So how does a Virtual School work?

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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.

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8 thoughts on “So how does a Virtual School work?

  1. The issue of science labs in distance learning is quite complex. For that matter, so are science labs in traditional schools; they just don’t pay as much attention to the issues.

    Anyone interested in this topic should begin by reading “America’s Lab Report” by the National Research Council. They’ve done a great job of defining science lab experiences and of setting goals for the labs and for their integration into courses.

    I’ll begin by saying that typical virtual labs fail miserably to meet these standards. Simulations are not science. Oh yes, scientists do use simulations, but they don’t INVESTIGATE them.

    Simulations of science procedures can be used to prepare for doing the real thing, but the simulations are not the topic of the investigation. They might also be used to augment other subject mastery work, but then they’re just another form of drill.

    On the other hand, virtual science is done all of the time by scientists. The most public example is the Mars lander program where scientists don’t touch their subject and don’t even see the data until a considerable time after it’s been collected. It’s real science, and it’s virtual!

    Lab kits can fill an important niche in teaching science at a distance. If they’re set up correctly and introduced well, they can allow students to perform some experimental design and get good kinesthetic learning experience. You must carefully avoid allowing them to become “verification” exercises or merely procedural efforts.

    Verification is a dull and unrewarding task. If students already know what to expect, then they have little incentive to perform the experiments. They can just invent the data.

    If all students have to do is follow a procedure, then what are they learning? Not science!

    The labs must have some air of mystery about them in order to get the students involved and engaged in their lab work.

    However, even if you can make your kit-based labs have all of this, you’re still missing some science. For example, you cannot do a colorimetric determination of copper in alloys at home. Many such examples exist.

    If you’d like your students to have a full lab experience in your course and avoid resorting to the fakery of simulations, what alternatives remain?

    Consider augmenting your kits with prerecorded real experiments.

    A lab will have many such experiments ready to analyze. The results are unknown beforehand; the data are filled with the usual random and systematic errors; the student care and judgment affect the quality of data and even the final conclusions.

    Good software will allow students to take their data point by point. It’s even possible to have students do a version of an experiment at home and do the prerecorded ones as well in the same lab. With all data entered into a server, they will be available for students and teachers to review and comment on.

    These data and subsequent conclusions may be shared among the class to prompt discussions about both the immediate and less obvious conclusions to be drawn.

    The future of online science, and even possibly traditional science, instruction will be a blend of valid science investigation methods.

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  3. Thank you all for your responses!

    bld424, good luck with the job application. There is such a wide variety in virtual schools/programs out there, and more starting every year. It is pretty exciting!

    mkbnl, you are indeed correct, that teaching laboratory sciences online is a hot topic. I wish I had better remedies for this, but for now, our students receive micro-portions of lab materials and equipment, and conduct the labs on their own. This is an improvement over the old, computer-based virtual labs, but it does lack the collaboration that I feel is necessary for good science. Perhaps web cams and other online tools can fill that niche, or already do for some schools? I would like to hear more about this as well. I look forward to checking out your blog.

    jn1211, Thanks! Many people are quite surprised when I describe my job to them. Many are surprised at the high quality that virtual schools can offer, and not relegate them to credit recovery or alternative school programs. Our students, like in any school, vary widely in their academic abilities. Over the years that our school has existed, though, we have developed a reputation for a rigorous curriculum, and students and their families have to be committed to putting in the time to do their work. They know they have a whole network of teachers to support them and provide instruction, but they also have to be willing to ask for help when they need it.

    None of the teachers who work at my school had previous virtual-teaching experience, but we all (except one!) have “regular” classroom experience. In fact, that is one of the things that our administration looks for, because we (the teachers) need to know typical pitfalls and misconceptions in the subjects we teach so that we can anticipate the same in the virtual environment. Since we don’t “see” our students and have that body language to rely so much on, we have to be more pro-active in anticipating issues in our fields. Having said that, I think you can certainly still look into a virtual program as a starting teacher! It is its own unique job, and like all jobs, you will learn each year how to do it better and better. I am certainly a much better virtual teacher now than I was when I began, but like all teaching jobs, there is still much more to learn.

  4. I actually had no idea that there were virtual schools like this. They sound like a great way to help kids who can not attent a regular high school. Are the students who attend these virtual schools usually more advanced? Also do the teachers who teach at the virtual schools have a lot of experience or would this be something a teacher starting out could look into?

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  6. I’ve enjoyed this entry. There aren’t many folks out there blogging about K-12 online learning and virtual schools – particularly those teaching in such programs. As someone who maintains a blog on this topic (see Virtual High School Meanderings at http://virtualschooling.wordpress.com/ ), I’d welcome more entries of this nature. Also, as a science focused blog, I know the issue of teaching laboratory items in an online environment is a hot topic and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on that front too.

  7. Thank you for discussing your job description here. I am currently a HS bio teacher in Missouri, and our state has just gotten ready for the launch of its school. I’ve applied to teach for this program, and I appriciate the concise and precise way you described your job!

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