Teaching Online: Part One

I’ve been teaching exclusively online for over four years now.  This is something that lots of people think they would like to do.  Because of that, I’m frequently asked how to get started, find a job, etc.  It’s certainly great to be able to work from home, and it has helped to make homeschooling possible for us, but it’s not right for everyone.

Basic Requirements

Assuming we are talking about teaching for a college or university online, the general requirement is a master’s degree in the field in which you want to teach (or a closely related field).  A PhD is required in certain fields or to teach certain courses.  (For example, I’m not qualified to teach graduate level math courses because I only have a master’s in math.)  In many cases, a degree in secondary education (focusing on your field, e.g., math education) is acceptable as long as you also have a certain number of graduate hours in your field of study.  FYI: “related field” may be a subjective term.  For example, my Dad has a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) degree, but when he applied to teach biology, he was told that his degree did not meet the qualifications.

Another major requirement is the ability to clearly communicate in writing and, if the courses contain a synchronous (live) portion, verbally.  You will be “speaking” with your students almost exclusively through e-mails and course announcements, so it is imperative that these are clear and error-free.  While a Southern accent like mine is not a deal-breaker, you must be able to speak in a manner that is understandable to people from all over the country and sometimes outside the US.  (Side note: if you speak with a Southern accent, be prepared to be addressed as “Ma’am” quite a lot. )

Some job postings will have prior experience as a requirement.  If you have never taught in a classroom before, I would strongly advise doing that before teaching online.  While teaching online varies greatly from teaching in person, I think classroom experience is extremely beneficial in learning how to best present material to a group of students.  Online, you can’t see the looks of confusion on students’ faces, so it’s helpful to know when to anticipate that your online students might also have difficulty.

Time Requirements

Once you are hired provisionally, expect to go through some training.  This will usually last a few weeks.  You’ll be an online student during the training, so in addition to learning about the school, how to set up and manage your course, and so forth, you’ll also gain a better understanding of what your future students will be experiencing.

The time spent per week actually teaching an online course will vary widely depending on the school for which you teach, the specific course you are teaching, the number of courses you are teaching, and your overall familiarity with the process.  For example, the course I teach most frequently is an intro level math course with around 30 students per section.  On an average day, I’m able to answer e-mails, post to the discussion board, and do any needed course maintenance in less than an hour.  I’m required to do this daily during the week and either Saturday or Sunday.  During my grading window (between when assignments are due from students and when grades are due from me), this time increases.  Grading discussion boards generally takes me two or three hours per section.  Grading the additional assignments generally takes about an hour per section because much of the grading is done within the course structure itself.  Other math courses I sometimes teach have additional instructor-graded components, so this time increases.  I would expect that someone grading essays and term papers would have a longer time requirement.

Teaching at Multiple Schools

Many instructors teach for multiple colleges, especially those who are supporting a family.  If at all possible, I would suggest starting with no more than two.  This will give you a chance to (a) get through the more time-intensive training programs, (b) find out if teaching online is something you actually enjoy, and (c) determine what the actual time involved will be for you.  When I first started, I was teaching for three online schools and finishing up a term in a traditional classroom.  It was crazy!  I don’t recommend that.  I dropped one of the three after the first term and continued teaching at two schools until shortly after we began homeschooling when I dropped back to just one.

I hope that gives you some things to begin thinking about if you’re interested in teaching online.  I will address the issue of finding online teaching jobs as well as some of the pros and cons later this week, so stay tuned!