April 17, 2011

From Both Sides Now... Teaching in a Virtual vs. Brick & Mortar School

This Vignette was written in response to a call for papers to be published in an ISTE book.  The paper made it through the selection to the top level, but was not utilized in the end..... here is the call...

Vignette in Response to Theme #6 – The Design and Nature of Teacher’s Work

Over the past 30 years, the average amount of time teachers spend working outside of class on school-related activities has increased nearly 20 percent. How have the roles and responsibilities of teachers, both inside and outside of the classroom, shifted over time? What are the consequences of these shifts for students and teachers? For example:

• Describe how the definition of a “teacher” has changed since you first started teaching. Thinking about your responsibilities and duties in the classroom and beyond, how have the demands and expectations for teachers changed over the course of your career?

Defining teaching from Both Sides Now….. As both an online teacher and a face to face teacher, being an integral part of the changing shift of teaching roles has been an interesting and valuable experience. Spending the first part of my career as an upper elementary teacher, dealing with 25 - 30 students at a time, gave me a solid experience as an educator. While I spent at least 50-60 hours a week at the job, including lesson preparation and grading, I loved the close interaction with my students, and teaching across the curriculum. Many times I was able to have the students participate in online projects in the mid 1990’s that had components from Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts curriculums. These projects usually included interacting with other students around the globe. I loved being able to teach global awareness before it was a buzzword. However, even though we had a web page to share our projects, my efforts were mostly unappreciated by my district as no one in administration was yet aware of the world wide web, and couldn’t see the results of our accomplishments. Because I felt that I couldn’t grow professionally in a district that was so far behind technologically, I took a hiatus of seven years during which I worked in higher education in the online learning field.

Eventually, I returned to teaching in K-12. In this second part of my teaching career, my experiences included teaching at 2 different online High Schools, as well as at a brick and mortar Middle School as a computer education teacher. Moving to High School in the online schools was quite a different experience for me. Just the number of students that I taught at a time was enough to boggle the mind of a previous elementary teacher. In my first online teaching experience, I was teaching 600 High School students to utilize the Microsoft Office software for productivity. The learning management courseware was a unique design and very efficient in guiding them through their program, particularly since students were working from home with guidance from parents. As a teacher, I was expected to answer the phone to help students with questions they had with the curriculum. Most students progressed at their own rates, which left me free to concentrate on working with those having challenges with the curriculum. Our courseware included an online classroom where we could meet to talk about concepts, and for me to demonstrate parts of a lesson if needed. The quantitative type tests were graded by the computer, but each course had a couple of projects that had to be hand graded by the instructor. The grading portion of the courses could become tedious at times, only due to the repetitiveness of the expected projects and the sheer number of students. Since I was teaching full time for the company, the workload was very doable. As the school year wore on, I learned to take care of what needed to be done in the evenings, and was able to substitute in a local elementary school as well.

In another online school the following year, my case load was 80-100 students. This was a startup school in the Midwest while I was living on the East Coast. Because the school was just getting off the ground, there were many glitches in the courses that needed to be worked out, as well as several different delivery systems for the content, not as efficient as the previous online school. Eventually it all got sorted out, and our roles as teachers included grading assignments, calling parents and students on a regular monthly basis, holding online classes in an Elluminate classroom, and attending regular online faculty meetings. We were expected to develop additional lessons to supplement the online curriculum to be presented in the online classroom, and keep notes on the students in a student management system.

One of the awesome aspects of teaching online versus in a brick and mortar school was that I never met any of the online students face to face. I had no idea of their race or any other demographic information. In many cases I couldn’t even tell the gender of the student unless I heard their voice on the phone or in the online classroom. And with teenagers constantly changing voices, using that to develop perceptions was inconsistent. Therefore, I had to develop my perceptions of the students based on their work and ability to grasp the concepts taught. I was teaching to their brain and learning ability rather than to their looks or demographics!

At the same time I was teaching in this second online classroom, I had also returned to my previous district to teach Middle School students computer literacy. My student load in this school currently consists of teaching 160 students for 7 weeks, with 5 rotations throughout the year, resulting in teaching all 800 students. The grading and planning load (50-70 hours per week) is very similar to both the online schools and the elementary position. The curriculum is project based resulting in student assignments that need to be individually graded. The current brick and mortar school experience gives me personal interaction with students, albeit limited time with each student (6 1/2 weeks with 45 minutes a day equaling less than 30 hours total interaction time with each student during the year). A good portion of the classroom time is spent in teaching discipline because students see the special area class time as a break from the rigor of the regular classroom. They also use it as time to socialize with friends they haven’t seen for the rest of the day.

Due to the limited time with face to face students, I frequently felt closer to the secondary students I taught online, as I was interacting with them, one on one, in their home environment via phone calls and online classroom on a regular basis. In addition, I wasn’t dealing with their petty quarrels with each other, as their socialization took place in other areas such as team sports, dances, etc. The social activity was left out of the classroom, which allowed us to focus on academics and learning.

As a veteran of Both Sides Now in the online versus brick and mortar debate, I feel confident that the coming changes in education, through current and future planning by educational policy makers, will take advantage of the beneficial characteristics of both environments to make education work best for students.

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