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Teaching online: Harnessing Technology's Power at Florida Virtual School

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Technology has changed my life as a teacher, but not in a way I would have expected. Like many educators who began their professional careers before the advent of Apples, PCs, the Internet and the World Wide Web, it was a challenge for me to integrate the use of computer technology to facilitate student learning. That was until I became an adjunct online teacher.

With the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, educators began grappling with the issues of what students should learn and know with regard to computer literacy. The dilemma is to define and measure learning goals for technology, and decide whether it is more important for students to learn about technology or for students to learn through technology (Fulton 1998). Teachers are faced with a similar dilemma. If our students are expected to develop technological fluency, shouldn't teachers possess this fluency as well?

While eager to develop essential technological skills, my efforts were constantly hindered by time constraints to learn and experiment with new technology, limited access to hardware and software, and lack of a support system on which to rely for encouragement and trouble-shooting. The question was not a matter of my willingness to improve the learning environment in my classroom through the integration of technology, but what could I realistically accomplish with such limitations?

As a result of pursuing an interest in learning ways to integrate technology into my teaching, I was introduced to a new concept - utilizing the power of new technologies to offer a completely Web-based online high school curriculum. I had tried unsuccessfully to complete a correspondence course when I was a younger homebound mother; however, this was distance learning with a new and powerful twist. I had to know more about using the potential of technology to change education. And what I have learned since has transformed my life as an educator.

Distance Learning 101

Distance learning is not new, but the ways in which it is delivered today and its potential are quite different from distance learning of the past. The ready access to people and informational resources brought on by the rapid changes in communication technologies has dramatically changed our lives. The use of communications media and networks, particularly the Internet and the World Wide Web, are breaking down classroom walls and allowing students to view the world in a new way. Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the potential offered by distance learning.

The ability to harness the power of technology to provide educational opportunities is quickly expanding. One opportunity I found close at hand was Florida Virtual School (FLVS), headquartered in Orlando, Fla. With modest beginnings in 1996, FLVS has evolved from an instructional experiment based on distance learning to a successful mainstream educational alternative serving the students of Florida and beyond. With fewer than 100 students enrolled in its first year of operation, FLVS anticipates more than 8,200 enrollments for the 2001-2002 school year. And with this growth came the need to add teachers. Joining the staff of FLVS as an adjunct teacher gave me the opportunity to learn how the potential of technology can enhance the educational opportunities of students.

Teaching Online

By day, I maintain my role as a traditional classroom teacher at a local high school, but evening brings a shift in my focus to that of an online instructor. After logging on to my online course, I check e-mails and other messages. I may need to make telephone calls or write e-mails to clarify questions about course content, explain issues about an assignment, or encourage a student who may be experiencing difficulties with time management. FLVS provides me with a laptop, dial-up Internet access, voice mail, a pager and a phone card with which to fulfill my duties.

The majority of my time is spent reading, grading and responding to my online students' assignments, which are submitted electronically. The course is divided into nine modules, with an average of five assignments per module. Students are expected to submit at least one assignment per week. At the end of each module is a feedback component in which students comment on content, interaction and their level of understanding. The students also provide suggestions for ways to improve the module.

When a student completes and submits an assignment, it g'es to my electronic inbox. There I can grade the assignment, provide feedback, make comments or ask pertinent questions to extend the student's learning, and assess whether or not the student mastered the assignment. Work that is determined to be incomplete or inaccurate is returned to the student's electronic inbox for corrections and resubmission.

The content and achievement goals of all FLVS courses are dictated by our state's content standards, the Florida Sunshine State Standards. In addition, all FLVS courses have been reviewed with regard to the process and ability as described in the Goal 3 Standards, Florida's Course Code Descriptions, Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction and Bloom's Taxonomy. Courses are designed to involve students in the learning process by providing choices in how they learn, as well as integrating higher-order thinking and successful workplace skills.

One of the interesting tasks of an online teacher is that of making welcome calls. When a student is enrolled in my course, I am notified and expected to make contact with that student within 48 hours. Once I reach the student by phone, I verify their interest in beginning the course and provide orientation about the online learning environment. This gives me the opportunity for an informal assessment of the student's likelihood of success. From my experiences, students who are self-directed, highly motivated and self-disciplined are likely candidates for success in the distance learning environment.

Making the Choice

FLVS policy allows each student a 28-day grace period in which to decide if online learning is right for them. There is no penalty to withdraw within this grace period. And because FLVS courses are based on mastery learning, students do not advance to a new lesson until they have mastered the content of the previous lesson. The flexibility to learn at an individual pace - not found in traditional schools - helps online students succeed. Both online and traditional students value and profit from interaction with their instructor. After all, it is the teacher who looks at the whole person and brings judgment to the learning process (Collins 2000). While the interaction between student and instructor is not the same as in a traditional classroom, I am able to give each of my online students the focused attention they deserve via telephone and e-mail.

Students and parents have cited a number of reasons for enrolling in online courses. Block scheduling in some schools makes it difficult to fit in all of the classes some students want to take during their high school career. Some students need to make up a class due to a scheduling conflict or failure, while a growing number of students are taking AP courses online because their schools cannot afford to offer such courses. Home-schooled students make up a significant portion of my online student load. Concerns with safety, as well as the lack of attention provided to each student in an overcrowded class-room are also cited as reasons for why some students choose to attend online courses. Of course, there are also unique and unusual reasons why some students opt for distance learning. Young people involved in extracurricular activities such as tennis, gymnastics and ballet need the alternative schooling offered by distance learning. While the reasons are numerous and varied, one thing is certain, an increasing number of students are benefiting from the flexibility and choices offered by online instruction.

I have also found that the majority of my online students complete the course and earn a grade of an 'A' or 'B.' I cannot make the same claims about my traditional classroom students. Research has suggested that there is no significant difference between instruction delivered in a traditional classroom and instruction delivered at a distance using various techno-logies, including electronic and nonelectronic forms of communication (Roblyer and Edwards 2000). However, my experience suggests that students who enroll in online courses perform significantly better than those in a traditional classroom for a number of reasons.

Conclusions

The increasing popularity of online instruction is an indication that the notion of a teacher standing in front of a class is changing to a broader notion that learning can happen at any time and in any place. Learning in traditional schools has been effective for approximately 15 percent of students (Withrow 2000). Clearly, the needs of too many students are not being met in the traditional classroom. Technology has the potential of providing alternatives for these students. Distance learning is just one of the many possible uses of new technology to help students reach their greatest learning potential.

The delivery of instruction via online courses changes the landscape for traditional classroom teachers. Certain skills that are effective in one environment may not be in the other. Questioning strategies in distance learning, as well as verbal and nonverbal presentation skills, may need to be different. Not having to deal with student discipline problems, such as tardiness and truancy, faced by the traditional classroom teacher may seem like a good reason to teach online. However, the role of the online instructor means being "on-call" to address students' questions at times the traditional teacher would not be expected to be available, including evenings and weekends.

My online teaching experience has instilled in me an appreciation for the power of technology. I am awed at the potential technology has to transform the way I teach, but I am frustrated by the limitations of the traditional classroom, particularly by the lack of time, equipment and resources needed to transform my teaching. Crowded classrooms with one computer make it quite challenging to individualize instruction, maintain order, and accommodate the various learning styles of students and their levels of motivation. There is very little incentive to adapt new technologies to the old standards, let alone be part of creating a new age of education.

Nevertheless, I have learned that the technology to deliver high- quality courses via the Internet has the potential to offer students and our whole educational system a choice. With technology, we can provide opportunities for individualized instruction and accommodate multiple learning styles. We can do this while not only teaching content, but also enabling learners to acquire problem-solving and communication skills. At the same time, learners develop qualities such as flexibility and adaptability. I believe the change that is necessary to use technology to transform education will not happen as the result of the individual teacher. Teachers must step outside of their respective boxes, combine their efforts and make their collective dream to improve student learning a reality.

For more information about Florida Virtual High School, visit www.flvs.net.


References

Collins, S. 2000. "Thinking About the Future: Part 1." Electronic School (January). www.electronic-school.com/2000/01/.

Fulton, L. 1998. "Learning in a Digital Age: Insights Into the Issues." T.H.E. Journal, 25 (7).

National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Roblyer, M. D. and J. Edwards. 2000. Integrating Educational Technology Into Teaching. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Withrow, F. B. 2000. "Thinking About the Future: Part 2." Electronic School (January). www.electronic-school.com/2000/01/.


Powering the Online Experience

By Julie Young (JYoung@flvs.net)

Executive Director, Florida Virtual School

At Florida Virtual School (FLVS), we focus on making student achievement the constant, and time the variable. In the online world, this requires the right curriculum, the right pedagogy, the right teachers, the right students and the right learning environment - one that can embrace and support each of these elements. Central to our learning environment is our course management software, and experience has made us a discerning consumer. Our exploration of available software options began with an RFP in 1999, when FLVS's explosive growth exceeded the capacity and functionality of our existing course management platform. We spent nine months in an exhaustive analysis of e-learning software, enlisting the hands-on participation of our teachers, administrators and students. And, as we fine-tuned our needs along the way, we developed a list that could serve as a checklist for any organization looking to move or expand its online initiative.

Service. With thousands of students and an online environment, providing the requisite technical support for administrators, teachers, students and parents would be a nightmare - financially and structurally - without 24/7 customer service supplied by the platform provider.

Features. We wanted intuitive, fully integrated tools, including strong asynchronous and synchronous communications tools with the ability to engage the student in any format (audio, video, etc.); simple and flexible assessment creation and gradebook tools; accessible workspaces for students; and comprehensive reporting features.

Infrastructure. We learned that an ASP model would be advantageous as we grew, enabling us to focus on teaching and developing curricula instead of on technology.

Style. We discovered that the majority of platform providers insisted we alter our distinct teaching style to fit their software. We had a proven, dynamic formula for curriculum delivery online, and were looking for course management software that would adapt to our unique pedagogy.

Eventually, we found one organization that met all of our requirements: Jones Knowledge Inc. Jones' course management software, e-education, has been powering the FLVS online experience and has been a key to our success. This success is represented by our more than 8,200 enrollments in the 2001-2002 school year and, in collaboration with Jones Knowledge, the licensing of our content to schools and school districts worldwide.

For more information about Jones Knowledge, visit www.jonesknowledge.com.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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