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Title: Taking a Virtual Leap


Patty Blake, MA
Virtual School Coordinator
West Virginia Virtual School Advisory
Board Member
Poca High School
#1 Dot Way
Poca, WV 25159

Marjorie Snyder, MA, NBCT
Former Virtual School Teacher
Online Professional Development Instructor
Spanish Teacher
George Washington Middle School
P.O. Box 660 Route 62 North
Eleanor, WV 25070

Elizabeth Campbell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Elementary and Secondary Education
Program Coordinator, English as a Second
Graduate School of Education and
Professional Development
Marshall University
100 Angus E. Peyton Drive
South Charleston, WV 25303

Edna Meisel, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor
Elementary and Secondary Education
Program Coordinator, Mathematics through
Algebra I
Graduate School of Education and
Professional Development
Marshall University
100 Angus E. Peyton Drive
South Charleston, WV 25303


Taking a Virtual Leap

According to Evergreen Education Group (2014), twenty-five states have a K-12 virtual
school. In the 2012-2013 school year, state virtual schools had approximately 740,000 courses
enrollments. As the number of virtual schools grows so, too, will our need for virtual school
teachers. Thus, it follows that our understanding of teaching is likely to undergo a significant
change. Using Blake and Snyders experiences as, respectively, a K-12 virtual school
coordinator and a former K-12 virtual school teacher, the authors urge traditional teachers to
consider many factors before embarking on a K-12 virtual teaching career. By understanding the
current definition and historical development of distance education, traditional teachers can
better prepare for the changes in pedagogy required by the shift toward a more global and
technical world. Additionally, traditional teachers considering the leap to becoming K-12
virtual teachers may also benefit from understanding the skills necessary to successfully navigate
the challenges ahead.
Definition and Development
Defining Virtual

Decades ago, the term virtual was used to define something that was witnessed but not
truly acknowledged as a fact. In essence, it was the opposite of actuality. The term has changed
and now has a different emphasis for the cyber natives that inhabit the 21
century. Today,
virtual is often connected as a modifier to nouns such as reality, makeover, piano, and tour,
connecting the term to computer simulations and other kinds of online activities. Today the term
virtual is linked to school and is a global reality for a large number of students.


Exactly what is virtual school? Defining the relatively new phenomenon is a challenge.
Definitions of virtual school range from accredited courses from reputable universities to
YouTube posts or other self- service video tutorials; both academic and nonacademic.
Archambault and Crippen (2009) attribute the number of definitions to variations in delivery. In
addition to virtual school, other common terms for distance education include online learning,
web-based instruction, e-learning, hybrid learning, asynchronous and synchronous learning.
Russell (2006) used the term virtual school to refer to use of online computers to create
learning environments where both time and space separated the teacher from the student. A
Canadian study of the perspectives of online high school teachers looked at two different models:
asynchronous and synchronous. The study defined asynchronous learning as students using the
internet to work online on their own. Asynchronous learning makes use of email, discussion
forums, and wikis but students generally do not see teachers or classmates or communicate with
them in real time. In comparison, synchronous learning involves some type of real-time student-
teacher connection. This is often used when students are located in remote areas. Tools include
videoconferencing, audio conferencing, webcams and Skype. Because of the student-teacher
connection, instruction is more like traditional classroom instruction (Murphy, Rodrguez-
Manzanares, & Barbour, 2011).
For the purpose of their article, Archambault and Crippen (2009) refer to a set of specific
set of definitions developed in 2006 by Allen and Seaman. Here, online education or virtual
school describes a course or program in which most to all of the content is online. For the sake
of simplicity and clarity, that definition of virtual will be used throughout this paper.
This paper will also limit its focus to K -12 education. The tremendous growth of virtual
schools at this level has allowed students to take Advanced Placement courses, participate in


credit recovery programs, complete entire grade or program levels, and even earn diplomas
(Archambault & Crippen, 2009). These nontraditional pathways are the schools that technology
built (Davis & Roblyer, 2005, p.400), and, they are a growing trend. According to Reid, Aqui,
and Putney (2009), the first virtual schools were not established until 1997. Because virtual
schools seemed to have burst recently onto the educational scene with little warning, both
students and educators have had little time to prepare or adjust.
For asynchronous learning, synonymous with virtual school, pedagogy took on a
heightened importance while cognitive participation was better supported. However, the
synchronous learning environments better supported increased motivation (Murphy, et al., 2011).
Differences between the two distance education environments began to emerge and mirror
emerging differences between traditional and virtual environments.
History and Development of Virtual Schools
Sumner (2000) provides a comprehensive look at the history of distance education and
separates distance education into three phases, which she refers to as generations. She stresses,
however that the emergence of a new generation does not eradicate the previous generation;
rather each co-exists and maintains the potential for reciprocal support. The common factor and
basis for definition appears to be the use of technology which is perceived as the bridge between
teacher and learner and which has taken on many forms including print, radio, telephone,
television, audio/videotape and computers. The rapid development and use of technology has
resulted in greater accessibility, improved ease of use, and lower cost, factors which have
influenced the pedagogical applications and potential of distance education (Sumner, 2000).
Although there is some discussion regarding the beginning of distance education, it is the
consensus that it began during the industrial revolution. Correspondence study, which Sumner


(2000) identifies as the first generation of distance education, was well in place by the end of the
century as a one-way technology, which relied on printed materials and the postal system.
This individualized mode of education neither required nor emphasized collaboration. It was
created to meet the growing need for workers in the expanding industrialized society. Postage
was inexpensive and reliable and the transportation system developed enough to accommodate
access to those in isolation. This was especially true in parts of Canada and Australia (Sumner,
By the end of the century, colleges were offering correspondence courses; by the early
century, 48 institutions were offering doctoral programs. This was a move, which did
significant damage to the reputation of distance education as many viewed them as lacking rigor
and providing degrees for dollars. Still, correspondence courses helped to meet the demand for
educated soldiers before World War I and for educating soldiers at home after World War II, and
its popularity remained steady until the late 1960s (Sumner, 2000).
The second generation of distance education although still a one-way technology,
expanded from the strict reliance on printed material to tools like television, radio, and audio and
video cassettes (Sumner, 2000). To reflect the broadened focus of the second generation, the
term distance education replaced the term correspondence school. Sumner (2000) recognizes the
1969 emergence of the Open University, a British-based multimedia course model symbolic of
the second era of distance education. For those in higher education, the university modeled the
move toward radio and television broadcasts as well as audio and video cassettes as instructional
delivery methods. Although the emergence of new technologies increased opportunities for two-
way communication it did not necessarily improve the quality of the learning experience
(Sumner, 2000).


The third generation, still in its infancy, surfaced at the beginning of the 21
(Sumner, 2000). In the same way the industrial revolution required factories and trained workers
to sustain the labor intensive society, the current revolution now requires skills and technology to
maintain our knowledge-based society. The third generation of distance education is a two-way
technology, which makes use of tools like the internet, video conferencing, and websites.
Sumner cautions however that we must guard against creating an information overload that
would do nothing to improve education or support social learning. In addition, Reid, Aqui and
Putney (2009), note that the use of cutting-edge technology did not guarantee educational
excellence (p. 293). Even though virtual school offers some distinct advantages, it also
provides some discouraging disadvantages including high dropout and failure rates.
Despite the warning against creating information overload, there seems to be no
indication that technology or distance education will do anything other than gain momentum and
expand. Davis and Roblyer (2005) cite a 2005 study by Revenaugh, which claims that almost
half of Americas states offer either statewide online programs to supplement traditional schools,
full- time virtual schools, or both. Others echo the growing phenomena and the increased
enrollment in virtual courses (Archambault & Crippen, 2009; Davis & Roblyer, 2005; Oliver,
Osborne & Brady, 2009; Reid, Aqui, & Putney, 2009; Russell, 2006).
Although some early pioneering programs like Florida Virtual School began earlier,
Davis and Roblyer (2005) mark 1996 as the beginning of the organized virtual school movement
focused on K-12 education. Oliver, Osborne, and Brady (2009) note that Florida Virtual School
recently expanded internationally and currently enrolls secondary students from America in
addition to 11 other countries. While more developed countries like the United States, Canada,
the United Kingdom and Australia often rely on virtual schools to supplement education for


students with behavioral issues or who live in isolated areas; international growth is further
indicated through the development of virtual schools in third world countries seeking to promote
equity in educational access (Oliver et al., 2009). Finally, growth of the trend is evidenced in
pre-service programs. Currently Iowa State is working to develop a curriculum model for
preservice teachers that will incorporate what they see as four distinct roles within virtual
education: teacher, counselor, designer, and assistant (Davis & Roblyer, 2005).
A Finnish study on virtual school implementation at the middle school level (Lakkala,
Ilomki, & Palonen, 2007) reports that students had no difficulty with using technology. The
study further argued that schools have to get rid of the conventional model of one teacher
teaching a fixed study group behind closed classroom door in order to properly answer the
expectations that society sets on the development of schools in the future (p. 52). Ridding
ourselves of the traditional model is riddled with changes for every level of the curriculum field.
Russell (2006) claims that profound changes to our ways of understanding education are
inevitable when technology replaces face-to-face interaction between teacher and student. New
tools, skills, perspectives and practices will become necessary as third generation distance
educators move forward.
Virtual School Teachers
Perhaps because the field of virtual education is a relatively new phenomenon there is
little in the way of research. One Canadian study (Murphy, et al., 2011) notes a general dearth of
research regarding virtual school focused at the K-12 level. The research they did uncover was
predominantly American and generally served to compare the effectiveness of classroom
practices in virtual school. However, as Archambault and Crippen (2009) point out, our present
understanding of teaching is rooted in the traditional classroom setting. The demand for virtual


school teachers will continue to grow and educators are well advised to understand the
pedagogical and social changes manifest in this trend.
Davis and Roblyer (2005) note that the virtual school students of today are not the
correspondent school students of yesterday. Instead of the necessity of distance education due to
isolation or social status, todays student is likely to be an independent learner who enjoys the
flexibility and freedoms that virtual school affords. Blake, a virtual school coordinator at a high
school, notes that recently a student was able to take advantage of virtual school to test out of
two years of German, her first language. Moreover, todays students expect virtual school
teachers to teach. Oliver, Osborne, and Brady (2009) point to a survey of over 5000 students
enrolled in virtual public school during the 2007-2008 school year. Students expected
explanation and interaction. The authors contend that there are indeed shared competencies
between traditional and virtual school teachers but identify three critical needs categories for
competency as a virtual school teacher. Those categories include:
1. Managing an online learning environment that involves supervising student progress,
providing feedback, explaining assignments and trouble-shooting technical difficulties.
2. Preparing content for online learning which includes adding visuals and making
accommodations for differing learning styles, and
3. Using online tools for desired strategies that include communication and collaboration.
However, just as students who are successful in the traditional school are not always
successful in virtual school, the same can be true of teachers as well. Davis and Roblyer (2005)
warn that teachers just cannot jump in but need to develop a unique set of skills to be
successful online teachers (p. 400). Cyrs (as cited in Davis & Roblyer, 2005) indentified
competencies unique to the success of distance educators. Those competencies include course


planning, communication skills, collaboration, questioning strategies, and the ability to
coordinate student activities across numerous sites. It appears that with a few exceptions the
desired characteristics for a successful virtual school teacher are the same for a traditional
instructor. In addition, certain characteristics are more emphasized than others are. Overall, a
successful virtual school teacher would most likely be innovative, flexible, collaborative,
organized and creative.
According to Archambault and Crippen (2009) little is known about the virtual school
teacher, including their characteristics and if or how they may differ from traditional teachers.
Some of the results of their national study that examined these characteristics and involved
almost 600 virtual teachers from 25 different states are summarized in the following figures:


Figure 1: Virtual School Teacher by
Content Area
Figure 2: Virtual School Teacher
Distribution by Age
Figure 3: Number of
Courses/Groups Taught
Figure 3: Virtual School Teacher Distribution
Note: Teachers report teaching an average of 97
Figure 4: Employment Status
Figure 4: Employment Status
Note: Other roles include roles within the
school such as administrator.


In what follows, we use Snyder and Blakes experience to reflect on the unique
opportunities and challenges in preparing to move from a traditional to a virtual teaching
situation. Recently, Blake accepted a position as a member of the advisory board for the Virtual
School system operated by the West Virginia Department of Education. As a former virtual
school teacher, Snyder also has had numerous opportunities to interact with others in the virtual
school field. The remainder of this paper represents a compilation of information from both
personal and professional interaction and experience.
Necessary Skills
As she transitioned from a brick and mortar classroom to a virtual one, Snyder had many
lessons to learn and skills to acquire. One such skill is organization. It is critical to be organized
at the outset, especially if one is responsible for managing hundreds of students. Snyder learned
to keep a manual grade book in addition to the online version used by the virtual school. Even if
the online platform suffers an error, virtual teachers must still send grade reports on time.
Another helpful organizational tool is a spreadsheet to keep track of lesson plans, email and
phone communications, as well as student information. Blake notes that virtual school teachers
not only work with a diversity of students but with a diversity of school districts and
corresponding policies. For example, although many virtual school programs determine a grade
scale, some leave that up to the individual school or district. For virtual school teachers, an
effective organizational system is essential.
Time Management
As in a face-to-face classroom, time management is crucial in a virtual teaching situation.
During the process of deciding whether to become virtual school teacher, educators should enroll


in and complete an online course themselves. They should also become well acquainted with
online course pedagogy (Elbaum, McIntyre, & Smith, 2002). Completing these tasks before
teaching a virtual course will save instructors valuable time once the course begins.
When they leave the school building, traditional teachers can decide whether to bring
work home. However, a virtual teacher does not have that choice. It is crucial to learn to cope
with this particular challenge of online teaching (Elbaum, McIntyre, & Smith, 2002). For
example, to avoid working around the clock it is important to set a work schedule. Snyder, a
former virtual school teacher, learned to close the office door and enjoy personal time. When
necessary, however, technologies, such as smart phones, allowed Snyder to have contact with
students while not being confined to the home office. As a coordinator for virtual schools, Blake
notes that many schools now include pacing guides to facilitate the delivery and flow of the
course. Pacing guides are individualized for students based on both schedule and semester
categories. Thus, virtual school teachers can assist in ensuring satisfactory progress in terms of
course completion.
Technological Literacy and Pedagogy
Being a virtual teacher requires technological literacy. Many virtual schools offer
technology training and professional development, but at times, it is necessary for virtual
teachers to learn new technologies on their own. It is important, therefore, that virtual teachers
actively seek out online tools that will make their jobs easier and increase their technological
skills. Some tools and resources include webinars and unconferences, which are online
conferences, as well as participation in article and book studies. Additionally, educational
journals and blogs offer concrete ideas for pedagogy and technologies that you can incorporate
into virtual instruction.


Communication is another important asset for virtual teaching success. The majority of a
virtual teachers dialogue with colleagues, students, coordinators, school principals, and parents
is through email. Therefore, it is crucial to write clearly and concisely. In addition, virtual
educators need to be able to distinguish the feelings students express and be able to communicate
their own feelings, sometimes solely through text (Elbaum, McIntyre, & Smith, 2002). Besides
feelings, virtual educators also need to learn to interpret the level of their students understanding
via written communication (Oliver, Osborne, & Brady, 2009). Blake notes that the use of
discussion boards and required postings is one way to increase communication in a virtual school
class. Facebook and other social media make communication outside of the classroom another
Building Rapport
Virtual school teachers may rarely or never meet coordinators and students in person.
This makes building rapport a challenge. Coordinators are often the mediators between students
and the virtual teacher. Therefore, it is important to develop a friendly and professional
relationship with them. As a virtual teacher, Snyder learned to encourage regular
communication so the coordinators understand they are an essential element in the students
success. Blake, who works as a virtual school coordinator, also finds that frequent phone calls to
clarify information or explain situations can support the development of strong relationships. By
building rapport, virtual teachers and coordinators can interact as if they are colleagues in the
same school building.
Likewise, it is important to develop a connection with students by communicating
regularly with them via email, Skype, or telephone. In weekly conversations with her students,


Snyder found it helpful to discuss class-related information as well as personal interests and
hobbies. This allowed students to understand that the virtual teacher is not just a distant voice on
the other end of the phone or internet connection.
Dealing with Isolation
Feelings of isolation can develop for a K-12 virtual teacher and it is important to seek out
contact with other teaching professionals. Some virtual schools have meetings that, depending
on location, occur in person or via online chat rooms to allow virtual colleagues to share
resources or to vent frustrations. Joining an email listserv is another tool for combating isolation.
Many listserv groups exist, some focus on a specific content area or an aspect of virtual
instruction. As a Spanish virtual teacher, Snyder joined a listserv called FLTEACH (Foreign
Language Teaching Forum). From FLTEACH, Snyder garnered teaching ideas as well as
developed professional relationships.
An additional way to deal with isolation is for virtual teachers to join and become active
in teaching organizations and to attend regional and national conferences. In her virtual teaching
experience, Snyder received valuable teaching resources, ideas, and networking opportunities by
attending conferences and organization meetings.
Virtual teaching can be rewarding. But before embarking on the unique challenges of a
virtual teaching adventure, prospective virtual teachers must do their homework, and must
understand the historical aspects and pedagogical skills of virtual education. The need for virtual
school teachers will grow as the world continues to shrink and as technology continues to
expand. Traditional and virtual school teachers share general requirements, demonstrated
competencies, and desirable characteristics. However, the virtual school teacher must add more


emphasis on organization, time management, technology use, effective communication, rapport
building, and collaboration to avoid feelings of isolation. In exchange, they are often rewarded
with flexible scheduling, and a freedom from behavior management in a classroom. The rewards
as well as the growing demand for virtual teachers lead many to consider taking the virtual leap.
Teachers who look before they leap will be better prepared to deal with the unique challenges of
virtual school.


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