Online education and its benefits—or challenges—are often discussed by school administrators, superintendents and politicians. It’s very rare that we get the point-of-view of the individuals on the front lines—teachers educating students.
FuelEducation recently had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth Kamerzel, M.Ed., a teacher who works exclusively with online students. Prior to beginning her career in online learning, Elizabeth taught in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, and welcomed the opportunity to discuss what she perceived to be the differences.
This is what Elizabeth shared with us:
FuelEducation: What has the experience been like educating students online? How is this different from the experience teaching in-person in brick-and-mortar classrooms?
Elizabeth: I started in this field almost seven years ago, after earning my bachelor's in English from Princeton University and my master's in education from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
I was hired by a nearby rural public school. Right away—while it was clear that I had chosen the right profession—it was obvious that being a classroom teacher had some serious pitfalls.
I kept asking myself, why am I spending so much time covering things that are going to be on a state test when I need more time to cover this other subject material? Why are my classes so crowded? Why do I feel like I am spending more time on discipline and classroom management than actually teaching?
After a year—although the school wanted to keep me on—I was laid off due to budget cuts. While contemplating my future, I saw an advertisement looking for online teachers.
I’ve found the job as an online educator both freeing and challenging. Freeing, because being an online educator, I get the opportunity to be only a teacher. I’m less of a disciplinarian and get to focus more time on actual instruction. In the traditional classroom environment, I had to juggle teaching with discipline and other duties. Getting students in a traditional classroom to pay attention in the first place takes a significant amount of time.
The challenging aspect is—since you’re physically removed from the students—it takes more effort to build up a rapport and trust with your students. And things are always changing in the online world. It’s never stagnant. There are always new platforms being developed and new courses being added, and you need to get up to speed quickly.
As far as the workload goes, I have quite a few students I am responsible for, similar to a traditional classroom. However, if you get a rhythm going and get acclimated, there’s no reason to feel spread thin. In fact, my experience has been the opposite.
I feel like I’ve made deeper, more long-lasting connections with the students I teach online. Because it takes more work and time to get to know your online students, I feel the connection is deeper. I keep in touch with and follow the academic careers of my students more than many traditional teachers.
FuelEducation: What benefits do you feel online education delivers to the student?
Elizabeth: Online learning is absolutely student-focused—unlike traditional learning, which is completely class-focused. In a traditional classroom, you need to move everyone along at the same pace. Online, if students master material faster, they can work ahead. If they’re behind, they can take more time with the material. And regardless of where they are, the teacher is there for them.
Working online, students have 24/7 access to course material and to a teacher. If a student works better at 8 PM than at 8 AM, they can do that. Not everyone is wide awake at 6 AM.
Also, it’s a safer environment for many students. Bullying is an issue and a reality for many students. Bullying in online learning is virtually nonexistent. I’ve had many students tell me that if online learning wasn’t available, they would be stuck in a traditional classroom and be miserable.
FuelEducation: Are there certain students that benefit more from online education? Why do these particular students benefit from online learning?
Elizabeth: Any student who has had difficulty with paying attention in class or comprehending course material can certainly benefit. It’s a calmer, less threatening environment for students who have struggled socially in school, as well.
Self starters will most likely have an easier time with it, to be completely honest. But even students who have a problem with motivation can benefit. Taking an online course can teach them to be self motivated.
I teach credit recovery classes, among others. One of the biggest hurdles initially is showing these students that they need to be responsible for their schedule and progress. At first, there is resistance. But once they realize that they have to do these things—and they have the power to do these things—they become more motivated.
FuelEducation: What benefits do you feel online education delivers to the teacher?
Elizabeth: It’s never boring. In order to connect with students and drive the material home, you have to be creative. There are also so many new tools that appear and are integrated into the job.
I really do believe that you get closer to your students. You’re teaching them as individuals and getting to know them as individuals. This can be difficult in brick-and-mortar because you’re dealing with a whole class.
I also have the most helpful colleagues. There’s a bond between online teachers. There’s a, “we’re in this together,” mentality. The online teachers are a support group for each other. Someone is always asking or offering to help. It’s a new experience, but we approach it as a team and get things done.
I’m closer and friendlier with my colleagues online than I ever was with my colleagues at my brick-and-mortar school. Although, I do physically see them less.
FuelEducation: Does it require any special capabilities, skills or experience to be an online teacher? What traits do online teachers need that traditional teachers don’t? How does one prepare to become an online teacher?
Elizabeth: You have to be ultra comfortable with constantly learning new things and material. In public schools, there are still chalkboards and decades-old textbooks. With online learning, everything is always changing and evolving.
Since starting as an online teacher, I’ve had to learn new things—from course materials to technology platforms. You need to be able to learn quickly and need to be comfortable with technology.
In the online world, you need to have an incredible enthusiasm for your subject matter. You have that screen separating you and the student. If you’re over the moon about the subject that you teach, it’s going to make it easier to learn. That may be important in traditional schools, but it’s not as essential.
Last but not least, you have to excel at wordsmithing and effective communication. So much of your communication with students is via email, chat programs and other online communication methods. You need to be sure you can get your message across without sounding terse.