Tag Archives: Virtual school

Making Connections in the Virtual Classroom


Once upon a time, people also feared this new technology would destroy our capacity for interpersonal communication.

Last week I happened to be speaking to the parents of a friend, one of whom is a lifetime educator.  As inevitably happens, the conversation turned to my job.  The conversation went something like this:

Traditional Educator: Are you able to see your students, and can they see you?

Me: Yes, we do have webcam capability, but I find it tends to be more distracting than useful so I tend not to use it.

Traditional Educator: How are you able to teach without seeing each other?  How do you know if they’re working if you can’t see what they’re doing?

Me: Well, I am able to interact with my students in our live sessions through a virtual whiteboard and application sharing, and I get a pretty good idea of who is working and learning by assessing their work, just like in a traditional classroom.

Traditional Educator: But, how are you able to make connections with your students?  It’s impossible to make real, meaningful connections over the Internet where you can’t even look someone in the eye.

Me: You’re right, it’s harder to connect online, but it’s not impossible.  You have to be creative and flexible in order to create connections in online teaching, but I find some students actually find it easier to connect and relate with adults from a distance without the social context which they can sometimes find overwhelming.

Traditional Educator: I don’t think it’s healthy, being on the computer all day long.

Me:  I agree, I think it works best for students who have something else that they are involved in outside, such as sports, the arts or a group activity.  I do worry about the ones who say all they do other than school is play World of Warcraft.  But the truth is that many of these students are going to be sitting at computers all day in their future careers, and learning to communicate and make connections in an online setting is going to be an essential skill.

Tradtional Educator: Harumphgmwhmorecoffee.

OK, so, this was the fantasy version of the conversation, but it is pretty close to the real thing that plays out every time I feel I have to defend what I do to someone who is unfamiliar with, and perhaps suspicious of, the idea of online education.  And I must admit to seeing a great deal of validity in their concerns, enough so that these are the very issues I am personally grappling with as an online educator.  How do we make meaningful connections in an online setting?  How do we motivate students to participate and engage in learning?  How do we make sure students are getting adequate socialization and learning skills like cooperation and teamwork?  What do we do to re-engage those students who are tuning out and likely to drop out (with nothing to “turn on” to besides the TV or video games)?

With some students, it’s easy.  There are those students who show up for the live sessions, do their work independently, and seek help when they need it.  They tend to have supportive, involved Learning Coaches (typically a parent, most often a mom) who are able to be active partners in their education.  They tell me about themselves, about their lives, and seek out connections with their teachers.  These students inevitably succeed, even when they are challenged, because they are able to maneuver the system and use the resources available — they are able to “play school.”

But then there are far more students who come to the table with far less.  They are academically unprepared, perhaps years behind grade level in basic skills.  Their parents want them to succeed but are unable to provide the support they need for various reasons: working two jobs, family chaos, personal issues…Online school, by its nature, attracts those students who are not being served by a traditional public school, and so a large number of our students are under-served and under-prepared.  They do not know how to access the systems and they are afraid to ask for help, or they don’t know they need help.  They don’t attend the live sessions, or they do but don’t participate.  The work doesn’t get turned in, even after the student has *promised* that this time, they will get it done.  Emails, phone calls, text messages go unanswered (anyone know where you get a carrier pigeon?).

I ask myself, in a traditional school, would it be any different?  There would still be those students who wouldn’t show up for class, who wouldn’t do their work, and who would fail out.  So perhaps, as I have said before, the problems we see in the online school are no different from the ones that exist in the traditional school, just amplified by our particular setting and its challenges.  What I do know for sure is that online school isn’t going to go away — in fact, our enrollment skyrocketed this year and will likely continue to do so.  We are a school setting under construction, trying to find our way.  But in the meantime, there are real, live students learning online, and they do want to make meaningful connections with their teachers — they just need teachers who are willing to learn how to connect and communicate in the way that works for the student, not just for the teacher.

Happy Friday!

I (was) sitting here waiting for my husband to pick me up to go out to dinner, and I figured I’d squeeze in one little post to sum up this week.  Here goes, it was quite a week!

  • Our school’s enrollment grew by 30% over the past two weeks.  That is HUGE!  And I was definitely feeling it in terms of my workload.  A big part of the reason for the new-student bump is that, apparently, we are the last online school in the area that is still taking new enrollments.  And all too often (although not always). these last-minute enrollments are students from families who are…shall we say…less-than-organized.  So I spent a lot of time this week trying to get students up to speed who are already seriously behind academically. This made for a week that was at times frustrating, and at other times more rewarding as I got to feel like I was really “helping.”  For what it’s worth, anyway…
  • I started a new home decor project, this one a lot more manageable than my epic coffee table endeavor!  This one is an adorable little tray to go on top of said coffee table based on this tutorial.   I am painting it bright turquoise since I am obsessed with this color right now but don’t have the room (or money!) for another big project right now.  I will (hopefully) post the finished project on Monday!  Here is a preview of the color:

I love this color! And Fresh & Easy coupons!!

  • And finally, probably the biggest news in my life right now is that I am applying for adjunct faculty positions at a local community college,  The application process is a lot of work for something that’s probably a long shot (I will probably be up against people with PhD’s) and I am super scared about the idea of making such a big change.  But it is also really exciting!  So that is what I am planning on doing tomorrow (before I let myself out to go buy more stuff for my next project [see above]). Enjoy your weekend — I plan to be busy!!

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.