As virtual-school enrollments continue to climb nationwide–recent statistics suggest enrollment in K-12 online courses in the United States has exploded in the past year, increasing by as much as 50 percent in some states–school administrators are faced with an important question: how to prepare traditional educators for success when teaching in an online environment.

Looking to establish a running dialog about how to manage and improve online learning for students, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), one of the nation’s largest virtual public schools, has created a series of web-based discussions on the topic.

Called Virtual School Community of Practice (CoP) forums, the monthly online discussions are billed 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 [and] 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 how to motivate students enrolled in online courses–educators talked about the need for open and frequent communication with virtual-school students and parents. Other discussion points 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. Highlights include an archive of monthly forum sessions; threaded discussions on various topics related to online teaching; 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 resources. While the lion’s share of the money collected by FLVS will go toward supplying the bandwidth and resources for the online forums, part of the proceeds also will go to building 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.”

Topics planned for January and February include academic integrity, reading, and ELL strategies, organizers said. For more information, educators are encouraged to visit the forum’s web site: http://www.zebolearning.com/index.php/e_solutions/for_educators/training_options.html.