One of the linchpins to the success of a virtual education enterprise are the educators that become stakeholders in it. This would seem to be an obvious statement and yet in our societies there are many people who believe that the quality of educational life of a teacher has no connection with the quality of the educational experience for students. Peter Senge in his book, "The Fifth Discipline"(1990), posed a very intriguing question which asked:"How can we create powerful learning experiences and environments for students if they do not first exist for educators?" Although this source is dated the question is still relevant today. Any virtual education system must consider what it provides as a learning environment for its staff first before it does so for its students. Learning environments for educators should break away from the traditional mold of institutional professional development and be willing to make full use of what the Internet has to offer. We can build engaging, inspiring and challenging environments if we are willing to accept the premise that there is a logical connection between the learning conditions of teachers and students.
With regards to challenges faced by educators in creating a learning environment for their students, I have previously introduced a phrase that describes an expectation that should be important to the online education experience. The phrase is "thoughtful engagement". In evaluation for learning and of learning, is there evidence of thoughtful engagement of the student with his/her subject matter? Why is this important in an online environment? Some students across a wide range of curriculum areas have associated the cutting and pasting of source information from the Internet as a fulfillment of the requirements of a given assignment. Since these students are in fact digital natives, performing such actions have become second nature to them and in reality does not require any thoughtful engagement in the subject matter at all. Part of the problem has been the belief by educators that it is expedient to just transpose assignment matter that worked in the brick and mortar classroom into an online environment. Mark this up to expediency or professional laziness but the truth of the matter, it lacks the imagination required to work in the online education environment. A more thoughtful approach to designing learning tasks in the online environment is needed with the focus on engaging the heart first and then the mind of the student. Engaging the heart means that as a course designer you have taken into account where the student is in life, how he/she interacts with his/her environment and that you have taken the time to sample the hopes and dreams that students have for their future. It means that you have equipped yourself with the necessary tools that become extensions of your imagination. Sadly the case is too often that students' dreams and hopes wither in the high school environment because of a systemic cynicism about the future that seems to be pervasive in brick and mortar schools. They are flooded with media reports from all over the globe that impress on them that it is hopeless to consider a positive and fulfilling future given the tragedy of humanity as it unfolds before their eyes instantly thanks to the media's obsessional greed in defining what news should be proclaimed. This needs to change and although online education will not solve this, it can contribute to helping to counteract its effects on the hearts and minds of young people. It starts with courageous educators willing to challenge this cancerous mindset.