Special Report
Classroom Technology

The Virtual Teaching Life

By Julie Blair — May 09, 2002 10 min read
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Becky Huggins sometimes goes undercover in the online classes she teaches for elementary school youngsters. When discussions among her students go stale, she logs on under a pseudonym—taking on the identity of a student—and fires off a provocative question or comment to jump-start the dialogue.

“I shouldn’t tell you all my tricks,” confides Huggins, the lead teacher for seeUonline, a public online school program based in Palmer, Alaska, and sponsored by the Matanuska-Susitna school district, “but it works.”

Students react differently, she says, when information comes from their peers rather than a teacher. Yet without the anonymity of the online forum, Huggins would never be able to employ such a teaching strategy. And that’s just one of the unusual benefits of cyberspace, she says.

To better understand those benefits as well as the inevitable drawbacks of online teaching, Technology Counts interviewed several teachers—all of whom teach online full time, but had taught in regular schools before becoming cyber educators. Undoubtedly, their perspectives vary. Some say that they are able to form stronger relationships with students and parents than they could in brick-and-mortar environments. Others, though, say they miss the face-to-face interaction with students and wonder if online teaching can ever overcome that inherent weakness.

More than anything else, those who work for online schools warn that such jobs aren’t for all educators.

“It’s just a different method of teaching,” says Kitty Stephens, who teaches Advanced Placement history and government at the 500-student Kentucky Virtual High School, a state-sponsored public school based in Frankfort. “There are advantages and disadvantages.”

Of course, online educators have challenges unlike any faced by their colleagues who work in traditional schools. They can’t rely on classroom theatrics to relay concepts, nor is the necessary curriculum always available. In many cases, no online courses exist that meet the needs of students in a particular area or level of study. Moreover, the very technology that gives life to online schools often hinders it: Frequent computer crashes can disrupt lessons or prevent teachers from having access to students’ online work.

Nonetheless, some online educators say the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

“[Online teaching] is too exciting to actually put it into words,” says Huggins, who worked in a traditional school for two years before moving to seeUonline to teach grades K-2. “All you have to do is be around it and see the sparks fly … and you’ll be hooked, too.”

Teaching and Learning

About 1,600 K-12 educators nationwide are teaching online classes this school year, a number that is expected to grow by about a third by 2004-05, according to the Peak Group, a Los Altos, Calif.-based market research group that is tracking the trend.

The numbers represent both part-time and full-time teachers of for-credit courses for 90 online education programs, says John Politoski, the group’s managing partner

Educators’ reasons for taking such jobs are varied. Some say they changed over because they love working with computers; others want to participate in educational innovations or are seeking a new challenge.

“I have always used computers in my classroom,” says Stephens of the Kentucky online school, who spent 31 years teaching in regular school buildings. “Once [the school] started offering Advanced Placement courses, I really saw a lot of opportunities.”

Like many of her online colleagues, Stephens begins each school day at home by logging on to her computer. There, she has access to the curriculum, her students, and their assignments.

Most online schools buy their course content from one of a handful of online-curriculum providers, and rely on instructors to modify the content for their classes, she says.

At the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a public online charter school based in Columbus, Ohio, educators design their own Web pages, complete with photographs of themselves, says Anna M. Trachsel, an ECOT 3rd grade teacher who lives in Cincinnati and taught in a traditional school for 11 years.

The moment a student clicks on a teacher’s Web page, he or she enters the computerized “classroom.” Listed there is the curriculum, broken down by weeks, with assignment due dates.

As expected, communication between teacher and student occurs primarily through e-mail, with supplemental faxes and telephone calls, Trachsel says. “During the day,” she adds, “I might receive anywhere from three to 50 emails. Towards the end of the week, things slow down.”

Many online educators also use so-called threaded discussions held in virtual classrooms to communicate. Such messaging systems allow students to have dialogues with one another in “real time.” Text appears almost instantly on the computer screens of all discussion participants as it is typed, permitting quick back-and-forth exchanges.

Perhaps surprisingly, some online educators say they have forged stronger relationships with students and their families than they did when they taught in regular school buildings. They attribute that mostly to the frequent e-mail communications.

“It is a much closer relationship than in the classroom,” Stephens says. “In [a regular] public school, I taught AP classes that were 32 to 35 in a class, and I was teaching five classes, so it was really hard to talk to students a great deal one-on-one.”

Indeed, the online forum forces students to make an effort to communicate frequently with teachers, Stephens adds. Hence, she says, students have to do a lot more writing—or reflecting before they write—than they would in traditional classrooms. And that, she believes, has resulted in her seeing more thoughtful questions about assignments.

“Initially, the biggest challenge is making that connection with your students and figuring out what makes them tick, because you don’t see them,” Huggins says. “Now, I have a better picture of my students than most classroom teachers.”

And because online teachers aren’t expected to be in actual classrooms during the school day, some say they have more time to communicate with parents.

“The only time I could call parents [when I worked in a traditional classroom] was at 5:30 p.m., in the middle of their dinner,” says Kristin Fife Johnson, a history teacher at Christa McAuliffe Academy, a private online high school based in Yakima, Wash., that caters to more than 400 students. “It was not very realistic for us to have a meaningful conversation.”

The teacher, who worked in a regular school building for four years, says she now has the flexibility to contact parents when it is most convenient for them. “I ask them to let me know if they’d rather get a call at home or an email,” she says.

‘A Different Mentality’

Meanwhile, without face-to-face interaction with students, online educators find they must overhaul their teaching strategies.

“Online teaching is a different mentality,” says Huggins, the Alaska teacher. “There are lots of teachers that are fabulous face to face, and until they get online, they don’t even realize how much they do theatrically [in regular classrooms].”

What’s more, because so much work is done by e-mail, a teacher’s ability to write clearly and concisely is at least as important as his or her verbal communication skills, according to some online educators.

“A lot of times, something might have a double meaning or can be misinterpreted,” Huggins says, referring to the written instructions online teachers send to their students.

Writing curricula for younger students is especially tricky, she says.

At first, Huggins offered the elementary school children a Web page outlining assignments in various subjects. That tactic became a problem, though, because students would become so absorbed in one subject, they would forget to return to the main page to complete the assigned work in other subjects.

“It was just too much for them to schedule a plan for themselves,” says Huggins, who has since revised the Web page.

Online educators say they make use of threaded discussions to prompt critical thinking, especially when they include students from around the country or the world, which happens often at online schools. In one of Johnson’s classes at Yakima’s Christa McAuliffe Academy, such a dialogue between students living in the United States and Japan about the validity of the 2000 presidential election quickly turned to a talk about the importance of safeguarding democracy.

“The American kids were pretty flippant,” Johnson says. “But the kids from Japan said, ‘Wait a minute, the media around here is making it sound like the American experiment in democracy is falling apart. Aren’t you rioting?’ ”

The students from Japan sent links to a Japanese newspaper for the students in America to read, Johnson says.

“That conversation would be very hard to duplicate in a traditional public school,” she points out. “There was no other way to get that viewpoint into the system.”

Still, online educators must be careful lest a handful of students dominate such threaded discussions, Johnson says, because fast typists get more words onto the screen. “There are definitely kids who are shy [even when they are online],” she says. “They don’t speak without invitation, so I have to remember to invite them frequently.”

Some software packages include polling mechanisms deployed by cyber teachers who want to gauge student understanding or opinions on a particular question or topic, Johnson says. Students can check “yes” or “no” when asked a question.

Johnson also has the ability to pull together pop quizzes and administer them online. But just as it is in regular classrooms, cheating can be a problem, especially because teachers are not in the rooms of the students they are supervising. Usually, Johnson says, cheating is detected when online and old-fashioned written work doesn’t match up. That’s one of the reasons her online school purposely requires that only 50 percent of assignments be turned in on the computer, she says. The other assignments are given to her in hard copy.

‘Our Biggest Hurdles’

While technology is pushing the boundaries of precollegiate education, it can also prove frustrating at times.

It seems every online teacher has at least one good horror story about a computer crash.

“One of our biggest hurdles are these online [curricula], because they have to update them from time to time,” Johnson says. “The kids will be working on something, then boom—they can’t get online.”

Each month, five or 10 students find themselves unable to use the technology on which they’re so dependent, she says.

In those cases when online connections are down, she relies on fax machines and telephone calls.

The current systems also require tremendous effort to navigate on the part of the instructor, Stephens of the Kentucky Virtual High School says. She must load the assignment, save it, place it into a file, write comments, locate rubrics in the system to grade the work, save the assignment for a second time, grade it, write additional comments, then save it again, all before sending it back to a student.

But while some online teachers say they don’t mind that extra workload, they do complain of feeling isolated. Though connections between educators and students can run deep even when they don’t actually see each other, some teachers say they miss the up-close interchange with students and fellow teachers and the collegiality of the teachers’ lounge.

Some admit, too, that they’re losing out on the energy and sights and sounds of a real classroom. “I really do miss that,” says Trachsel, the Cincinnati-based online teacher. Still others say they don’t feel as if they get the respect they once had from friends who continue to work in traditional classrooms.

In response to those frustrations, Johnson is mobilizing groups of online teachers for what she calls “jam sessions.”

And to compensate in part for what they miss about teaching in regular school buildings, they sometimes supplement their online efforts with student field trips to regional museums or art galleries.

Huggins took a group of her elementary-age online students on a visit to a Challenger Learning Center in Kenai,Wash., to learn about the space shuttle program.

“I was really nervous to take 25 students I’d never met,” she says. “I had no idea how these kids would get along … though we had all talked online.”

In the end, though, she says the bonds built in cyberspace held up: “There has never been another trip as good as that in my memory.”

The trip was chronicled, of course, in an online scrapbook.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week


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