As virtual school enrollments continue to climb nationwide, school administrators are faced with an important question: How to prepare traditional teachers for success in an increasingly online world.

Looking to establish a running dialogue between online educators around the best ways to manage and improve online learning opportunities for students, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), one of the nation’s largest institutions of online learning, has come forward to sponsor a series of web-based discussions on the topic.

Called Virtual School Community of Practice (CoP) forums, organizers have billed the monthly online discussions as a way for educators to exchange best practice solutions and share professional insights about what it takes to build and sustain effective online learning communities.

This year, experts say, as many as 1 million students nationwide are enrolled, or will enroll, in online courses. And that figure is expected to climb by as much as 25 percent annually, said Julie Young, FLVS president and chief executive officer.

“Together as educators, we can best serve the needs of students by collaborating, sharing our intellectual knowledge through regular communications to ensure that online learning remains cutting edge and continues to meet the educational needs of students,” Young said. “Our hope is that through these regular online forums we will build upon a movement among online educators to exchange lessons learned on how to bring inventive strategies into education and keep today’s students engaged and challenged.”

Sixty online educators from 13 states participated in the inaugural CoP forum Nov. 20. During the program–which focused on motivating students enrolled in online courses–educators talked about the need for open and frequent communications with students and parents. Other topics included the use of interactive whiteboards, tutorials, motivational tactics, and effective feedback to ensure student success in the online classroom.

In addition to monthly sessions CoP members have access to the community’s web site, where they will find additional resources and networking opportunities in support of effective teaching.

Highlights include an archive of monthly forum sessions; threaded discussions on various topics related to online teaching; information resources and best practices and strategies; knowledge bases to which members can contribute; access to colleagues tackling similar challenges; a forum for research and implementation questions; and other opportunities for professional collaboration.

To participate in the program, educators must pay a fee of $200. The fee grants access to 10 webinars throughout the year, according to Young, as well as the companion web site and related online resources. While the lion’s share of the money collected by FLVS will go toward supplying the bandwidth and resources for the online forums, Young said, part of the proceeds also will go to building out new online courses, which will be available to virtual institutions using FLVS content nationwide.

FLVS educators will be active participants in the forum, Young said, but the CoP invites the insights and knowledge of veteran online instructors and novices alike.

“Having input from a variety of online leaders gives folks a melting pot to draw their ideas from,” she said. “Our goal is to be a community that is open to any educator. Regardless of where [educators] are in their journey to become better online teachers, we would encourage them to sign up.” Though still in its early phases, the forum already is attracting the attention of some of the nation’s leading voices for virtual instruction.

“One of the challenges with teaching is that teachers are often isolated within a classroom and want to share their instructional strategies that work, but are limited by the time, schedule, or structure in a traditional school day,” said Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning. “This is a great idea to support improving online teaching and increasing access to a professional community of online teachers.”

A second online forum on the topic of time-management strategies for online teachers is scheduled for Dec. 14. FLVS will host the forum, which will include experts from a range of virtual schools and online learning programs.

Additional topics for January and February include: academic integrity, reading, and ELL strategies, organizers said. Young said the topics for each program were chosen with the input of FLVS educators and clients.

For more information about the CoP, educators are encouraged to visit the web site at: http://www.zebolearning.com/index.php/e_solutions/for_educators/training_options.html.

Links:

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net/

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org/