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

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.

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."

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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.

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?

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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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