This is a question I get quite often. I’ll introduce my school and its clientele, and then get into more specifics of how I teach science, virtually. I teach at the Lawrence Virtual School, in Lawrence, Kansas. Our school is a public, state-wide, k-12 virtual school, that is part of the Lawrence School District (we take state assessments; have inservices, staff meetings, and collaboration; and are subject to AYP goals). Our high school program consists of grades 9-12 and we cap enrollment at approximately 100 students. We are a college-prep school, and all of our students follow the Kansas Board of Regents curriculum.
Our student population is very diverse. A few are traditionally home-schooled students, but most are not. Each student comes to us for a unique reason. Students must be a resident of the state of Kansas to enroll with us. We have students from across the state, and not all of our students currently live in the state. We have children of military families, who are stationed elsewhere. We have children of university professors who are doing work in another state, or sometimes another country for a while. We have a couple students who are actresses, one in LA and one in New York, and one who is a junior-pro tennis player. We even have a student who started his own successful, full-time lawn care business, complete with employees, and the Virtual School is how he completes his high school diploma while running his company. Many students come to us simply because they can get the education or services from us that their own local school district did not or could not provide.
We teach our courses online, mostly through a curriculum provider (much like text-book providers), and we also have courses that are created by our teachers and taught on Blackboard. We do have deadlines for students to meet with assignments, but we also provide some flexibility within the larger schedule. Students do not need to complete their work or be online at a certain point in time each day. They simply need to make sure they meet their due dates. The teachers also have our own online “classrooms”. These are online meeting rooms, where students can log-in at a predetermined time (this is recommended, but not required). We can see who is there by their log-in name, and the students have icons and emoticons that can demonstrate “body language”. We have mic capabilities much like a walkie-talkie, along with a chat section. We have what is basically a SMART Board there also, where we can upload documents, presentations, take students on a web tour of a particular site for discussion, or write and illustrate ideas like a regular classroom white board. We can also record the session and make the link available to our classes for future reference, and for those who could not attend at the time, to observe the discussion.
Being a virtual teacher is surprisingly similar to what I did as a regular classroom teacher. The main difference, of course, is that I don’t literally see my students. I do talk with them regularly on the phone, and e-mail with them very often, which at times I find to be more personal than many of the interactions I had in my traditional classroom. I address the class in class-wide e-mails, which are all copied to their parents. I meet in my “classroom” every Tuesday afternoon to discuss the topics of the week, and hold office hours. I spend most of my time answering questions through e-mail and talking on the phone or in my virtual classroom. As a virtual teacher, and as students in a virtual school, the biggest key to success is good communication. Students must be proactive when they need something and they must learn how to ask specific questions in order to get a prompt, accurate response.
My students work through what I consider to be a very good curriculum for their courses. They all get boxes of lab equipment at the beginning of the school year, which contains small, one-time-use amounts of chemicals, soils, rock samples, along with the microscope slides, glassware and plastic materials. My biology class even gets a microscope sent to them. The only lab items not included are basic house-hold or grocery store items such as a 2-liter bottle or bean seeds to germinate. Most of our labs are well-designed, and ask high-level questions that require synthesis, application and evaluation skills. Our inquiry labs, however, need to be improved. Luckily, our curriculum provider is well aware of this, and they have been working on creating a more authentic inquiry-type experience. One nice thing about a virtual curriculum~ it can be changed in a matter of weeks, and no one needs to wait for new editions to be purchased!
The biggest drawback of this type of education for the science classroom is, of course, the lack of collaborative experiences. Some students do get together and conduct labs together in person, but at this time, this is a hurdle we are trying to figure out how to get over. The solution will probably involve webcams, but we are still working out the details since our students are currently not provided with webcams.
One question I am often asked is, “do you think virtual education will replace classroom teachers?” My opinion is: absolutely not. But I do think this has such a great potential for teaching and learning, that I think it will become a more integral part of “regular” teaching positions~ it already is at the university level. I do think that the opportunities for what can be offered to students is so great, and the quality is improving so fast and the flexibility is so great, that I think many schools will be offering more online components to their traditional course offerings. And as a result, I think more classroom teachers will have some facet of their jobs in the virtual world.
So, in my experience, virtual education is really very similar to a regular classroom, with a few twists thrown in. Virtual education is changing literally all the time. My job today is very different from what it was when I started at the Virtual School a few years ago~ but my job description is the same! And I will say that, in my opinion, the quality of virtual teaching and learning has improved exponentially over the last few years. As with all quality instruction, this is not a job where you figure most things out the first year, and then tweak the lesson plans each year. Every year things change quite a bit, but that is what makes it fun and interesting, and exciting to be part of.