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K-12 Online Programs Need Teacher Training, Teambuilding

A panel of educators on Thursday said professional development and putting technology at the center of instructional design are two important aspects of building successful online learning programs.

An open laptop sitting on a desk that says "online learning" on the screen. Resting on the keyboard are a pair of glasses. There is a smartphone and a pen holder filled with pens and pencils on the desk to the right of the laptop. To the left is a closed leather-bound notebook with a pen resting on top of it. Blurred background.
Over the nearly four years since COVID-19 forced schools to shift to emergency remote learning, K-12 students and educators have grown accustomed to online and hybrid learning models and the ed-tech tools that facilitate them. But to refine and expand their online programming moving forward, school districts need instructional design teams who will embrace change and provide professional development training for teachers, according to a webinar Thursday hosted by the Digital Learning Collaborative, a professional organization that shares best practices for online education.

According to Holly Brzycki, a supervisor of online learning at Capital Area Online Learning Association (CAOLA), online learning options have become a staple of K-12 education as schools continue to digitize instruction and make use of learning management systems that have improved their content offerings and user-friendliness in recent years. However, she said having instructional design teams and staff leaders who can use LMS tools to their full effect can make or break the success of an online program.

“Too often, I see a program not running as smoothly as it could due to the person in charge [being] a very busy person … or they have lots of other jobs. They can’t concentrate on online learning,” she said. “It’s very key that whoever you have on your team believes in online learning, believes in its possibilities, and wants to help that goal move forward. It really makes a difference between making a successful program and not.”

Nartarshia Sharpe, dean of students at Crossroads FLEX High School, North Carolina’s first hybrid-learning high school, said that that’s exactly the team Crossroads had when they launched in 2016. She said that in the years since, the school has worked to cultivate a culture of innovation among instructors and staff who are eager to make use of new tools. She said educators there also make use of data analytics to evaluate their students and augment lesson plans.

“It was crucial that we had teachers on staff who were willing to take some opportunities to take some chances and take some risks with their curriculum and their classrooms, and be open to doing things differently,” she said. “We’re making sure that our students still have a face-to-face connection with the teacher, also engaging with their peers in the classroom. … We look for teachers who are going to be flexible and who are willing to look into technology, and we stress, when we’re looking for teacher candidates, that tech tools only enhance learning. They are not the teacher.”

Sharpe said that when it comes to professional development, it’s important to learn what has and hasn’t worked at other schools and online programs, as well as to stay on top of the research about digital learning pedagogy.

“Being the first hybrid high school in North Carolina, in our district we recognized that we had to provide support and training for our teachers. Our district had not done that before. We leaned on our district to do some research, to do some digging for us and to help us integrate training for our teachers here at our school,” she said. “When the pandemic came, it was quite helpful because they were then able to share [best practices] with all of the other K-12 schools as well.”

Brzycki added that professional development training for online and hybrid teachers will have to be continuously updated to account for changes in curriculum and technology in the years to come.

“Think through how you are evaluating online teachers. What are you looking for? How are you holding them to standards that should be addressed through the curriculum?” she said. “Make sure your teachers are continually getting professional development — not just a one and done, or [learning] where you click to put in a grade, but how to be a better online teacher that is engaging. … [Make sure] there’s a lot of training and how to make them feel comfortable with your LMS or the curriculum.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.