The Highs and Lows of Virtual School: One Teacher’s View

| May 12, 2011 | 19 Comments
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Flickr:Ethan Hickerson

For Rian Meadows, an economics instructor at Florida Virtual School (FLVS) — the nation’s first-ever statewide virtual public high school — the newly passed legislation requiring every K-12 student to take an online course prior to graduation makes sense.

“I think it’ll bring students into the 21st century,” she says.

Requiring a virtual course will give students additional skills and a taste of what’s to come: Florida State University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and the University of Central Florida all offer many of their undergraduate and graduate courses online. “It gives our students a leg up to require them to see what it’s like,” says Meadows. “Plus, giving students the choice of which course they take online empowers them.”

It might sound counter-intuitive, but Meadows, who spent eight years in a traditional classroom and at the Florida Department of Education before coming to FLVS, loves her job largely because of the school’s culture. She appreciates the one-on-one connection with students and administrators and the team-oriented, non-hierarchical approach. “This is a philosophy that I agree with and a culture that I feel passionately about,” she says.

“There needs to be some change and growth in the traditional model, it’s not just one or the other.”

In a traditional classroom, she believes, it’s hard for teachers to help every student. “Sure, it’s not like I can help every single student in a virtual classroom, either — I don’t have a Pollyanna view of that — but I can help way more at a virtual school,” she says. “Some students learn well with me just being their cheerleader; some need me to hold their hand through every lesson. It’s great — I can do that.”

Here’s more from our conversation.

Q: Why did you opt to teach at a virtual school?

A: I was at a crossroads in terms of my professional life as an educator. My contract at the school district where I worked was ending and they had to close my school because of budget cuts. I wanted to make sure I had a job. I’d gotten in touch with the Florida Virtual School when I worked for the Florida Department of Education; I started researching and thought, wow, this is at the cutting edge of everything that’s out there!

Q: What do you see as the main advantages of virtual education for students?

A: The one-on-one interaction with students is key. My students, who are mostly seniors desperately trying to get everything done on time, will say, ‘You’re there to help me when I need it!’ It takes down a lot of barriers that kids have to asking questions in class. We have great phone conversations and discussion-based assessments. The students connect with one another, too. We have discussion groups where students post something and other students will post back; plus, they do a lot of collaborative projects and group work. We use Elluminate, a kind of chat room where students can present PowerPoints and go into breakout rooms and discuss in smaller groups. What I love about FLVS is that students are always creating things: blogs, videos, podcasts, PowerPoints, advertisements.

“When a student doesn’t have the tool to do the course, that can be very difficult.”

And it’s accessible for a lot of kids. I hear that constantly. Parents of children with learning disabilities will say, ‘How will my child be able to fit in?’ But often, if a child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), most of what it might say we already do here, such as allowing unlimited time on tests or letting kids redo assignments.  If they want to retake a test, they get to! I love that.

Q: When does virtual education not work as well?

A: I do think it works for any type of kid. People always say, ‘It has to be for the highly motivated.’ No. That is our job as teachers. I don’t care if you’re a virtual or a brick-and-mortar teacher. We all have to help motivate our students across the board to be an effective instructor. The hardest thing is when a student doesn’t have access to a working computer at all times. We do have a loaner laptop program, but unfortunately we can’t reach every kid. When a student doesn’t have the tool to do the course, that can be very difficult; I personally think this is one of our biggest hurdles.

Then, of course, we do have some students who we work with and they just decide they don’t want to do it. Most of my students are 17 or 18; they can make those decisions, but it’s heartbreaking. I do feel like we retain a lot more kids virtually, though, because they can work when they want. In the summer, I have a lot of kids who get their high school diplomas because of FLVS.

Q: Do you think virtual education will continue to grow?

A: Absolutely, yes. I like what they’re calling ‘blended’ education — a combination of virtual and traditional. For instance, I’m such a softy when it comes to prom. I always planned prom when I was in a brick-and-mortar world. It’s such an important rite of passage for students. So yes, there’s room for both of them. Though I think there needs to be some change and growth in the traditional model, it’s not just one or the other. You have to have both.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AOO573VV5Y4NGT7HJ7SPZ364AA Mary

    I agree with Ms. Meadows on virtual school growing and not just because our legislature has deemed it necessary to make our children ready for what they face in the 21st century. Virtual school is a self-paced curriculum which is great but some students still need to be MOTIVATED. As the virtual school facilitator for the a high school in the county that I live in I  have seen students motivated to get through their classes in record time, and I’ve seen students whom I’m constantly reminding them to get to work, to focus. And I set the standard as once I get everyone working I too go to school for I’m working on my Masters degree in Education ON-LINE through Kaplan University (based out of Ft Lauderdale). The kids at my high school have asked me to become a certified teacher (I’m also a sub) and I’m working on it. I’ve also have had my 2 sons go through FLVS- the teachers were good, some were absolutely awesome and I say that as a parent and a teacher. I’m currently looking for a class for my son who is a sophomore- I’d like him to do at least one course during the summer. As for colleges and universties going to on-line classes- more and more are going this way-UF, UCF, USF and FSU to name public ones, Kaplan (which does high school, undergrad and graduate studies), Phoenix, DeVry (in Orlando) and Daytona State College have a combo of traditional and Internet courses. Yes, ON-LINE is here to stay!
    I’d like to go to work for FLVS one day as a teacher. They’re a GREAT staff!

  • Hanley Jo

    i think virtual school has been great for me! you can do many more electives here than most schools. i am in 6th grade going into 7th next year, and i just finished pre – calculus. but the best thing for me was that i could work my own schedule. i could work more on one day, and then the next day i wouldn’t have so much to do. i finished school 3 weeks earlier than many publics schools in Florida. even though i finished early, i started at the same time as most public schools in Florida…       many people ask me if i can still have friends like regular school?    Well actually, you can. you can talk to friends who also have virtual school. 

    YOU WILL LOVE IT IF YOU DECIDE TO DO VIRTUAL SCHOOL!

  • Free2rhyme

    I absolutely love FLVS. It’s the greatest. I’m able to work at my own pace, number one. I love working on my time so I can understand the assignment better and not be rushed. For example: I need to retake Algebra II online and I can’t wait to get in there and actually work. Not rush! Many people say they love virtual school so they can cheat at home. NO! Different story for me, I love it without a doubt, and it truly is motivating. I don’t think there’s highs and lows for committed students and teacher, there’s just highs. That makes this whole working experience so great!

    • Liz

      That is true, but if student with low morals are cheating and succeeding, aren’t virtual schools making it easier for them?

    • Vickie

      Well, I’m in FLVS…and I’m a “spurt” worker. I don’t normally work for a week and a half…I take in stuff and learn stuff. Then, after about 5-10 lessons of learning, I get them all done, My teachers harass me about this a lot, saying I need to submit 4 assessments a week. That’s not really my own pace…

  • Rick

    Hey,
         A few good uses to internet learning but let’s not forget that kids have developmental needs.  I’m a therapist and think the technology is too isolating.  We need to somehow integrate face to face interaction with both peers and teachers before allowing public online schooling.  It also has potential to limit diversity – a lot learning time with their parents (Ugh.  Talk about narrow-minded).  May be a different perspective than your average blog but we have to think of kids and what’s benefits them 20 years from now!!!!

    • Erin Diaz

      I honestly think many parents don’t spend enough time with their children.  Too often teachers are having to parent children instead of educate them.   Its a shame.   The Virtual School gives the parent the opportunity to get more involved in the education of their children.  Don’t forget that students in a virtual school setting do interact with and are influenced by their teachers and classmates in their interactions.

      • Rick

        It’s nice to see some intelligent responses to my post.  I didn’t mean to imply that parents can’t teach kids well.  Of course, most parents have lots of knowledge but nothing can match a teacher who knows his or her subject.  And, unfortunately, that kind of thing just doesn’t translate over a computer screen.    Many teachers provide nurturance and serve as role models as well. 
         
        As a psychotherapist, I am also concerned about the long-term effects on children.  Online learning may do okay with textbook stuff but it doesn’t help with the acquirement of social skills, dealing with authority and learning to manage public situations.  There’s also a lack of diversity inherent in the technology.   Don’t forget the old saying: It takes a village to raise a child. 
         
        I don’t believe that online schooling is the way to go but if you do it, I’d recommend doing it for a maximum of three years so kids don’t get left behind in the ways mentioned above.  Also be sure and include a social component along with experiences that require stepping away from a computer (Aren’t kids already on it too much?)
         
         
        Children should be exposed to various teachers and visceral experiences.  They shouldn’t get all their learning from a non-human entity.   Moreover, they need to be interacting amongst each other – and in person, not texting, facebook, etc.  Online learning is convenient and perhaps even safer.  But is it better? 

    • Vickie

      I’ve been homeschooled my entire life, and I have been called very open minded by a lot of people I know. I take a lot of classes on virtual school and have not had any negative social effects. I spend half the days of the week out somewhere with my friends (who are a very diverse mix, racially and philosophically), so I’m not isolated in the least. I believe that whatever circumstances a child has, it’s really the parents who help them develop socially. I’m aspiring to be a child therapist, so I’ve thought about this. There’s a bad side to everything, too much and too little of everything. Technology can’t really isolate a child more than an adult can. If the child is socially inept it’s the parent’s fault. If the child is narrow minded, it’s the parent’s fault.

  • Paromero

    I think it’s a great idea, but I also feel like students may get a little too relaxed & put off assignments etc. I also noticed the teacher said many students didn’t finish the class.  Does it pay off to have students take this course on their own time or should they be in a classroom?  In the long run will it help those students who were having difficulties before?

  • Liz

    I believe that no matter what way you look at it if a student has the will to learn at a traditional school he/she will probably do the same in a virtual school. They have high chances of succeeding academically no matter what the classroom setting is for them. That being said, students who are committed to education will do fine when it comes to the academics. Students with low morals and work ethics will probably succeed through the wrong means and or inevitably fail as they might have in a traditional classroom setting. Are we giving them an easy way out then? What schools provide that virtual schools don’t is interaction with real world situations. It’s like learning how to swim through a youtube video. You might be able to know what it takes to do it, but, when you’re actually in the real world, will you be able to apply what you learned and not sink? Also virtual schooling might be easier because yes there is no bullying and you learn at your own pace, but in this world and esp. in America, we are not getting it easy. You have to be in the position of “stress” so you can learn how to deal with it early on. It’s part of life and we can’t isolate our students. Of course I’ve never been in a virtual school so i what should I know right? This is just my honest opinion. And to finish off I am not saying virtual schooling is not a good option, but definitely students cannot just be part of the virtual classroom all of their lives.

  • Mystery Student

    Hello, I’m in virtual school. Have been since last semester. And to be completely honest, I hate it. Maybe it’s just being stuck at home all day with nothing but the computer in front of me is the thing that’s killing me. My father took me out of public school, because of grades, and plopped me right into virtual school. I’m doing a bit better in school, but I had a LIFE taken away from me. I could have done better in school, yes, I’m admitting that. But, because I’m a right sided learner, I need things in front of me to learn. Demonstrations, things like that.

  • thisgirlhere

    I hate virtual school simply because I find it annoying. My school never up me in Personal Fitness, which I require to graduate, so I ended up in this virtual school class. I find it incredibly annoying when I have to do essays or huge projects for a class that in real life doesn’t do that. I’d understand if it was English or Science but for P.E? No thanks bud. Also it’s quite irritating when your teacher calls you every week(sometimes everyday) and simply refuses to understand that you have a life outside of this class. I have told her time and time again to just text me but refuses to accept it. My mother has also complained about it and doesn’t want the teacher bothering me or her unless it’s important. On top of that they have these stupid Discussion group assignments(some of them have been essays and have absolutely NOTHING to do with the course) and you are told you have to comment on things others have said and also sometimes call the teacher. That might seem nice to those people that think having virtual classes are too isolating but I’m not there to socialize with people I just want to do my assignments, the ones that actually have something to do with the class, and be done with it. I don’t have time to sit there and pretend to care about what so and so said, if I did I would get a facebook. Most of the time the lessons themselves have nothing to do with the assignment that’s attached to the lesson forcing you to use google for answers. It’s just a huge disaster and headache. /rant over.

  • Vickie

    I like virtual school because I like working by myself. With FLVS, I can pretty much do that aside from some collabs (but you can ask your teacher if you can work without the partners because of your schedule). I believe that the teacher really makes the class…all of the virtual classes I hated were ones with teachers who simply didn’t do anything. They told me that I had to submit work and that was it. No discussions. Oh, and they didn’t know how to answer questions…

    “I don’t really understand the past tense in Spanish, can you help me with it?”

    Teacher says exactly, EXACTLY what was in the lesson and then instructs me to use the study links in the lesson that I already used…

    But the classes where the teachers cared? Those were AWESOME.
    Also, virtual school is definitely built for more introverted types. I’m ambiverted, ad sometimes I get incredibly bored with the dull repeat of the lessons. Lastly, you don’t get your own pace. I have a “spurt” pace. I’ll do nothing for a week and a half, and then submit 12 assessments. The good teachers never seemed to care, but the bad teachers would hound me weekly “Oh, you only did one assessment this week, you must submit 4 assessments to keep from falling behind. And if you do nothing for 2 weeks, you’ll be kicked out.”

  • pennnamebooks

    I am constantly on the fringe of the FLVS experience. I “monitor” FLVS students as part of my daily job as a school media specialist, I have had a daughter who took 2 FLVS courses and as someone who has taught at the college level I even have had experiences with college student’s online learning opinions. I do believe it will continue to play a huge roll in our state and nation’s educational future and it is nice to have it as an option for students who are self-starters. However, it isn’t for everyone! I have seen some students put in FLVS as a last resort and these students are doomed for failure. Can we find a statistic that states how many students finish an FLVS course compared to those that start it? For example, if 100 students start English I FLVS how many complete it? 60%? 80% 25%? What would FLVS’s school score be (A, B, C?) if they were held to the same standards that our lawmakers have forced on brick and mortar schools?
    AND NOW for my MAJOR point: FLVS and other online courses are huge moneymakers! These courses are now mandated by our congressmen and women! For Profit education is gaining more and more political clout! Why are our legistators jumping 100% on this vitual school bandwagon? Are they convinced it is the best thing for students? Or are they reaping the benefits (sometimes even in the form of outright bribery) from Pearson and other online providers?
    If I was convinced that Mr. Bush’s educational think tanker’s intentions were entirely for students and not to push an agenda that Pearson and other for profits want then I would be more excited about FLVS!

  • who knows;)

    I miss being in a “real school” I do FLVS and it is ok. My parents put me in virtual school because christian school was too expensive and public middle school wasnt an option. virtual school, is okay for the most part. The teachers are great and everything, i just miss my friends, teachers and just the school environment in itself.
    my whole life i went to a “real school” and this has been my first year doing virtual school and staying home doing school. and honestly, it hasnt been easy, i would suggest starting virtual school at a younger age…..it would prob. make it easier. i dunno! virtual school is neat because you have your own scedual and you are able to do more things…..you only have to do 5 hrs of school a day and yhou can break it up. I like it for that reason…..but i do miss being in a real school, for sure.

  • elsa

    My son took French last year and Geometry this year and on both accounts we are very dissatisfied – the teachers are very hard to contact – for a DBA it would take 4 days sometimes to get to the teacher (after sending nasty emails) meaning my son would have to relearn everything because after 4 days you dont remember everything. That happened at least 4 times which is very frustrating – redoing the same lesson 4 times. Geometry is even worse – two weeks into it, the teacher changed without notice, and my son has been waiting 7 days because he needs to do a collaborative assignment with another student but there are no students signed up in the chatroom. It is crazy!
    What a waste of government funds.
    Elsa

  • Julie

    As a parent of a junior taking Spanish classes online for the first time, I have to say FLVS is the bane of our existence. I am constantly bugging my daughter to get her FLVS done and the threats of grounding every single week are getting old. She is not self motivated, and the teacher Mrs Palamino is wonderful! She emails and texts and calls and is very supportive to the students and the parents. I know she cares about her students and she initiates communication with the parents on every level. The other challenge is we had security issues regarding FLVS on our computer at home. Tech support is not very helpful, first it was a web based software glitch and now it seems to be our computer settings…which have been set and reset. Given that I am a single parent, my work schedule and pay doesn’t allow for me to find alternative internet access or another computer to use. So, we are at the mercy if it wants to work or not. I thought this would be a great experience, but it isn’t working out for us.

  • mystery student 1

    I personally don’t like virtual school they say oh you go at your own pace but what they don’t dare mention is you only have two options fast or very fast and I am a part time student and i hate it so much no matter how hard you try to catch up it never works an when you do a week later you fall behind again. I am worse at virtual school then in my normal public school plus through virtual school you have no social interaction with anyone unless you do a collaboration component which I hate because they force you to do them when you never have time to do them. I could never imagine sitting home all day staring at a computer with a online textbook it is pretty much a textbook and question the teachers are only there if you have a question they don’t exactly teach. It is very frustrating and could never imagine doing it full time.