Special Report

Virtual Teachers Deploy Skills Across Countries

By Robin L. Flanigan — January 30, 2012 7 min read
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Petersburg High School sits on an island in Alaska’s Southeast Panhandle, where most of the land is a national forest, and the 140-student school in recent years has struggled with dwindling enrollment, staff, and electives. So when the Virtual High School Global Consortium, a nonprofit organization specializing in collaborative online education and professional development, offered 25 student spots at a reduced price in exchange for one Advanced Placement teacher, Petersburg took the deal.

“This way, we could offer engineering, architecture, art history, veterinary science, and a bunch of things we couldn’t offer our students otherwise,” said Petersburg English and Spanish teacher Sue Hardin, who under the deal has facilitated weekly AP classes for students in schools in some Northeastern states as well as Oklahoma and Washington state, and even in China, Switzerland, and Venezuela. “And I appreciate the diversity I get in return.”

Working with nearly 700 schools in 43 countries, Virtual High School, or VHS, is one of a number of educational matchmakers that allow brick-and-mortar schools to garner qualified instructors from anywhere in the world. It requires teachers like Ms. Hardin, who has been with the consortium for five years, to pass a proprietary 16-week, graduate-level training program before being added to the roster.

Districts are connecting with educators around the globe for a variety of reasons. Some want to offer a richer course selection than their personnel budgets allow; others find it helpful for new graduation requirements in online learning. For schools in remote areas that can afford the technology, such an arrangement eases the burden for teachers juggling multiple subjects without the proper certification.

While there are drawbacks—teachers who lead online classes say the amount of time required can be draining, and technological glitches can interrupt conversations—educators say the opportunities to build alliances with colleagues worldwide allow them to strengthen their own skills and form partnerships that change the way they do their jobs.

“I’ve become a better teacher because of this kind of work,” said Alicia Carroll, a new-teacher developer in the office of teacher development and advancement for the 57,000-student Boston Public Schools. Her post includes teaching stints at several schools.

“There’s a huge network out there,” Ms. Carroll said, “and it’s just about knowing where to tap into.”

Entrepreneurial Effort

In one southern Maine region, the motivation for educators to link with classrooms in different countries has been entrepreneurial, stemming from a plan to help relieve property taxes.

The 3,625-student Auburn school department in early 2011 hired a lobbyist to help push through state legislation allowing public schools throughout Maine to sell online high school courses for a profit to out-of-state and foreign students. The courses would cover a variety of subjects, from the sciences to the humanities, and the target market would be China, where students are increasingly interested in obtaining an American education.

With the former superintendent’s retirement last year, Auburn’s plans were put on hold, however.

“We’re only now returning to the conversation at the district level about whether we should commit to this, and one thing we’ve talked about is that the program would have to be authentic,” said Mike Muir, the school department’s multiple-pathways leader, who is essentially in charge of creating various strategies for learning. The idea grew out of his work developing online courses for Auburn students who are at risk of dropping out or have medical conditions that keep them at home.

“We have no interest in even coming close to making it appear as if we’re selling diplomas,” Mr. Muir said. “Money was definitely something that got us talking, but some of the other things we started thinking about as possibilities are what has kept us going.”

Those authentic measures include virtual collaborations and student exchanges between Auburn students and their peers around the world. State lawmakers are giving the district a couple more years to develop the plan before the legislation’s sunset provision kicks in and the measure expires.

Network in 130 Countries

Educators can look to several resources on their own to collaborate across national boundaries.

For example, Sklobal.com offers a social and professional online network specifically for those who want to connect on an international level. The for-profit company, launched in 2011, is particularly useful for schools looking to find virtual teachers to fill gaps during tough budget times, according to President Jennifer Nelson. At the same time, for teachers losing their jobs because of budget cutbacks, “this provides a way for them to take their craft and knowledge base and use them in other places,” she said.

Another avenue for global educators who want to join forces is the International Education and Resource Network, or iEarn. With U.S. headquarters in New York City, iEarn supports some 300 projects at any given time through a network of more than 45,000 teachers in 130 countries.

“They’re all designed and facilitated by teachers, who determine the time frames, the languages, the age levels, and the outcomes, and answer the question of how each project will make a difference in the world,” said Lisa Jobson, the nonprofit organization’s assistant director.

Using connections made through iEarn and a grant funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, instructors from Brazil, Russia, Uganda, Yemen, and other countries have shared their best teaching practices with faculty members at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Massachusetts. For now, the informal online chats after school help teachers at the 700-student school think differently about ways to engage students.

“The problems are the same everywhere, but their solutions differ,” said Chris Baer, an art, design, and technology teacher who co-facilitates the grant. “This has opened our minds to some possibilities we’ve never even thought about before.”

Though the Internet connection occasionally drops for a couple minutes at a stretch, Mr. Baer hopes the monthly, hour-long sessions, which have spawned a Facebook group, will ultimately lead to a more formalized classroom setting.

In early January, several students from the school’s class in Brazilian history attended a session with a teacher from Sao Paulo; the Martha’s Vineyard island community has a large mix of first- and second-generation Brazilian immigrants eager to connect with their ancestral culture.

For Ms. Carroll, the educator from Boston, the mentoring and collaboration that has come from work she developed as a Fulbright scholar “promotes mutual understanding between countries and a whole new level of support.” Her interdisciplinary Forbidden City Project, to start soon at the K-8, 170-student Mission Hill School in Boston, involves cooperation with the University of Massachusetts Boston and schools in China and Kenya.

“We’ll have interpreters, and we’ll all be learning together,” she said. “This speaks to the need for culturally relevant teaching and curriculum, and this is the real standard we should meet as educators.”

Major Time Commitment

David Dixon, a Virtual High School teacher from Tulsa, Okla., also sees a new standard from his work leading an online Advanced Placement physics course for juniors and seniors in Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam, and Western Australia and throughout the United States.

When he taught an AP physics course about a decade ago, neither he nor his students, he said, were prepared for the rigorous pace of the material. But after inheriting the VHS course in 2010, Mr. Dixon, a science teacher at Tulsa’s 500-student Webster High School, was able to see how a more experienced AP educator paced the class. As a result, some of the documents he incorporates into the online lessons, such as a step-by-step explanation of problem-solving procedures, make their way into his physical classroom.

But the position is a huge commitment. “I’ve never worked so hard in any course in my life,” said Mr. Dixon, who in his first year with VHS spent an average of 20 hours a week on this one online class alone.

“That just nearly wore me out,” he said. “This year, it’s a little better, but it’s still an awful lot of time.” Webster High administrators are now considering whether to start offering an AP physics course on campus. If that happens, Mr. Dixon, whose virtual-teaching experience has helped him learn how to better “explain things concisely and verbally as opposed to doing everything on paper,” is ready.

“I’m a lot more confident about making that successful now,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teaching Goes Global


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