The Teacher You've Never Met: Inside an Online High School Class

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Nick Pandolfo

Jane Good, a teacher with 21st Century Virtual Academy, works from her home in Thornton, Colo. on Jan. 11, 2012.

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Good is still hampered by her inability to read body language or hear the tones of her students' voices, making it difficult at times to diagnose their troubles — another common complaint of online teachers.

"You have to be so good at communicating with students and making sure that they truly understand what you want them to do, and that you can recognize when kids are not understanding and not asking for help," Good says.

Once a week, Good turns on her webcam and teaches students in live sessions. In her biology class, 17 students "raise their hands" or answer questions by clicking buttons. Good can turn the microphone over to students, allowing them to address the class, but most opt out and choose instead to type into a box for instant messaging. Sometimes questions and comments pile up faster than Good can field them.

It's frustratingly hard to tell what and how well they are learning.

"In a classroom, you can look at kids and know pretty quickly whether or not they understand what you're saying," says Good. "We don't have that advantage [online]."

Michael Barbour, a professor of education technology at Wayne State University in Detroit, agrees that this is one of the biggest challenges of teaching online.

"Teachers need to figure out how to deliver lessons when they don't have that real-time interaction with students," says Barbour. "It's just something that is new to them."

The solution lies in finding ways to train online teachers to adjust to the different nature of the interactions — which some schools of education and online schools themselves have begun to address with special programs directed at those aspiring to teach virtually.

Good still has no way to be sure what a student is doing, or to what extent he or she understands the material. And while online environments open many lines of communication, no one really knows which methods work best for individual students. Roughly one-third of teachers surveyed in the "Going Virtual! 2010" study acknowledged a need for training to help students become self-reflective and independent learners.

Today's virtual students choose online learning for numerous reasons, from supplementing their studies with specialized courses to making up classes they've failed. Athletes, performers and students with special health needs may all be drawn to online studies.

Tabbie Smith, a 15-year-old in Good's Earth science class, is a perfect example: she's studying online after getting mononucleosis and then chronic fatigue syndrome, which caused her to miss seventh grade.

Smith has excelled since making the move to the JeffCo VirtualAcademy last fall. She attributes her success to teachers who go the extra mile.

"I was failing science. I hated science. I could not stand it," Smith recalls. "I even told [Mrs. Good], 'I'm probably going to fail your class,' and she said, 'No, you're not,' and I didn't."

Now science is Tabbie's favorite subject. She finds online school harder than her previous traditional school because she has to plan her ownwork schedule and ask her teachers when she doesn't understand something. "If you email [teachers], they can't see where your thinking went wrong," Smith says. "So it's hard for them to help you sometimes."

While she admits to missing the social aspects of traditional school, Smith is happier learning online because "it has taken all the stress out of school."

Good and her colleagues, who work mostly in isolation, have learned to reach out to one another. They attend monthly in-person training sessions where they swap stories and strategies.

At a recent meeting of JeffCo Virtual Academy's staff, teachers discussed topics ranging from how to create podcasts that explain concepts and outline assignments to how to embed the HTML-code for videos into their virtual lessons.

Afterwards, they go out for drinks and chat about everything from work to weekend plans.

"It gives us that water-cooler time that other people have with their co-workers," Good says. "I think it just makes us feel a lot more connected."

The teachers know they are navigating new terrain. Good likes the challenge of keeping up with technology and figuring out how to use it to improve teaching and learning, and believes online learning is especially effective for students who can't get the courses they need in school — or for those who are self-motivated and organized.

She worries most about those who are not, about the quiet students who sit in the back of the classroom and don't pay attention — and then end up learning online, where they log on only to drift off.

"You can't be a passive learner and be online," says Good. "Unfortunately, we get a lot of that."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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