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(This is a guest post from Jo, one of my best friends and a K-12 Online Charter School Teacher. Jo spent many years teaching in a traditional public high school before becoming an online teacher. She teaches classes in math and science, and is the stay-at-home mother of two. )
Guest Post from Jo:
Virtual schools, or online schools, are becoming more and more common. I’ve worked at a few virtual high schools over the last several years and have seen how the industry is developing. I’ve worked for both private high schools where students from around the world could take one or more classes, and for public high schools where all the students were enrolled full time at no cost to them. Online education definitely has its pros and cons but I think it’s a great option for students to have.
- Great for students who are unable to make it to a traditional school daily. There are many reasons a student might not be able or willing to attend a “brick and mortar” school. A star athlete may train during the day. A teen mom may need to be home with her baby. A student who is ill and often in and out of the hospital, or one who is caring for a family member, can still complete his or her schoolwork, possibly uninterrupted. A family who travels often can continue to travel throughout the school year. A home-schooled student whose parent doesn’t feel comfortable teaching an advanced subject like calculus can get support through this system. A student who doesn’t feel safe at their local school can attend a school online from home. If a family doesn’t believe the local school is rigorous enough or doesn’t like the policies in the district, their children can attend a virtual school. A student might work during the day and then complete their school work during the evening. I’ve even had a student who just loved horses so much that she spent the day at the stable and completed her work in the afternoon.
- More class options. Courses are offered that wouldn’t be available at a typical school because of class enrollment. For example, a language like Latin or Chinese might not be offered if a traditional school has three students in it, but an online school may be able to run the course anyway. Also, students aren’t limited by class scheduling. If AP Chemistry and AP European History are offered at the same period in a typical school, a student would have to choose which course to take. This isn’t an issue in an online school and the student could easily take both. This also avoids any unintentional tracking issues that happen in schools where a student may want to switch to a more advanced course but can’t due to scheduling.
- Students can work at their own pace at a time of day that is best for them. Most alert at midnight? Need a nap after lunch? No problem. Quick at picking up Spanish but need to spend extra time in Geometry to get it? That’s ok. Students can spend less time in easier subjects and put more time into more challenging ones, at any time of day. In addition, most lectures and class discussions are recorded so those can be re-watched and reviewed later. Students can ask/answer questions in forums and easily go back to that discussion if necessary, even if it’s not during typical school hours.
- More personal attention. This might be counterintuitive to think that students who never even see their teacher would get personal attention, but it turns out that many schools are geared to personally communicate with students individually through frequent emails, phone calls, and live class sessions. Some find it harder to interact with people in this manner, but other students are much more comfortable shooting an email off to a teacher rather than raising their hand to ask a “stupid” question in class.
- Teaching is different. I love it so I put this as a pro. I like being able to immediately reorganize students into groups for collaborative work, quickly poll the entire class for an answer to a question to check understanding, or read a student’s questions in real time while I’m in the middle of a lecture where a question aloud might be disruptive. It has its challenges, like not being able to see if the students look confused or have completely tuned out, but I just do what I can to keep them interacting. I think it’s great. I mean, can you imagine being able to hit mute on an entire class? 🙂
- It’s easier to ignore. A student who isn’t focused on school can also ignore a computer. Students who are very personally motivated or have a lot of support will do well. Other students however, enroll in online school because they view a traditional school as “too hard” or it was “too much work to get to class.” While some of these students may be successful, it’s been my experience that the computer is easier to ignore than needing to be at school at a certain time of day. With this in mind, schools are developing strict attendance policies where phone calls home or emails to parents begin on the 2nd missed class day or when a predefined amount of log in time wasn’t reached.
- It can be harder to get help. While teachers are usually available through a variety of methods, it’s not the same as just walking into a classroom and knowing the teacher will be there. It can also be difficult to explain some things over a computer or phone. Some teachers offer defined office hours in a virtual classroom that has interactive board and video capabilities, but it’s not the same as a physical classroom.
- Socializing is harder. Students aren’t just hanging out with each other at lunch time or during passing period. Some schools plan school field trips and dances where the students can get together. Some host online clubs and forums for students to interact. Still, if the students aren’t involved in some other activities with other people, they can feel isolated at home with their laptops.
Overall, I think attending a virtual school is a great option for some students. Of course, it isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s great that it is an option. I’ve even heard that business are excited about virtual schools because it teaches students to use programs like Microsoft PowerPoint to do presentations and encourages students to work collaboratively even when they aren’t in the same location as their classmates.
As a teacher, I love that I can work part-time from home and still be with my two children full-time. I can schedule my office hours and live class sessions for times that Daddy or Grandparents are available and I can do other work when the kids are napping or playing independently next to me. I don’t have to worry about taking time off when they are ill, nor do I have to worry about bringing illnesses home from work and getting my newborn sick. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect job for a teacher turned stay-at-home mom.
I am not sure if I’ll send my kids to a virtual school, but I certainly won’t rule it out. I love that it’s another option available to help children succeed in school.