Published Online: August 11, 2008

Teachers Go to School on Online Instruction

A university professor who put her retirement on hold to become part of a new approach to education. A former teacher returning to her passion after home-schooling her children. A classroom veteran deciding to work at home so her child could attend half-day kindergarten.

Those educators were among more than 800 teachers, from 23 states, who gathered at a swanky conference center here last week with the goal of sharpening the skills they will need to teach this fall at schools partnering with the online education provider K12 Inc.

Jamie C. Harper-Havens, center, flanked by Andrea M. Sharp, left, and Timari S. Duty, role-plays the initial call online teachers must make to new students' families at a conference in Virginia last week held by K12 Inc. All three educators are teaching this fall at a California school operated by the online-learning company.
—Andrew Trotter/Education Week

Several experts said they thought the Aug. 4-6 gathering, which was organized by the Herndon, Va.-based company, was the largest face-to-face meeting yet of educators who do most of their teaching in the virtual world.

The teachers, most of whom were experienced in conventional classrooms but newbies to online instruction, spent hours wrapping their brains around the different style of teaching they would have to adopt in just a few short weeks.

“There are reasons you have face-to-face conferences,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning, in an interview the day after she addressed the teachers on Aug. 4. “They need to make the teachers comfortable with the new culture and the online environment.”

Ms. Patrick, a former education technology adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and current Secretary Margaret Spellings, said the K12 gathering and other recent meetings of online teachers are signs that this relatively new, but fast-growing, subset of the teaching profession is coming into its own as a distinct career path. (See box, this page.)

“Online teachers are in the front lines of innovation in schooling,” she said.

A Different Approach

For the teachers at this week’s gathering, technology was less of an issue than the other adjustments the teachers will be expected to make. After all, competency with e-mail, the Web, and other digital tools is a factor that K12 considers in its hiring decisions.

Face-to-Face Gatherings Not Uncommon for Cyber Teachers

Experts say meeting in person fosters online relationships.

K12 Inc., which convened more than 800 virtual school teachers in Virginia last week, is not alone in giving its online educators a chance to interact in person.

Other large online providers in the K-12 market—including the Florida Virtual School, based in Tallahassee, Fla., and the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Inc., also hold face-to-face teacher conferences.

The Florida Virtual School, which was created by the Florida legislature and serves grades 6-12, expects that all of its 575 online teachers will attend its annual professional conference on Sept. 3-5, according to Felicia J. Ryerson, the school’s director of professional learning.

The Virtual High School, a collaborative of 600 participating schools worldwide, will have its third annual conference in April 2009; its meeting last spring had 167 participants, nearly all of them teachers, a 19 percent rise over the previous year, according to Carol Arnold, a media representative for the nonprofit group.

Networking Opportunity

NACOL, based in Reston, Va., expects that about 800 individuals from online schools and companies, including some teachers, will come to Phoenix in October for the group’s annual virtual school symposium.

Unlike closed, proprietary conferences, such as K12’s, the NACOL symposium presents a networking opportunity for educators from all the online programs.

While the numbers of educators at online-oriented gatherings continues to grow, the totals don’t begin to rival the hordes of teachers who attend long-established conferences. For example, the National Science Teachers Association’s national conference, held in Boston in March, drew over 14,000 science teachers, according to the association.

Still, the providers of virtual education are learning that the value of face time does not diminish when you go online.

Fellow teachers are often the best tutors for their colleagues, many educators say. And Ronald J. Packard, K12’s founder and chief executive officer, said building relationships among teachers was a big reason that K12 invested in last week’s expensive, in-person conference.

“Once you’ve had a face-to-face meeting,” Mr. Packard said, “it’s easy to be close online for a very long time.”

As outlined by K12 teacher-trainers at the gathering, the company’s online teachers must forgo lectures and become more like coaches, while students, who are generally at home, have considerable latitude in directing their own learning.

And instead of sizing up students’ body language or classroom comments, the teachers must rely on electronic records of student participation and performance data to keep tabs on their students’ level of engagement.

At the K12 gathering, which an Education Week reporter was allowed to attend on the condition that participants were not quoted without their permission, many sessions focused on use of the proprietary K12 tools and curriculum to manage the learning of widely dispersed students, averaging 40 to 50 per teacher, depending on the state.

In the K12 instructional system, teachers do not have to write daily lesson plans. Instead, they are expected to stick closely to K12’s curriculum and save their creative energies for online discussions and supplementary activities.

The teachers engage with students and their learning coaches through a variety of online tools, using computers provided by the online school. Students also use books and activity or lab kits that they receive from K12 through the mail.

Most online tools, such as e-mail and discussion boards, are “asynchronous,” meaning they are not used by all students and their teacher at the same time. But a few important tools are “synchronous”: The telephone, instant messaging, and an online presentation system called Elluminate Live!

The latter tool, which K12 purchases from Elluminate Inc., based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., allows an entire class of students, who might be dispersed across the state, to interact with one another using multimedia content. The idea is to solve problems or hold discussions, with the teacher deciding who has control of the cursor.

“I Elluminate in my pajamas,” said Kasey Johnson, a veteran teacher at the Florida Virtual Academy, to several less-experienced colleagues during a break-out session.

People Skills

Other sessions advised teachers on the people skills and strategies to bring a personal touch to instruction that is largely mediated by electronics.

Under the K12 model, teachers are expected to communicate much more often with families than most teachers are used to, and to keep office hours for receiving incoming calls from students and parents, who usually serve as their children’s “learning coaches.”

A roomful of all of the secondary-level teachers—numbering about 250—were walked through issues such as the pacing of student learning. The curriculum gives students freedom to move ahead or take extra time to learn a concept, but the presenter explained that teachers must be alert for procrastination by checking that each student registers daily activity on the online system.

Teachers should intervene with the learning coach if a student is out of synch by more than a day or a week from the others, the presenter said. Lagging students might need activities that follow different approaches; leaders should be nudged to probe more deeply into the material.

A session of about 50 elementary-grade teachers spent an hour rehearsing the initial telephone call that an online teacher must make to speak with the parent of each student. The presenter of the session told teachers to be diplomatic in setting ground rules for home instruction and to avoid seeming to read from a script. She advised them how to disarm parents who raised various procedural objections.

Online teachers build ties with parents that are more intensive and vital than in a conventional school, she reminded them.

“We are forming relationships, not just checking a box,” she said.

Finding Common Ground

Most advice focused on the essentials for staying afloat during the first 30 days of the semester. Later, K12 teachers will receive other help, such as online professional training, a teacher-support hotline, and, for elementary teachers, a new mentorship program pairing first-year instructors with veterans.

Many teachers said they found a lot in common in their decisions to shift their careers online; many were motivated by family considerations and an appetite for technology.

Lisa Babb, who will begin teaching this fall at the Ohio Virtual Academy, said she left teaching for a decade to “raise boys” and decided to try something new on her return to the profession. Teaching online is flexible, said Ms. Babb, who lives in Dayton, though she was anxious about mastering the Elluminate Live! system.

Her lunch partner, Robin Hoeflick, of Bellville, Ohio, interjected that the academy’s new teachers were in the midst of 12 weeks of online training.

“Anytime you start as a teacher, there are a lot of unknowns—usually 24 of them,” Ms. Hoeflick said.

Experienced online teacher No’el M. Tew, of the Idaho Virtual Academy, said the online method allowed her to focus on her family, while engaging more with other teachers than in a conventional setting.

“It is a social medium,” she said, referring to the online environment. “I really enjoy my colleagues—they are so fun, and these students are fun.”

Allison J. Dracha, who teaches at the Agora Cyber Charter School, based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., said, “I love technology and this medium feeds this love.”

She said she grew up with a brother who, despite his high IQ, struggled in conventional schools. He would have benefited from K12’s greater degree of self-paced learning, she said.

Michael E. Kobylski, of the Ohio Virtual Academy, said the school fits well with his family of four children and is “at the forefront of what’s happening technologically, what colleges are doing.”

Mr. Kobylski became a online science teacher after a career with a technology company and, earlier, a single year teaching in a regular school before he was laid off. “I thought ‘I am not going to be able to teach for 30 years in the same classroom,’ ” he said of that earlier teaching job.

This time around, he said, “every week is different.”

Growth Pattern

K12 officials said this year’s gathering brought together twice as many teachers as a similar event the company held last summer, reflecting the growth of the partner academies and a surge in elementary-grade enrollments.

The company, which was founded in 2001, hopes to expand its model to more states. It also plans to launch an international academy this fall that will operate in the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Korea, and possibly India, according to Ronald J. Packard, K12’s founder and chief executive officer.

Mr. Packard agreed that, at present, online schools have the luxury of attracting talented teachers who, for various reasons, would have left the education labor force if they did not have the online option.

But he predicted that growth will require converting additional experienced, certified teachers into online educators, and helping them bring a personal touch to their long-distance contacts with students, parents, and one another.

“The kind of teacher that succeeds here,” Mr. Packard said, “is one that wants to have those relationships and goes after them.”

Vol. 27, Issue 45

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