So how does a Virtual School work?

This is a question I get quite often. I’ll introduce my school and its clientele, and then get into more specifics of how I teach science, virtually. I teach at the Lawrence Virtual School, in Lawrence, Kansas. Our school is a public, state-wide, k-12 virtual school, that is part of the Lawrence School District (we take state assessments; have inservices, staff meetings, and collaboration; and are subject to AYP goals). Our high school program consists of grades 9-12 and we cap enrollment at approximately 100 students. We are a college-prep school, and all of our students follow the Kansas Board of Regents curriculum.

Our student population is very diverse. A few are traditionally home-schooled students, but most are not. Each student comes to us for a unique reason. Students must be a resident of the state of Kansas to enroll with us. We have students from across the state, and not all of our students currently live in the state. We have children of military families, who are stationed elsewhere. We have children of university professors who are doing work in another state, or sometimes another country for a while. We have a couple students who are actresses, one in LA and one in New York, and one who is a junior-pro tennis player. We even have a student who started his own successful, full-time lawn care business, complete with employees, and the Virtual School is how he completes his high school diploma while running his company. Many students come to us simply because they can get the education or services from us that their own local school district did not or could not provide.

We teach our courses online, mostly through a curriculum provider (much like text-book providers), and we also have courses that are created by our teachers and taught on Blackboard. We do have deadlines for students to meet with assignments, but we also provide some flexibility within the larger schedule. Students do not need to complete their work or be online at a certain point in time each day. They simply need to make sure they meet their due dates. The teachers also have our own online “classrooms”. These are online meeting rooms, where students can log-in at a predetermined time (this is recommended, but not required). We can see who is there by their log-in name, and the students have icons and emoticons that can demonstrate “body language”. We have mic capabilities much like a walkie-talkie, along with a chat section. We have what is basically a SMART Board there also, where we can upload documents, presentations, take students on a web tour of a particular site for discussion, or write and illustrate ideas like a regular classroom white board. We can also record the session and make the link available to our classes for future reference, and for those who could not attend at the time, to observe the discussion.

Being a virtual teacher is surprisingly similar to what I did as a regular classroom teacher. The main difference, of course, is that I don’t literally see my students. I do talk with them regularly on the phone, and e-mail with them very often, which at times I find to be more personal than many of the interactions I had in my traditional classroom. I address the class in class-wide e-mails, which are all copied to their parents. I meet in my “classroom” every Tuesday afternoon to discuss the topics of the week, and hold office hours. I spend most of my time answering questions through e-mail and talking on the phone or in my virtual classroom. As a virtual teacher, and as students in a virtual school, the biggest key to success is good communication. Students must be proactive when they need something and they must learn how to ask specific questions in order to get a prompt, accurate response.

My students work through what I consider to be a very good curriculum for their courses. They all get boxes of lab equipment at the beginning of the school year, which contains small, one-time-use amounts of chemicals, soils, rock samples, along with the microscope slides, glassware and plastic materials. My biology class even gets a microscope sent to them. The only lab items not included are basic house-hold or grocery store items such as a 2-liter bottle or bean seeds to germinate. Most of our labs are well-designed, and ask high-level questions that require synthesis, application and evaluation skills. Our inquiry labs, however, need to be improved. Luckily, our curriculum provider is well aware of this, and they have been working on creating a more authentic inquiry-type experience. One nice thing about a virtual curriculum~ it can be changed in a matter of weeks, and no one needs to wait for new editions to be purchased!

The biggest drawback of this type of education for the science classroom is, of course, the lack of collaborative experiences. Some students do get together and conduct labs together in person, but at this time, this is a hurdle we are trying to figure out how to get over. The solution will probably involve webcams, but we are still working out the details since our students are currently not provided with webcams.

One question I am often asked is, “do you think virtual education will replace classroom teachers?” My opinion is: absolutely not. But I do think this has such a great potential for teaching and learning, that I think it will become a more integral part of “regular” teaching positions~ it already is at the university level. I do think that the opportunities for what can be offered to students is so great, and the quality is improving so fast and the flexibility is so great, that I think many schools will be offering more online components to their traditional course offerings. And as a result, I think more classroom teachers will have some facet of their jobs in the virtual world.

So, in my experience, virtual education is really very similar to a regular classroom, with a few twists thrown in. Virtual education is changing literally all the time. My job today is very different from what it was when I started at the Virtual School a few years ago~ but my job description is the same! And I will say that, in my opinion, the quality of virtual teaching and learning has improved exponentially over the last few years. As with all quality instruction, this is not a job where you figure most things out the first year, and then tweak the lesson plans each year. Every year things change quite a bit, but that is what makes it fun and interesting, and exciting to be part of.

Project Guide Sheet and Core Values

After attending the EduCon 2.1 Conference in Philadelphia, I became acquainted with the Science Leadership Academy and their core values: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, and Reflection.  The value of using these ideas to teach biology, as opposed to the traditional value placed on transmitting content knowledge, has been nothing short of transformational for both my students and myself. To help students design projects that help them develop these skills, skills that have proven themselves indispensible to successful people throughout history, a colleague, Mike Murphy, and I created this Project Guide Sheet.  The students struggle with this document, in a positive way,  in more ways than I ever could have imagined. Working through this document with students to help them design projects has brought into my classroom some of the richest experiences that I have had in my career.  I would love the feedback of the KABT community to help me to take this idea even further.

The Project Guide Sheet is divided into the following sections: Inquiry, Plan, Collaboration, Research, and Reflection.  In the following lines, I will highlight some of the successes and insights I have gained from each section.

Inquiry: In the first part of this section, I have seen just how difficult of a time students have creating questions to guide their projects.  They are so conditioned for the questions to be asked for them that creating their own question proves to be tremendously difficult for students of all ability levels.  This section leads to great one-on-one discussions with students.  The second part of this section asks students to identify their intended audience.  I have found that this is an area students never consider.  For us, as successful educators, it is something that we do without thinking.  For students, they almost never spend time thinking about who the presentation is for, let alone put into words.  The third part of this section asks students to explain why their intended audience will find the project interesting.  This section has been mind-blowing for me, because I discovered that students almost NEVER consider why their audience might find their project interesting. Typical answers from students are along the lines of, “…this project will be interesting because my classmates will get new information”.  My students are shocked to discover that not all students find all new information to be interesting!

Plan:  This section asks students to plan their projects.  Again, this is an area students rarely consider because project plans are typically provided for them.  Helping them through the struggle of planning projects has been particularly enriching for us all in my classroom.

Collaboration:  This section asks students to collaborate with family members, other faculty, fellow students, community members and/or field professionals. This is my very favorite section because it brings the projects to life by bringing in new ideas and it expands the scope of project beyond the confines of our classroom.  One of the best examples of the power of this section involves a student who was completing a project on genetic engineering and was absolutely positive that genetic engineering was morally wrong on religious grounds.  Had she completed a traditional project, without collaboration, she would have found sources to solidify her viewpoint and that would have been the end.  Instead, one of the people with whom she chose to collaborate was her minister who SHOCKED her by sharing that he saw no problems with genetic engineering as long as it benefitted God’s children and was respectful of life.  This was earth-shattering for this student, in a very positive way.  She left the experience with the idea that this issue is much more complicated than she originally thought, and left her with more questions than answers, a hallmark of quality, meaningful learning.

Research:  This section is pretty traditional, and is an area where I would like more collaboration with colleagues in how to enrich it and make it more meaningful/useful for students.

Reflection:  This is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the process as it provides students the opportunity to make meaning from their experience.  A successful project should leave students with new understandings, new questions, and a clear idea about how lessons learned from this project can improve the quality of projects they complete in the future, whether scholastic or otherwise.  Giving the students the opportunity for metacognition is an ESSENTIAL part of a meaningful project experience.

I have no doubt that with meaningful collaboration, this document will evolve over time.  I sincerely hope that the KABT community will play a large role in that evolution.

If you’d like to give this a try in your classroom, please feel free to modify it in any way you see fit.  My only request is that you let me know how it goes for you and your students.   🙂

A True Identification Challenge

Blue Lawn weed

Blue Lawn weed

This is a very common, very early and very small  lawn weed/flower–one that I have never keyed out nor do I think I’ve every had anyone tell me what it is.   My point is that I actually don’t know what this common plant so I’m looking for help–but I’ll need convincing.  What is the name of this early harbinger of spring?  And what are the key identifying characters that lead you to that decision?  Here’s another view.

Second view

Second view

I feel I’m being a bit lazy by using the “ask the web community” strategy instead of just keying it out myself but thought you might like the challenge.

Too late—I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had to look this plant up and sure enough I had keyed this out years ago–just forgot.  At any rate the challenge is still on and now I can verify any entries.

A professional opportunity from NABT


The information and instructions are on the NABT website at

Biology Educator Leadership Scholarship (BELS)

The Biology Educator Leadership Scholarship (BELS) program was established to encourage and support teachers who want to further their education in the life sciences or life science education. The award recipient is required to be a practicing educator who is also enrolled (or anticipates enrolling) in a graduate program at Masters or Doctoral level.

Invite to the Denver NABT convention

nabt_logoDear Fellow Science Educators:

You are cordially invited to attend the NABT Professional Development Conference in Denver, Nov 11-14 at the Sheraton Denver.

We promise you exciting sessions, field trips you’ll remember for a lifetime, speakers who make the news, methods for teaching tough and difficult topics, and teachers with a passion for biology and life science.

There will also be Stem Cell Education Summit hosted in conjunction Genetics Policy Institute held on Saturday, November 14. This summit will provide educational opportunities for biology and life science educators at all levels.

This is the first Denver meeting since 1992. For further information and to register online visit the NABT website at

Program proposals are due by March 15, 2009.

Please feel free to forward this invitation to others who might be interested in attending so they can save these dates.

Mark Little

President-Colorado Association of Biology Teachers.

Brain Discovery Fair

Society for Neuroscience – Kansas City Chapter

in celebration of…brain-awareness-week1

When:     Saturday, March 21st – 11:00 am to 3 pm
Where:   KU Med Center, Kansas Life Science Innovation Center (NE Corner of 39th & Rainbow)

Link to Flyer Information that can be posted in your classroom.

  • Meet Neuroscientists
  • Observe Models, Demos, and Displays
  • Hear a Public Lecture at 12:00 am and 2:00 pm

The Brain Discovery Fair is Free to all participants – Students, Parents, and Teachers are Welcome!