At VSS 2010, Michael B. Horn asked a panel of six online-learning leaders what policy they thought posed the greatest barrier to the growth of online-learning programs/schools. Surprisingly, two of the panelists identified the greatest barrier to be the misconception that online-learning teachers aren’t “real” teachers.

Indeed, there is a great deal of misconception surrounding the role of online-learning teachers. In a recent article published in the New York Times, Laura Herrera insinuates that online-learning teachers aren’t “real” teachers in her description of one student’s experience in an e-learning lab in Miami-Dade County Public Schools:

“Naomi is one of over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems” (my emphasis).

Although Herrera claims that the students have “no teacher,” she later explains that the students are using Florida Virtual School (FLVS) courses, where “[s]tudents log on to a Web site to gain access to lessons, which consist mostly of text with some graphics, and they can call, e-mail or text online instructors for help” (my emphasis). Unfortunately, it is descriptions such as these that help breed misconceptions about the role of online-learning teachers.

Over the past two years, my research for Innosight Institute has taken me to different parts of the United States to visit various online-learning programs. During these visits, I typically interview teachers and students about their experiences with online learning. When I ask teachers—the majority of whom had previously taught in a traditional classroom before transitioning to online learning—to identify the pros and cons of teaching in an online-learning environment, nearly every teacher says that online learning enables him or her to truly teach and form relationships with students. Rather than standing in front of a classroom and lecturing to 25-30 students, online-learning teachers work one-on-one with students and provide students with individualized help. This, teachers claim, is where the “real” teaching takes place. Additionally, when I ask students in online-learning programs for at-risk students and dropouts why they are succeeding in the program, nearly every student gives the same response: the teacher. It is evident that no matter what medium students are using to learn, they need a great teacher, moderator, and cheerleader to help them learn and succeed.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the importance of having great online-learning teachers in his keynote address at the SETDA Education Forum 2010:

“Technology will never replace great teachers. We all know that the most important factor in student success is a teacher leading the classroom. That will never, never change. The best instruction happens when a caring, skilled instructor uses every resource at her disposal to help students learn, including the power of technology. In today’s world, technology is an essential tool. It offers teachers new ways to enrich their students’ learning experiences, and it offers students the ability to connect to learning opportunities anytime, anywhere. Technology empowers teachers like never before to support their personal mission of providing the best possible education to every single one of their students. But it’s also important to remember that technology alone is not going to improve student achievement. The best combination is great teachers, working with technology, to personalize the learning experience and engage students in the pursuit of learning that they need.”

Do you think there’s a misconception that online-learning teachers aren’t “real” teachers? If so, what steps could we take to overcome this misconception?


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey