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Strong communication key to online learning

Traditional colleges and schools of education will need to develop programs for virtual school teacher preparation.

Teaching in an online environment isn’t the same as teaching in a traditional classroom, and online instructors need special skills and approaches to be successful. For example, communication can pose a challenge in online-learning environments, because online educators can’t rely on visual cues as their colleagues can in bricks-and-mortar schools. Now, a new research brief from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) looks at this challenge in greater detail, examining how successful programs and teachers are ensuring effective communication.

The report, called “Examining Communication and Interaction in Online Teaching,” reviews existing research and what it has to say about the keys to successful online instruction. It also reviews various policies and practices for communicating with students and parents during an online course, and it looks at the delivery model, course development, pacing, communication methods, and teacher requirements for 10 leading online-learning programs.

Owing to the rapid growth in online schooling and the current environment of accountability surrounding K-12 education today, traditional colleges and schools of education will need to develop programs for virtual school teacher preparation, because “although online teaching shares much in common with traditional face-to-face instruction, it has its own unique set of skills and requirements,” says the report.

“While most universities and colleges have established programs to prepare their faculty to teach online,” the report adds, “school systems are just beginning to address this need.”

To help virtual educators and schools of education, iNACOL, with the endorsement of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), recently issued the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, which are guidelines that form a research-based framework for effective online teaching. These standards are based on SREB’s earlier work, as well as standards from the National Education Association, Ohio Department of Education, and Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

iNACOL’s report also discusses four main skills or duties that every online teacher must have or perform, based on a review of existing research:

1. Be able to facilitate interaction: Teachers must use eMail, frequent telephone conversations, and collaborative tools, such as threaded discussions and synchronous chats, to closely connect with students. When done correctly, online teaching actually “enables more individualized attention than is actually possible in the traditional classroom,” says the report. “Such an effective teacher would be seen as a motivator, a guide, a mentor, and a listener.”
2. Be highly responsive: Effective online teaching practices must include quickly responding to student and parent inquiries. The report says developing a disciplined approach to “keeping the lines of communication open” is a part of the daily routine of a successful online teacher.
3. Know web-based technologies: Teachers must know, and be skilled at using, web-based technologies that offer students opportunities for collaborative learning. Online-learning environments, through the use of web-based tools, “…can offer a more active, constructive, and cooperative experience than classroom learning,” says the report. “In addition to traditional teaching attributes and teaching with digital content, virtual school teachers need to be proficient at helping children acquire a skill set [that] includes autonomous learning and self-regulation.”
4. Be trained in both synchronous and asynchronous instruction: Synchronous instruction brings teachers and students together simultaneously in virtual spaces, which “implies that virtual teachers need to become skillful at using chat room and collaborative software,” says the report. Asynchronous instruction may be delivered without any specific timetable, “requiring teachers to become knowledgeable about offering postings online and discussion boards.”

Online-learning communication policies

Besides looking the basic skills that online teachers should have, iNACOL also conducted a survey to see what communication practices and policies help shape a successful online school.

iNACOL surveyed 108 virtual schools about their communication practices and policies and received 81 responses. Responding institutions represented the full range of online-learning environments–national virtual-school organizations such as K12 and Connections Academy, state-level virtual schools, district-level schools, and individual schools (charter, independent, and public).

The survey asked about three types of communication policies: communication between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, and from student to student.

Eighty-four percent of respondents said they have at least one of these types of policies in place, and 41 percent said they have all three. While 80 percent of respondents indicated that they had policies in place regarding the kind or amount of teacher communication with students, only 53 percent reported having policies in place regarding the amount and content of teacher communication with parents, and 58 percent had policies in place regarding student-to-student communication.

Most policies regarding teacher-student communication covered both the frequency and the content of the contact, with 85 percent having policies about the frequency of contact via eMail, 77 percent having policies regarding frequency of contact by phone, and 54 percent having policies regarding frequency of contact through discussion forums.

The requirements for the frequency and methods of contact between teachers and students varied widely, the report said: Some online-learning programs expected a minimum of twice a month, others once a week, and others daily. Some required that this contact take place by phone, but for others the modes of contact included eMail, discussion forums, and synchronous platforms, and most schools require their teachers to use more than one of these methods. Although some policies do not stipulate the precise frequency of contact (simply indicating that it is expected to be “regular”), most required that teachers respond to students’ questions within a specific time frame–generally 24 hours. Most also required teachers to get in touch with their students within one or two days of enrollment.

Online-learning programs tend to require more frequent contact with younger students. In terms of the content of the contact, this generally included wording that requires teachers and students to treat each other with respect, use appropriate language, have positive attitudes, and so on. This was often spelled out in the school’s acceptable-use or “netiquette” policies.

In many schools, teachers are required to speak to parents regularly to review student progress, but the frequency varies widely. According to iNACOL, having multiple methods of disseminating policy information to parents is important, because “relying exclusively on digital distribution for parents is particularly risky. … There is no guarantee that parents have access to the technology. Those schools with written communication policies seem to understand and follow this rationale by indicating that they use multiple methods, both printed and online, to disseminate information to teachers, parents, and students.”

Practices and delivery

iNACOL’s research brief also gives educators a glimpse into what instructional and communication practices work best for a wide variety of virtual schools, including the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in Canada; the Florida Virtual School in Orlando, and the Clark County School District’s Virtual High School in Las Vegas.

“Virtual schools use a variety of ways in which to structure and deliver educational opportunities to their students,” explains the report. “However, little is known about which of these are more or less effective in what specific contexts. Due to the localized findings, research is needed in a variety of locations with a variety of virtual and cyber schools.”

In summary, here’s what the report found:

– For content delivery, most schools rely on asynchronous technology to facilitate flexible scheduling and pacing, “enhanced by blending synchronous technology or face-to-face meetings in a few cases.”

Course development is predominantly accomplished at the local school level, with a few schools contracting with content vendors.

Pacing typically follows a traditional school calendar, often with suggested pacing guidelines. Only a few schools operate under open schedules and paces.

The role of the instructor is multifaceted, meaning that instructors must facilitate instruction using the school’s synchronous and/or asynchronous technology, as well as provide tutoring to students, lead discussions, and evaluate student activities.

– For communications, most online schools use course discussion forums and eMail as the primary methods of student-teacher communication, says the report, “with many schools requiring an asynchronous text-based form of communication in courses.” Some schools also require phone communication or other synchronous communication.

– For teacher requirements, all schools require teacher certification and most require teachers to have a minimum amount of teaching experience and online teaching preparation. Only one of the 10 programs surveyed requires online teaching experience, however.



“Research Committee Issues Brief: Examining Communication and Interaction in Online Teaching” (PDF)

National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (PDF)

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