Tag Archives: K through 12

And then there are times it doesn’t work….KCBS Cover Story: Online High School Classes Offer Dubious Results

KCBS Cover Story: Online High School Classes Offer Dubious Results « CBS San Francisco.

This article popped up on my reader this morning, in a perfect example of how and why my thoughts on online teaching continue to vary.  Reading the article, though, it was clear that this particular program is very different from the one I am part of.  From what I can tell, these credit-recovery courses are being used as completely independent-study programs, in which students are on their own with the curriculum without the guidance of a teacher.  For students who already struggle with academics, this is not a great solution.

At our online school, students have a state-certified teacher for each subject who they can meet with live at least twice per week, in class on in one-on-one live help sessions.  Teachers also reach out to struggling students through email and on the phone.  I even have students text messaging me — whatever works!  My goal is to keep each student as engaged as possible in learning, and to guide them through the learning process according to their individual needs.  Without this guidance, there are maybe 5-10% of students who could handle a completely independent setting.  The rest would struggle and possibly quit the program.

Now, that is not to say that we can get through to every student in this way.  There are students in our program, unfortunately, who have needs beyond what we can provide in this setting.  There are students who are already so far behind academically that I don’t even know where to begin.  So I am sensitive to the question this article raises: should we allow students who are academically unprepared to fail and drop out of high school, or should we push them along towards graduation, even if their skills are not at the college level?  What can we do to get these students up to speed before they are 16 or 17 and so far behind academically?  But that is a question for a whole other post!

In the meantime, I will be following this story and will be interested to see if it provides a complete view of virtual schooling rather than just focusing on one unsuccessful application.

There are days when it works…

Today I had a breakthrough with a student, the kind that helps me believe in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.  I tend to question everything I do (way too much…just ask my husband!) and the choice to teach online is no exception.  As I hinted in my post from yesterday on not seeing my students, I do have this sense that we are missing out on something important with the lack of visual interaction.  And yet then there are moments like this one today where I think, well, just because this isn’t the way I went to school, doesn’t mean that it’s “wrong.”  

I have a student in one of my English classes who I will call Matthew.  This student started off strong this year and then suddenly stopped working.  I tried calling and talking to his mom, but she didn’t seem to be able to get him going, either.  So I tried talking to the student, and just got nowhere with him.  He would respond to my questions with minimal one or two-word responses trailing off, in a tense, barely audible voice.  He would make a verbal contract to complete an assignment, and then  wouldn’t follow through, or would complete just the multiple-choice portions of a quiz without completing the short answers.  It was clear that although this student is very intelligent, something was holding him back from getting engaged in a conversation, not to mention putting himself out there in writing.

Many of my students say they chose online school because they feel overwhelmed or distracted in the traditional classroom.

And then came a project that I love to do with my students: they can choose to research literally any topic that they are passionate about, become the expert and present their research in a professional format.  Finally, after several phone conversations, this student opened up about a topic that was of interest to him: the inner workings of a computer.  I told him that was a great topic and that I couldn’t wait to see his final project.  But as of Friday afternoon, I still wasn’t sure if Matthew would follow through and submit it before the Sunday p.m. deadline.

But lo and behold, on Monday morning, there it was!  And not only was it complete, but this student had come up with a beautiful analogy for the difference between the different kinds of computer memory.  I definitely did a little happy dance on my exercise ball chair just then!  And that is the kind of moment you live for as a teacher — when you feel like, at least for one moment for one student, you did have a positive effect.  Now I don’t claim to believe that Matthew is suddenly going to be my start student; in fact, I am pretty sure I am going to have to pry every assignment out of him the same way.  But perhaps as these small victories start to accumulate for this student, he will start to feel more confident in his own abilities and to feel less anxiety about writing assignments over time.

What is clear to me, though, is that this is a student who would feel completely overwhelmed and even lost in the traditional classroom, which I imagine is why he is in online school.  Seeing this alternative option work for this particular student reminds me that even when I have my doubts about our program, as long as it is helping at least some students learn in the way that is best for them, it can’t be the wrong thing to do.

The first question I always get about online teaching…

The first thing people ask when I tell them I teach online is, “Can the students see you?  Can you see them?”.  In fact, most of the time, the answer is no.  We could see each other using the technology we have, but most of the time, it’s not necessary.

I do meet “live” with my students in an interactive web platform (Blackboard), and we do have webcam capability.  However, in our initial new-teacher training, we were told that using the webcam could actually be more distracting than helpful, and this has been my own experience in the “student” role in our staff meetings and professional development, which are all conducted using the same platform that I use to teach my classes.

In our live sessions, my students hear my voice, interact with me and other students on a shared “whiteboard” space, chat live with other students, and can come over the microphone themselves (although most are shy about doing this).  Without the distraction of watching a face and focusing on what this other person in front of them is doing, the student’s focus is sharpened and directed at the material being presented rather than on a social context.  They’re not being distracted by my bad hair day or the spinach stuck in my teeth,not to mention by the social labyrinth of the classroom which is so all-important to a teenager.  Removing these distractions lets the student focus on what is truly essential, namely, the content of the lesson.

Now, an important question remains: what do we lose by removing this visual (and physical) interaction?  Is the presence of a live person, and the sight of a human face, actually necessary to create engagement, enthusiasm, or a sense of connection?  I know on a practical level, there are sometimes frustrating moments when I wish I could just see what my students are doing.  For example, I spent at least 15 minutes in a live session with a student the other day, trying to help him find the “tab” button on his laptop.  If I had been there with him, I would have found it in seconds; he eventually sent me a picture of his keyboard, but it was a perfect example of how physical presence can be necessary. Again, though, technology provided a work-around.

Another issue that is often raised with this setting is “How do you know if students are paying attention if you can’t see them?”.  As any teacher knows, you can tell if your students are paying attention through questioning, for which visual contact isn’t actually necessary at all.  And of course, even standing directly in front of a student who is disengaged from learning is not necessarily going to cause that student to become an active participant.  So basically, teaching online provides many of the same challenges as the traditional classroom, with the main difference that the physical presence of the teacher is replaced by an online presence, which forces the teacher to find new solutions to the same age-old dilemmas.