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Q&A with Heather O’Mara: Teacher-student relationship remains vital in online learning

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Heather O’Mara

In Colorado, a state where just this week there’s been controversy as three foreign-language teachers lost their jobs when their classes moved online, there are differing perspectives on the value of online education and technology’s ever-increasing role in education.

Colorado has it all: fully online schools where teachers teach from the comfort of their own homes, blended models where students take some of their classes online but still report to a building, and traditional brick-and-mortar schools. And while some form of technology has always been present in classrooms, it now has the ability to revolutionize the way we think about school. Central to schooling are, of course, teachers—who find themselves directly affected by technology, as more classes move online and as the tools available to them alter their interactions with students, parents and administrators. The rise of technology, many worry, will diminish the role of teachers in the future.

To learn more about how technology is changing teaching and learning, The Hechniger Report sat down with Heather O’Mara, CEO of HOPE Online Learning Academy, a blended-learning school that works with a largely at-risk student population across Colorado. HOPE partners with local community-based organizations to open learning centers where students attend classes.

Q: Many people express fear that as technology increases, the need for teachers decreases. Is this the case?

A: Online is really just a method of delivery just like the classroom is, and I think the role of the teacher is almost more important in an online environment or hybrid environment than in a traditional classroom. … I think the role of the teacher is changing and is going to continue to change no matter what the delivery model is. But I think what’s so critical that I see is that students’ success relies on teacher support. The support is just different. There’s a lot more one-on-one. What the teacher does, how they work with the students, how the teachers embrace technology and work with students as a coach is more and more important. And I think the teacher’s role becomes almost more fulfilling. Our teachers talk about the connection they have with their students, that it’s different from when they taught in a face-to-face environment. … They have the opportunity because of the technology to say, “Well, wait a sec, I have all this curriculum to choose from. I’m not set to the textbook or set to lecturing.” The reality is that when you look at the teacher-student ratio whether it’s in an online environment or a face-to-face environment, when in a face-to-face and you’re with 35 to 40 students now in high schools—so how do you make the teacher’s role more effective so they can also focus on the relationship with the student.

How are teachers using technology to really improve both the way they’re teaching and the way their students are learning?

Teachers who are using technology the best to improve teaching and learning are using it to individualize instruction. So they’re understanding how students learn, what their learning style is and finding the best lessons to teach that student—understanding that some students are more visual, some like video, some like to read a book on a computer screen and some don’t. It allows them to individualize. So it’s now much easier to have 20 kids or 40 kids who are all at different levels in each class … the teacher can use the technology to engage every student and not worry about students being disruptive.

So how in your mind is it fundamentally changing the teaching profession?

I think it’s changing the profession because it’s giving teachers more options, more flexibility, more creativity. And I think it’s giving them the options to continue to engage students, and what is changing is that they’re not the “sage on the stage” anymore. Teachers need to understand and acknowledge and [be] excited by the fact that they can impact all different kids in all different ways … Teachers are excited because if they have a student who didn’t get a math concept and they were able to identify that that concept for that high-school student really relates back to them not having ever really learned their multiplication tables, they have a way to take that student back to learn that and they can do that without embarrassing the student, and really without negatively impacting the rest of the classroom.

So that’s the bright side. What can’t we do well with technology yet? And what technology do you see adding little value?

What can’t it do? It can’t replace the relationship. And I think for students to learn, especially at-risk students, the relationship is critical. We find that we need to establish and build that relationship regardless of what technology we use before we’re going to see results. And as for when is it being used poorly? It’s being used poorly when it is used to replace the relationship. It’s the “We’re going to throw a bunch of kids who are at risk into a computer lab and we’re going to do credit recovery.” That’s not really teaching them anything. You need to tie what’s happening in the online curriculum to what’s happening in the classroom so it’s not just, “Well, now it’s computer time and we’re going to go online and do computer stuff for a while.” So I think it’s critical to not just have a technology class because none of us just use technology to use it. It’s about how we make it relevant.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Post a Comment

Leonie Haimson

I spoke to a parent whose son is taking an online course in calculus. When he asked his teacher for help, she told him to buy a textbook. The push for more online learning is being motivated by two factors: budget cutting by districts, and profit-making by online schools and companies. Quality is irrelevant to their concerns.

[…] report to a building, and traditional brick-and-mortar schools. And while some … Read more on The Hechinger Report Online education degrees skyrocket A USA TODAY analysis of newly released U.S. Department of […]

[…] Q & A with Heather O’Mara, head of Colorado’s HOPE Online Academy, on the value of teacher-student relationships in online learning. Hechinger Report […]

[…] Colorado, a state where just this week there’s been controversy as three foreign-language teachers lost their jobs when their classes moved online, there are differing perspectives on the value of online education […]

[…] low-income learners — is not alone in understanding and articulating that technology “can’t replace the relationship” a face-to-face teacher […]

Laura DeSena

Not all online education programs are the same and complexities on this must be addressed for a true critical assessment of online education. Synchronous vs asynchronous instruction — this is an important distinction to be made for this conversation to be valid. I teach in a synchronous online education program which I also founded. Students and teachers meet together in the virtual classroom so that the social element of learning is not compromised.
Teaching in the moment is quite different from the asynchronous learning environment in terms of critical discourse, in particular. Oversimplification of the definition of online learning is not helpful.

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