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How To Break into Online Teaching


shutterstock_126278441Online teaching can seem like a great gig. The convenience and flexibility afforded by online delivery is a draw for students and instructors alike. But, finding online teaching jobs seems to be getting more challenging. It’s an unusual situation to see that even though the number of positions increases, there is more competition as the number of applicants also seems to be on the rise.

A couple of weeks ago I received a LinkedIn invitation from someone I don’t know. This isn’t unusual, and can actually work well if you let the person you want to connect with know a little something about why you want to connect. In this case, the person followed up with a lengthy message asking for help getting an online teaching job. We went back and forth via email discussing ideas and approaches, resulting in a list that sparked the idea for this post.

It’s not unusual to see similar topics in the LinkedIn Groups related to online teaching and adjunct life. And my own experience is not unique – finding that first job seems to be the most challenging, but a critical step. There’s something to the old saying, “it’s easier to find a job once you have a job.” What are schools looking for when they hire online instructors? Where can you find out about new opportunities and how to get hired? Before you start your search, evaluate your experience and qualifications, and set a few goals.

Assess Your Skills

The convenience and flexibility of online courses come with significant challenges to time management. A presentation from Walden University, emphasizes the pros and cons, including the fact that “you can do it anywhere” but also “have to be willing to do it everywhere.” Many faculty members find that online instruction requires just as much effort, and different kinds of effort, as face-to-face instruction. How does teaching online factor into your career goals, need to be more mobile, areas of expertise, etc.? Is there a tie-in with your research? Do you have relevant experience?

Those who have no teaching experience face multiple obstacles. Even those with teaching experience, but not with online courses, will have to demonstrate that they are qualified and understand the nuances of a distance learning environment. Assess your online teaching skills against the categories identified by Penn State Online:

  • Organization and Time Management: Evaluate your expectations of time requirements and abilities to plan and stay organized.
  • Communicating Online: Explore your comfort level with specific technologies and your writing skills.
  • Teaching and Online Experience: Reflect on your approach to planning courses, including learning objectives and web-based resources, as well as your first-hand knowledge of learning management systems.
  • Technical Skills: Assess your basic software skills, ability to multitask, and file management habits.

Set Search Priorities

What type of online teaching position are you looking for? You may feel you are open to any and all opportunities, but it’s a good idea to identify any limitations that may exist. Think about your availability and interest in full- and part-time openings, the difference between for-profit and non-profit institutions, as well as blended or hybrid options.

You may also want to determine the specific disciplines in which you are qualified to teach. Not all schools offer programs in all academic majors, so this is just one way to create an initial list of employment options for further research. Keep in mind that not all schools will accept your own assessment of what you are qualified to teach. Look for guidelines from each school regarding employment requirements.

Activate Your Network

I’ve had to the opportunity to teach online with two universities, and both were the result of knowing someone already working within the institution. Do people know that you are looking for an online teaching position? This can be tricky, as it’s not always appropriate to openly advertise your availability, but you can take a more strategic approach and contact people in your network that are in positions that could be relevant to your search. Let them know that you are looking and would appreciate any information they may be able to share.

Start with those who know you best and have connections with programs that offer online classes. These people will be able to make the most effective referrals and potentially anticipate staffing needs in their programs. Who is working at schools with online courses and programs? If no one in your network is currently in online education, who might know someone that is? Explore the following for additional networking opportunities:

Identify Specific Courses You Can Teach

This was what one of my mentors suggested to me when I asked her several years ago about the availability of teaching in her program. I made the initial contact to inquire about the possibilities and let her know I was looking, and her first question to me was, “which courses do you think you could teach?” She asked me to go through the catalog and make a list of those I would be interested in and most qualified to deliver. I responded with a short list and a brief explanation of my qualifications for each course. I wasn’t hired immediately, but when an opportunity to teach one of those courses came up, she contacted me.

Terminal degrees are helpful and in many cases the baseline of what you’ll need to apply. But there are a lot of applicants with PhDs these days, so you will also need to convey that you can perform the tasks required. Start with your subject matter expertise and research the program and course descriptions. It may seem desirable to cast a wide net, but targeting each inquiry can help you explain how you are qualified to join each program. This is especially helpful when contacting schools that do not have openings posted.

Consider All of the Alternatives

While teaching at the college or university level may be your goal, you can gain online teaching experience in multiple ways and industries. Extend your research to include the following ways to gain experience with technology, online communication, lesson preparation, time management, and learning assessment:

  • Workplace training: Look to your current employer and beyond for opportunities to engage in and help present short-term online learning experiences (e.g., webinars) as well as organize web-based training resources.
  • K-12 virtual schools: If you are certified to teach at this level, learning options are increasing along with the need for virtual teachers. The Florida Virtual School is one example of a statewide online education system, and The VHS Collaborative provides a host of additional resources and professional development programs.
  • Continuing education: The career and technical school in my local area advertises classes linked through a system called ed2Go, which advertises for online course instructors and designers.
  • Open and entrepreneurial courses: Gain practical experience in online teaching and learning through platforms like P2PU, Educator.com, and Udemy. You can also take an online course through one of these options to add the student’s perspective to your understanding of the learning environment.
  • Support roles: New models of online education are opening up new roles for experienced educators interested in working directly with students to achieve their goals. Take a look at the student and course mentors at Western Governors University as part of a competency-based approach to degree completion. Other online education titles include coaches and tutors.

Share Your Story

To paraphrase my new LinkedIn contact, a prospective online teacher, a large number of applicants means that you may need some sort of connection to distinguish yourself from the others. You will need to not only be ready to react to new opportunities quickly, but also convey what you have to offer and how your experience and qualifications meet the needs of the institution and its students.

  • Get your CV ready, along with the academic application basics including letters of recommendation, transcripts, and cover letter. You may be asked for other documentation as well, such as a written teaching philosophy. Check out services like Interfolio to keep you organized and allow easy access to your application materials.
  • Develop your online presence, whether it’s through a blog, e-portfolio tool, or social networking profile that includes links to recent professional accomplishments and activities. Consider making your LinkedIn, About.me, or Google+ profile a hub that provides access to more details through a single URL.
  • Show and tell that you understand the requirements and challenges, and have the experience in subject matter, technology, and teaching to be effective in the role of online instructor.

What can you do to make the connection with online education and find your next teaching opportunity? Share your next steps and success stories with us here.

July 15th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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