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It's an Online Teacher's Life

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At 5:30 a.m. I am at my desk in my bunny slippers, waiting for my laptop to come to life. As soon as it does, I will answer an average of 35 e-mails, check to see who has completed which assignments in my class, grade a recent quiz, and send weekly grade reports to my 40 students. All of my classes are online. I "retired" from face-to-face teaching three years ago.

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By 7:30 a.m. I've had a little coffee and perused a new flurry of e-mails and instant messages from kids who have not even left for their brick-and-mortar school yet. By late afternoon, I will SKYPE—i.e., talk via the Internet—with an average of 10 students and have a video conference with my whole group.

It's a typical day in the life of an online teacher. The hours can be exhausting. There are curriculum links that need to be fixed and new content to add, in addition to the constant communication with students. Some busy students need extra help at times that are usually not available in a face-to-face environment. If I am online at 2:00 a.m., I'm fair game for an instant message from a student who is struggling with an assignment.

I teach chemistry and forensic science for Iowa Learning Online, an initiative of the Iowa Department of Education designed to expand learning opportunities for public high school students. We offer a "blended course" that combines an extensive online experience and limited face-to-face gatherings. In Iowa, we have a video conference room in every high school and college and in most libraries throughout the state. This communication network allows me to connect with each of my students to deliver lecture bursts, hold discussions, give science demonstrations, and have friendly (or not so friendly) chats any day of the week.

Thanks to the network, I'm also readily available in my virtual office three times a week to help students who benefit from live visual contact. Four times each year I visit central locations across the state near my schools. My students come for a day of laboratory experiences that extend what we are able to do in our virtual reality lab program or home-lab activities. Often, these personal visits include experiments that cannot be done without my on-site supervision, due to safety considerations.

New Challenges

Today I conferenced via video with a group of 20 students to discuss their results from a recent home lab. The two students I really need to see are not present. Their peers tell me that one is ill and the other is avoiding me because he knows we'll be having one of my famous "work ethic" talks. This is perhaps the most frustrating part of online instruction. In a traditional school setting, I would use my planning period to track down the student and have the conference that day. When I am 300 miles away, I have to use phone calls and friendly school counselors or secretaries to bring the student to a place where I can have that serious chat. Fortunately, the Iowa program includes a coach at each school where we offer the online experience. This person is a classroom teacher or counselor who supervises tests and serves as my legs, eyes, and ears in the school. These folks are critical for kids who need lots of encouragement.

Tests are another challenge. My assessments are a blend of short answer, multiple choice, and scenario-based items. The kids, of course, would prefer a 100 percent multiple-choice exam. The scenario-based assessments require them to actually apply the critical concepts and demonstrate a deeper understanding. Most online systems have self-grading programs for short answer and multiple-choice assessments. But the essays required in the scenario-based assessment will tell me more about what my students understand and what I may need to revisit. They're worth the two days it takes to grade them.

Revisiting concepts is always challenging work for a teacher. And, as you might imagine, it's even more challenging for an online teacher. Getting kids from different parts of the state together for a "re-teachable moment" requires a good bit of coordination, but thanks to tools like threaded discussion, instant messaging and e-mail, it's manageable.

From time to time, experienced teachers will ask me what it's like to teach online. I tell them that while much of what they know about content and understand about students will carry over, there are a great many new techniques and strategies to learn. Lesson creation is a good example. In the start-up of our Iowa initiative, we wrote and designed our own online courses (alongside creative folks from Iowa Public Television) in ways that work best in a distance-learning environment. In truth, the first few years of online teaching are as time intensive as the first few years of teaching in a classroom.

By the end of the year, I will have answered over 3,000 e-mails and read through as many discussions. Although I am, for the most part, their "virtual teacher," I will have become a part of my students' daily school experience. When an important event or decision comes about in the life of a student, I will get an e-mail or a phone call. And my students at various schools often continue to communicate after the course is over. I've discovered that it is possible to develop a tightly connected community of learners in an online class.

At 10:30 last night my phone rang. It was a student from last year who wanted to tell me one of our classmates had died. The funeral is this Saturday. I will get in my car at 5 a.m. and drive to the distant community where the services will take place. Why? Because online or on-site, there is a powerful bond between committed teachers and their students. Technology will make it easer to do some things, but it will never change the importance of our relationships with those who enter our classroom, wherever it may be.

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