications with students and staff.  In fact, as an administrator, I expect to be pushed BY the online teachers on our team.  I want them sending me things every day regarding how new applications are helping the education of kids or links to blogs that provide great professional development opportunities.  The desire to learn and the desire to teach should be so strong that they form a cycle where no start and stop point can be detected.

Third:  A great online teacher should replace the need for a marketing team.  I know this will be controversial and maybe I am being a bit too blue sky here.  My point is that great online teachers should take the opportunity to help kids everywhere, any time.  To do so, they will go out and recruit and seek opportunities to help students.  Online teachers have significant differences from brick and mortar teachers, and this area demonstrates a BIG difference.  The bell doesn't ring in an online school, automatically releasing students from their previous class and sending them off to another.  The mentality of "the bell will ring and the kids will come" is NOT present in great online teachers.  Successful online teachers think about DRAWING students to their class.  Bells push kids toward classrooms.  Great online teachers act like magnets, attracting students to their classes.  For sure, all great online academies can only be successful if the teachers are part of the draw to bring students in, to form the learning community and to help students reach their dreams.

Do standards really tell us what a great online teacher is?  They give us the foundation, the "buckets" as I mentioned above, to fill.  What I've outlined here will help fill the gaps between just "meeting the standards" and creating an incredibly dynamic instructional team.

What traits should online teachers demonstrate?  Are you an online teacher?  How have you used the standards to help you in your efforts?

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