The best practices in eLearning incorporate methods of delivery that create successful learning. While there may be similarities in teaching online with teaching in the classroom, far too often information from a classroom setting is only uploaded to the virtual learning platform. The student is left with a course to pursue on his/her own, with little direction, guidance, or collaborative learning. Theories of learning may not be addressed in the design of the online course, creating a gap in the delivery of information and the building of knowledge. While constructivist-learning theory gives students the opportunity to approach learning from what concepts they have already learned, the varied background of students will necessitate an easily accessible source for them to find answers they need. Online courses for K-12 grades must reach each of the students and their individual needs. Since eLearning is continuing to grow in these grades, it is important to have success sooner than later (Cavanaugh & Blomeyer, 2007). Virtual schools mostly target the higher grades, 9-12, offering remedial courses and advanced placement (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). Teachers need effective eLearning training and schools should require this before teachers become online teachers. Yet, it has been estimated that only 1% of teachers that teach online have been trained as such (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). Research has shown that K-12 online learning can be as effective as traditional classroom teaching (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). The most successful practices will reach the abilities of all students; those needing remedial help as well as those in advanced courses.
Effective online teaching will include the principles of effective classroom teaching that have been identified by Chickering and Gamson (1987) and include:
1. Encourage discussion between students and teachers,
2. Develop cooperation among classmates,
3. Encourage active learning,
4. Provide prompt feedback,
5. Encourage high expections,
6. Emphasize time,
7. Respect diverse learning (Bigatel, et. al, 2012).
However, when a course is taught online, three principles must be addressed which improve success. Teachers need to be socially active in the online learning environment; students should become part of the online learning community, and they must become fully engaged in the learning activities (Bigatel, et. al, 2012). There are several ways in which a teacher can connect with the learners in an online learning environment. In a study that analyzed the effectiveness of online teaching at the Michigan Virtual School, researchers found that successful teachers were those that went the extra mile to reach and interact with students, and maintain a presence (DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008). This necessitates that teachers of online courses be skilled in technology, which often requires training (DiPietro, et. al, 2008). The best teachers are those who enjoy technology and are willing to continue acquiring the skills as new technological advances are made for effective learning (Bigatel, et. al, 2012). Researchers also found that the Michigan Virtual teachers acknowledged that online teaching required a twenty-four hours a day flexibility, being available to answer questions posed by students in a timely manner, sometimes over the phone (DiPietro, et. al, 2008). Often this virtual, but real presence is translated into higher motivation from the students, who may have otherwise dropped out of the online course (DiPietro, et. al, 2008). When teachers are actively engaged with their online students, they can better identify students that are falling behind, or accelerating ahead. In fact, the Florida Virtual School, K-12 program, revised their school motto of “any time, any place, any path, any pace” with three tracks for successful completion – accelerated, standard, and extended (Clark, 2001, p. 13). This is an effective strategy, as it addresses the needs and learning styles of most students. Some students are ready to move at a faster pace, and yet others need more time. When a class is taught online, students who struggle can avoid the embarrassment they may experience in the classroom when they cannot keep up. Teachers can address these needs privately and students with learning disabilities can better progress. To meet these demands of becoming an effective online teacher, the Florida Virtual School, requires new teachers to attend a seminar and begin teaching online with monitoring and feedback from a mentor who is teaching the same course (Clark, 2001). In this way, the new teacher is learning as well as teaching. The teacher will have experiences not only as the teacher of an online course, but as one who is learning to navigate the virtual classroom. This is an important step to successful online teaching for many teachers that have never taught eLearning. Florida Virtual School has incorporated an assessment tool, where they solicit students’ responses at mid term and the end of the course (Clark, 2001). Surveys are embedded as part of the course, and student responses are studied to improve the overall online experience (Clark, 2001). If learning is to become a success online or even in the classroom, teachers and educational institutions must seek feedback from those needing or wanting to learn.
Christa McAuliffe Academy in Washington state has found success for its K-12 online learning program since it started in 1995 (Clark, 2001). They developed most of their courses, but also used those from Plato, NovaNET, and ChildU (Clark, 2001). One of the unique aspects of this virtual school, is that the students (or parents) choose their own teacher mentor, which is not usually an option in traditional schools (Clark, 2001). They have found that synchronous meetings with mentors has facilitated learning and added to their success (Clark, 2001). Once again, availability of teachers is important, but also the methods that the teacher takes to become involved in the learning process have impact. Synchronous meetings can fill the needs for reaching out to students that may not do so on their own.
Doering, Hughes, and Scharber described effective online teaching methods for social studies in K-12 online learning (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). Teachers have experience in various ways, augmenting their lessons in the classroom, utilizing online activities. Three categories are identified by Doering, et. al. (2007). The first being direct instruction from the Internet, such as that supplied by BrainPOP videos (BrainPOP, 2013). Second is active direct instruction which includes online courses where students direct their own pace with limited data; and the third is constructivist instruction where students direct their own pace and data, securing what information they need to analyze learning (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). This study addressed concerns where learning online could have been enhanced, if the students had been instructed to use reflective tools available on blogs, such as collaborative communication, reflective writing, commenting, and co-authoring blogs (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). Adventure Learning is a learning theory for social studies that takes advantage of a hybrid online learning environment and provides for opportunities to connect and explore real world issues (Cavanaugh, et. al, 2007). Students interact with researchers who travel to a place with a known issue. These excursions are shared online with students synchronously (LT Media Lab, n.d.). For example, the team of researchers explored a remote area of the Arctic region, revealing to students online, the culture of this area in an adventure learning called, GoNorth! 2007 Chukotka (LT Media Lab, n.d.).
Bigatel, P., Ragan, L., Kennan, S., May, J. & Redmond, B. (2012). The identification of competencies for online teaching success. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(1), 59-77. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=82846343&site=eds-live
BrainPOP. (2013). Social Studies. Retrieved from www.brainpop.com
Cavanaugh, C., & Blomeyer, R. L. (2007). What works in K-12 online learning. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.
Clark, T. (2001). Virtual Schools Trends and Issues. Retrieved from http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/virtualschools.pdf
DiPietro, M., Ferdig, R., Black, E., Preston, M. (2010). Best practices in teaching K-12 online: Lessons learned from Michigan Virtual School teachers. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 9(3), 10-35. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=55383105&site=eds-live
L.T. MediaLab. (n.d.). Earth Education. Theory into practice. Retrieved from http://lt.umn.edu/earthducation/theoryIntoPractice.html