Through Virtual High School, Columbia teacher's lessons reach coast to coast

Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 5:17 p.m. CST; updated 10:48 a.m. CST, Monday, November 30, 2009

COLUMBIA — A Columbia Public Schools teacher is doing something she has never done before and something unusual if not unprecedented within the district: Julie Nichols is teaching an online course, not to schoolchildren in Columbia but to children from around the nation.

This fall, Nichols, manager of instructional technology for Columbia Public Schools, is teaching middle school civics to students in locations as far-flung as Alaska, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.


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It started when Nichols was considering offering online instruction for secondary students and found Virtual High School on the Web.

Virtual High School Global Consortium (VHS) is a K-12 online learning initiative that forms partnerships with schools to broaden their curriculum options. Founded in 1996, VHS now has a membership of more than 600 middle and high schools in 34 states and 31 countries.

“Because AP (Advanced Placement) and enrichment courses are one of the first to go with budget cuts, those have been especially popular within online learning,” VHS spokeswoman Carol Arnold said. “Also, special interest courses are extremely popular, such as ‘Music in the 21st Century.’”

For a school to join the online learning community and work with VHS, headquartered in Maynard, Mass., it must pay an annual membership fee and provide a teacher to be trained in teaching a VHS course.

A VHS standard membership requires a $6,500 annual fee. With each provided teacher, a school or district receives 25 “seats” per semester, allowing 50 of its students to enroll in a VHS course every year. VHS also offers membership options tailored for smaller or larger seat packages.

Columbia Public Schools' VHS membership fee was paid through the 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, or federal stimulus money, Nichols said.

Teachers who are certified in their specific discipline and have completed the VHS training facilitate the courses. They do not teach students at their own schools or districts but rather students from around the country or world. Classes have a maximum of 25 students, and most include students from two or three countries.

“It’s a completely new experience for most teachers,” Arnold said.

Teaching within the virtual classroom

During Nichols’ training, instructional course topics included how to use the Blackboard learning platform and the methodologies of good online instruction.

“Educators have been so excited about it,” Arnold said. “After teaching the same way for 20 to 30 years, it’s exciting to have a new outlet with the social barriers of the classroom removed. Students feel more comfortable.”

Although the program began 13 years ago as a pilot project in Massachusetts funded by a federal education grant, VHS quickly turned into its own nonprofit organization, Arnold said.

“People’s use of the Internet, including using it for learning, has increased tremendously over the years since VHS started,” Arnold said.

Heavy in online collaboration, the courses require students to engage in and contribute to discussion by posting questions or comments on group discussion boards. Throughout a VHS course, students are exposed to different views on issues as they meet peers from all over the world.

Despite the program’s cross-continent scope, all VHS courses are taught in English.

Language is not a barrier as most of VHS’ overseas students are Americans studying abroad or international students attending American schools where they speak English, Arnold said.

“They hone 21st century learning skills and global citizenship skills,” Arnold said. “They learn how to think and act independently.”

VHS courses also help students prepare for college as they are given the opportunity to experiment with special-focus subjects and intended majors, Arnold and Nichols said.

The courses require the students take the initiative to log in every day and complete their work before the assigned due date, which teaches time management and independent learning skills.

“The first priority is the students’ success, and an online course may not be for every kid,” Nichols said. “It’s not that books are a thing of the past, but we’re trying to meet students’ leaning needs as best as possible.”

Learning within the virtual classroom

In Columbia, 25 high school students will be able to enroll in their choice of the 140 courses offered by VHS this spring.

“Our initiative right now is really trying to focus on grades nine through 12,” Nichols said. “The need we have right now is mainly on the high school level.”

While 25 students or more from a school or district may be taking VHS courses, only four students from a campus may be enrolled in the same course together.

“The idea is that it’s not a class you’re taking locally,” Nichols said.

True virtual instruction is a highly interactive classroom environment, Nichols said. It may be a different kind of work than in-person education, but it’s still extremely involved.

"Critics have voiced that online learning is easier than traditional face-to-face instruction," Nichols said. "Anyone who has taken a high-quality online course knows this is not true."

Nichols believes the future of education will involve face-to-face, blended (online and face-to-face) and virtual instruction.

“Teachers are starting to see the value in having their curriculum available in a digital format because their students are more digital,” Nichols said. “They’re seeing the needs of their students and that trying to keep everything in a folder is a little old-school. Students want to just get online and see their assignments, and then if teachers want to grade late at night in their PJs, it’s feasible – rather than having to stay late at night at school to grade."

Lessons reach far past Columbia city limits

For some of Nichols’ students, her VHS civics course is providing an opportunity to learn about kids living in other parts of the U.S. and how they’re interacting with other people, Nichols said.

Nichols’ 25-student civics course is larger than the entire enrollment of sixth-grader Josephine Kahklen’s K-12 school. Josephine, 11, attends a small school in Klukwan, a rural village in the Chatham district of southeast Alaska and home to the Tlingit tribe of Alaska’s indigenous people. Her school has 18 students spread throughout 13 grades.

The Klukwan school offers a social studies course covering civics to its two sixth-graders and two seventh-graders.

Josephine most enjoys the group feedback component of the VHS course.

“It makes me happy when the other students think what I write is cool,” Josephine said. “It’s nice to have someone else looking at my stuff that I haven’t known all my life.”

When her peers ask her if it is always snowing in her village or if her neighbors live in igloos, Josephine is able to break stereotypes and tell them there are rainforests in parts of southeast Alaska.

From small towns to big cities

VHS students also interact with each other outside of the Blackboard environment as they form friendships and correspond via e-mail or social networking sites such as Facebook.

As an online instructor, Nichols does not have the advantages of verbal cues. Because of this, Nichols said, it is important for online teachers to be dynamic and able to spend a lot of time within written conversation.

“For example, I have no idea what’s happening in Alaska so I have to constantly be checking in,” Nichols said. “Without making sure everything’s OK, I wouldn’t know if a swine flu epidemic broke out at my students’ schools.”

Far from southeast Alaska, eighth-grader Iuscely Sorres, 13, attends the 800-student Fritsche Middle School in Milwaukee and is also enrolled in Nichols’ civics course this fall. A bilingual, advanced student, Iuscely is enjoying the course and excelling at it.

“My favorite thing has been the research projects about people who helped the U.S.,” Iuscely said. “I really like learning about how our country developed over the years.”

Aside from the course content, Iuscely, like Josephine, likes to interact and chat with classmates and learn about where they are from.

“When we’re not talking about the course, we’re talking about the weather and what we like to do for fun,” Iuscely said. “I’ve learned a lot about different places. I can imagine them now in my head.”

Iuscely cites another benefit to a course online rather than in classroom: no public discipline.

“It’s better because (Nichols) doesn’t scream at us in front of the class,” Iuscely said.

One challenge with taking the course online, Iuscely said, is that occasionally the Web site doesn’t work immediately and requires a few clicks on the “refresh” link.

Iuscely plans to take another VHS class in the spring, a critique of music from the 1800s to the popular music of today.

Online versus face-to-face learning

Arnold acknowledges there are a lot of bad online learning experiences out there. "If it's not a quality course and the teacher is unavailable, students get bored and are left to their own devices." she said.

Arnold cites lack of engagement, social interaction and communication as common causes for bad online course experiences.

"Students value frequent and timely responses to questions, and as the instructor you want to encourage and facilitate an interactive and open classroom," Nichols said. "It is easy to lose track of the time in a virtual classroom."

A pioneer of its field, VHS tries to work through the obstacles of online learning and set itself apart.

"There's a specific skill set for online teaching," Arnold said. "That's why VHS requires special development. That training provides those quality teachers."


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