Classroom Technology

Managing Instruction in a Virtual World

By Michelle R. Davis — June 26, 2009 6 min read

Prakash B. Patel oversees several types of online courses in his computer lab each week at Quakertown Community Senior High School in Pennsylvania. Though the 25 students in the lab may each be working on a virtual course covering a different subject, their placement in Patel’s lab under his supervision is no accident.

Counselors at the school gave scheduling priority to students taking virtual classes to ensure they’d fit into one of Patel’s computer-lab sessions. Whether they’re taking a biology or Spanish course, Patel, a computer science teacher at the school, helps the students work through the challenges of online coursework.

“It keeps me in touch with what the kids are experiencing, and I can say, ‘Here’s what your [virtual] teacher is expecting,’ ” he says. “I’m just as involved in the course as a student.”

Educators working with students taking online courses need to think about more than the coursework involved. Administrators in brick-and-mortar schools have to fit computer space and time into already-complex student schedules; and online teachers need to think about how their virtual classrooms are organized in order to manage the experience successfully, both for themselves and their students.

At the National Educational Computing Conference this week in Washington, experts are providing strategies and advice on managing the challenges that can come with instruction in a virtual world. That management is crucial to helping students thrive in the online environment, says Lujean Baab, an assistant professor and director of the Master of Education program at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., who is a featured speaker at NECC this week.

“Managing these virtual classrooms can be quite difficult,” Baab says. “Teachers need to learn how to balance their authority with higher-level activity to create a relationship which keeps students engaged and involved.”

She says balancing that high level of interaction without becoming too friendly with students is a difficult tightrope to walk. Teachers need to think about the ways they want to communicate with their students, through Wikis or blogs, for example, and need to map out just how they want students to file assignments and where to find new material.

Baab advises teachers of virtual classes to be very consistent. “Set up a structure and stick with it,” she says. “Maybe it’s creative and colorful to change things every day, but then a student has to learn their ‘classroom’ all over again.”

Teachers must also think carefully about the wording they use when communicating with students, Baab says. Before sending any written communication to a student, teachers should take time to read over their messages and check whether they could be misinterpreted.

“Students may already be fragile and not as connected,” says Baab. “Once you hit that send button, you can’t go back.”

Preparation and Organization

Natalie Macke, a science teacher at Pascack Hills High School in the 1,800-student Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, N.J., taught a virtual oceanography class this school year, her first venture into online instruction. She says the experience made her appreciate how important it is to be well organized when teaching an online class.

Macke taught her class through the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Global Consortium, which requires member districts to provide online teachers and then gives students in those districts slots in the virtual classrooms.

She emphasizes the importance of having all lessons mapped out well before a course starts because of the various technological challenges that can arise with online lessons. Her virtual students also work on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday school week, so even if they’re out of school for spring break, for example, they don’t miss a full week of schoolwork.

To maintain a good level of consistency, Macke always posts class assignments on Sunday for the following Wednesday-to-Wednesday week so students can work ahead if they choose to. Assignments in her virtual class are also due every Tuesday by midnight, and students are required to take part in a weekly online discussion forum about class topics.

Macke’s students have several places they can post their work, depending on the type of assignment or how it is to be shared. They might use a wiki for assignments they’re working on with other students so each can make changes in a collaborative environment. Or they might use their own personal blogs to post assignments Macke wants other students to be able to see but not alter. There is also a more private area for exchanges between the teacher and individual students, which is not visible to anyone else, she says.

Using those digital tools “is much better than e-mailing me all their assignments,” she says. “Managing that would be a nightmare. When you’re clicking and clicking, every click you can save is helpful.”

Creating Classes, Scheduling Students

Of course, it’s not only teachers who have to think about the best approaches for managing virtual classes. The operators of online schools have many management issues to consider, from deciding which courses to offer each semester to determining how many students to accept into classes and how many teachers to hire.

Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer for the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School, says that since her school is state-financed and has no limit on students, it accepts any Florida student who wants to sign up. The school receives funding from the state based on the successful completion of courses, she says.

The school, the largest state-funded virtual school in the country, routinely surveys students about what courses they’d like to take. Several years ago, students were clamoring for a psychology course, so the Florida Virtual School designed one and then hired teachers to teach it. School officials consulted students along the way to get feedback on how best to design the course, Birtolo says.

Some brick-and-mortar schools also have tens or hundreds of students taking online courses, and scheduling computer time becomes a priority, says Patel, the computer science teacher at Quakertown Community Senior High in Pennsylvania’s 5,500-student Quakertown Community School District. Patel is also a site coordinator for the Virtual High School Global Consortium program there.

This school year, the high school had 42 students taking online classes; next school year, it expects to have up to 100. At Patel’s request, school counselors scheduled the students taking virtual classes first in the computer lab to avoid conflicts.

“Each student could be working on a different course, but because I understand what an online course looks like and what the [virtual] teacher looks for, I can help the kids,” Patel says. “A teacher might say, ‘I would like the student to create a digital movie that addresses XYZ.’ I can help them make the movie and send it off electronically.”

Patel says administrators at his school asked his advice on how to schedule and coordinate such classes and heeded his recommendations.

The online program worked well this school year, he says, in part because of the support and structure of the computer-lab periods. “The site coordinator should be working hand in hand with the student,” he says. “They shouldn’t just say, ‘Go to the library and do your work.’ ”

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