I love listening to teachers talk about “reading students’ faces.” Good educators do just that to see whether students are really grasping a concept or whether their faces are full of confusion. More important, they use those face-to-face interactions to form personal connections. A teacher who fits a face to a name is likely to be more committed to that student.
The proliferation of online schools is now challenging that assumption. The trend also raises a question: Is some amount of in-person interaction between online teachers and their students really necessary?
Based on recent conversations I’ve had with online teachers, as well as with educators who work in traditional classroom settings, I’d have to say yes. Experienced teachers—even those who have moved from traditional classrooms to online instruction—will tell you that face-to-face interactions are vital to establishing meaningful teacher-student relationships.
Larry Snyder taught high school government classes for 35 years in the Columbus, Ohio, public schools, showing up every day in traditional classrooms where he could see the faces of his students. Then he switched to the virtual world, where for the past three years he has been teaching for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a state-funded school that serves roughly 7,000 K-12 students throughout Ohio.
Snyder believes in-person meetings between online teachers and their students should happen “as often as possible.”
“You have a tendency to call them more often if you have met them,” he points out. “Nothing replaces face to face, there’s no way in the world. And there’s a certain joy in it from a teacher’s point of view.”
The problem, however, is that policymakers have failed to tackle the issue, leaving teachers with little, if any, guidance even as the popularity of online courses continues to grow. Last spring, in what’s described as the federal government’s first-ever survey of distance learning in K-12 schools, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report estimating that nearly one of every 10 public schools in the country had students enrolled in distance education courses. The percentage was significantly higher among high schools. But only a handful of states have any policy guidance addressing face-to-face interaction, according to Technology Counts 2005, an annual report from Editorial Projects in Education, which also publishes Teacher Magazine.
Ohio is actually ahead of the pack in recognizing and addressing the issue. Providers of online courses there must develop a plan indicating the number of times teachers will visit each of their students throughout the school year and the manner in which those visits will be conducted, according to Technology Counts.
By contrast, Florida—which runs the largest state-sponsored online school in the nation, the Florida Virtual School—has no such policy. Rather, the state simply leaves it up to the online providers themselves to decide whether face-to-face interaction is worth addressing.
Jill Dickinson, an instructional leader for FVS, says the school has no official policy requiring teachers to meet in person with students, though it does address the need for communication. For instance, teachers are required to make a monthly telephone call to individual students—and their parents—to check their progress and see whether there are any problems.
Dickinson points out that 75 percent of the roughly 21,000 students who take online courses from the school also attend traditional public schools, where they receive a fair amount of face-to-face interaction. Even so, she says it’s become more common in recent years for the school’s online teachers to set up meetings with some students. One teacher, for instance, asked the students in her region for schedules of their extracurricular activities. She attended a play, football game, musical concert, and other events to meet her online students and their parents.
But crafting policies requiring in-person contact would be tricky. The Florida Virtual School, for one, has students from across the country. The possibility of out-of-state students getting together with their online teachers is minimal, at best. But the logistical complexities of online learning should not serve as an excuse to avoid tackling this issue. It strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a teacher.