Confronting Challenges in Online Education

Beau Neal

With the dramatic increase in online education over the past two years, many teachers, administrators, and staff are confronting the specific challenges of not only managing a virtual classroom, but entirely virtual schools. The online format requires its own administrative strategy, curriculum development, instructional practices, and progress assessment. A common error that occurs in online education systems happens when leaders lean too heavily on the conventions of in-person learning environments and attempt to strictly maintain these practices virtually, rather than adjusting and adapting to the best practices of the online model. This is particularly applicable to K-12 education, as these grade levels often utilize more interactive, collaborative learning practices and hands-on activities than the higher education systems that incorporate more independent study and out-of-classroom work.

I’ve been teaching in online education systems since the beginning of my teaching career in 2013, and over that time I’ve been able to sort out several critical lessons in K-12 online classroom and instruction management, especially on the administrative side. Here they are:

1. Engagement: The nature of an online environment presents the challenge of ensuring that students remain engaged while being situated in front of a screen all day, rather than in a classroom with their peers. A key way to optimize the virtual format in order to increase engagement and prevent students from “zoning out,” is to consider a mixture of synchronous (i.e. live classes) and asynchronous work in order to maintain the feeling of a classroom environment while embracing the flexibility of the online format. Some schools that pivoted to fully online made the mistake of trying to have students sit in the virtual classrooms all day as they would in-person, but the online environment is not conducive to that style of learning, and students benefit from a mix of live classes and independent work online.

2. Administrative Tracking: Keeping track of student assignments, guardian-teacher communication, and classroom attendance is a large administrative task in in-person settings that can actually be eased through technology. Rather than taking in-person attendance, online systems can automatically track student logins to the online platform and assignment submissions. Furthermore, because of the physical distance, maintaining communication and assignment feedback with both guardians and students becomes even more critical in online education, and tracking that communication via an online platform allows both students and guardians to understand that the teacher is open and engaged, and not just an invisible voice from the other side of the screen.

3. Training: Current K-12 students are digital natives who have grown up with access to interactive technology platforms such as smartphones, computers, and tablets. As such, a situation arises in which the students are often more familiar, or more comfortable, with the technology interfaces being used than the teacher, creating a dynamic that can leave the teacher feeling that they do not hold the same leadership position that they typically would in a traditional in-person classroom setting. Therefore, providing adequate training to teachers on how to utilize and optimize the technological resources available to them is crucial. This is key not only in order to ease the stress and burden on teachers and maximize the educational opportunities presented through technology, but also because having a technology-adept teacher instills trust in the students, in turn making them more open and engaged in the online classroom.

4. Technological Support and Supply: Continued technological support is a fundamental element of administrative success in online education. Students and teachers not only need access to the appropriate technologies, but they also need access to swift replacements when that technology may break down. Also, providing consistent tech support for issues that arise for both students and teachers can be a small preventative effort that prevents much bigger roadblocks. Leaving students and teachers to troubleshoot technology issues severely detracts from time that could be spent on educational opportunities and can often make matters worse. Therefore, it is critical for any online education system to have technological supply and support established and readily available at all times.

5. Communication Management: The instantaneous nature of technology can lead to a shift in the demands and expectations on teacher feedback. As Dr. Terry Anderson explains, “Research on assessment in distance education shows that rapid feedback is important for both understanding and motivation to complete courses… but can lead to an unrealistic expectation by learners that teachers will provide instant feedback and assessment on submitted assignments.” Therefore, it is valuable for administrators and teachers to lay out clear timelines on what both students and guardians should expect in terms of feedback. While the turnaround time of feedback and other communications should be shortened in the online environment in order to maintain student engagement, a balance is critical in supporting teacher retention and commitment.

6. Consistency of Format: Developing a standardized online model significantly eases not only a transition from in-person to online education by minimizing confusion, but they also have been shown to improve a students’ ability to approach new content and engage with the online platform. For example, in a study published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, researchers noted that “From a student’s perspective, a common or standardized ‘look and feel’ is very attractive. The syllabus contains similar information; forums are designed similarly, assignments are located in the same position, course communication between instructor and student uses the same tools, and so on.”

7. Curriculum: When starting in an online format, it is essential to develop a curriculum specifically suited to the format. A combination of synchronous live classes and asynchronous work, as mentioned previously, opens up numerous opportunities for students to follow their independent interests and curiosities without losing any of the core content they receive in the classroom. Creating and curating a curriculum that allows for student choice is important when developing an online curriculum because it plays a key role in maintaining student engagement in learning in a virtual setting.

Overall, online education offers a number of resources that expand beyond what a classroom setting is capable of delivering., and appropriate administrative management is what allows online education systems to succeed in optimizing the learning opportunities presented by technology-based instruction.

About the author

Beau Neal is the CEO & Founder of SYS Education, an education technology company with a mission of empowering and supporting schools through cutting-edge tech and instructional support.

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