When a student enrolled in one of North Carolina Virtual Public School’s online courses committed suicide one evening during the last school year, the online teacher learned the news before officials in the student’s brick-and-mortar school.
The virtual school then tapped its own team of student-services coordinators, who contacted a counselor for each of the 30 students enrolled in that virtual class. The next morning, counselors were able to offer face-to-face support for the online students at their home schools.
“In a normal scenario, you might not be able to hear about that situation in one day and get students the help they need,” says Bryan H. Setser, the executive director of the 25,000-student North Carolina Virtual Public School. “Typically, the virtual world’s response is much faster.”
Having guidance counselors or student-support personnel on staff is just one of the administrative aspects of running a virtual school that often take place behind the scenes in the online world and in real time. Educators working with students taking online courses need to think about more than the coursework involved, including social issues and organization. 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.
‘Engaged and Involved’
1. Take advantage of all the ways to communicate with students online, whether by using wikis, blogs, or instant messaging.
2. Communicate with your students often, but don’t let that communication fall into a social relationship.
3. Be organized and consistent about telling students where to find and file assignments.
4. Create lessons ahead of time and be prepared to deal with technological glitches.
5. Reread written communication before sending it to students. Students may be ultra-sensitive about feedback and comments that are written rather than oral.
6. Make sure your guidance counselors or student-support personnel have strong connections to students’ brick-and-mortar schools and know whom to contact if needed.
7. Work with brick-and-mortar schools to facilitate scheduling of online courses that are taken during the school day.
8. Look for high-quality teachers and provide intensive training on teaching in a virtual environment.
Online teachers, for example, must walk a fine line that has nothing to do with the curriculum or homework, says Lujean Baab, an assistant professor and director of the Master of Education program at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa.
“Teachers need to learn how to balance their authority with higher-level activity to create a relationship which keeps students engaged and involved, without becoming too friendly,” she says. Teachers should also 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 should also think carefully about the wording they use when communicating with students, Baab says. Before sending any written communication to a student, a teacher should take time to read over the message and check whether it 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.”
The process of getting the right teachers in place is also critical, says Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer for the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School.
‘‘The biggest challenge we have is hiring the right teachers,” she says. ‘‘Long ago, we said it’s the most important thing we do, and we’ve never wavered from that.”
But hiring good classroom teachers is just a start. ‘‘Then we put them in an environment that is so foreign to them, it’s as if they’re first-year teachers all over again,” Birtolo says. “For many people, that’s not a good place to be.”
The Florida Virtual School, the largest state-funded virtual school in the country, has an extensive training program that requires teachers to make several trips to the central office for training and provides them with instructional leaders as mentors and liaisons.
With 1,000 teachers leading courses in 95 subject areas, it’s an administrative challenge to keep teachers feeling like part of a team. This often means lengthy conference calls, weekly intranet updates, and opportunities for teachers to hone their craft in small groups, Birtolo says.
In a normal [brick-and-mortar] scenario, you might not be able to hear about [a crisis] situation in one day and get students the help they need. Typically, the virtual world's response is much faster."
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 last school year, her first venture into online instruction.
She says the experience made her appreciate how important it is to be well organized in the online world. 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.
Macke 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. Assignments in her virtual class are 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 that 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.”
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes at a virtual school, but administrative hurdles for an online school also extend to the real classroom. Some brick-and-mortar schools also have tens or hundreds of students taking online courses, and scheduling computer time can be difficult.
The biggest challenge we have is hiring the right teachers. Long ago, we said it's the most important thing we do, and we've never wavered from that."
Prakash B. Patel oversees several types of online courses in his computer lab each week at Quakertown Community Senior High School in Quakertown, Pa. Though the 25 students in the lab may each be working on a virtual course covering a different subject, their placement in Patel’s computer 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 in the 5,500-student Quakertown Community School District, 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,’ ” says Patel, who is also a site coordinator for the Virtual High School Global Consortium program there. “I’m just as involved in the course as a student.”
Last year, the high school had 42 students taking online classes; this year, it has close to 100.
‘‘A teacher might say, ‘I would like the student to create a digital movie that addresses XYZ,’ ” Patel says. “I can help them make the movie and send it off electronically.”
The online program worked well last 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.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as The Challenges of Managing E-Ed.