Students can study anywhere they find an Internet connection. Photo: Microsoft Image.
The science classroom is changing! The students are the same. The instructor is the same. The course of study is the same. BUT, the learning is different! Welcome to Bio 141 and Anatomy & Physiology 142 via the Internet and the Virtual Highway.
The scenario described is happening. I presently teach 130+ gifted and talented high school seniors who are located in 39 different high schools, 15 school systems across 4000 square miles in Southwest Virginia. Actually, my students could be taking the class at home, in a hotel, while on a school trip or anywhere, they can find an Internet connection. I really do not know where they are, and they do not always know where I am.
What is a virtual school?
“Virtual Schooling can be seen as part of a larger phenomenon, eLearning—a concept that is increasingly used in the K-12 environment to describe not only distance teaching and learning, but also the general use of educational and information technology in support of teaching and learning.”1 Virtual schools, with their mix of traditional content and technology, are attracting students. A Peak Group report of 2002 “anticipated annual student enrollment of over 1,000,000 by the 2004-2005 school year [in America].”2 According to a 2007 report from the North American Council for Online Learning, enrollment in K-12 online courses increased by 50% in some U.S. states, with 42 states offering either supplemental online learning courses, full-time online learning programs, or both.3
Virtual schools are not home schools (although home schoolers can and do participate); they are distance education schools run by the public school system, following state curriculum requirements and achievement standards. Instruction is web-based and given by certified teachers. Students complete assignments at home on their computer. In the U.S., some states offer a complete curriculum, while other states offer select distance classes in a variety of subjects.
A survey of 33 virtual schools in 2001 found that “access to an expanded curriculum was one of the most frequently stated objectives of virtual school programs.”4 The survey also showed that virtual learning provides equitable access to high quality education to students who may have difficulty in a traditional school setting, such as students who are:
- from high-need schools, both urban and rural;
- lower achievers;
- from minority groups;
- from low-income families; and
- special needs students.
Why did we start a virtual school?
In the mid-nineties parents and educators in Southwest Virginia realized that the needs of gifted and talented high school juniors and seniors could not always be met at their local schools. Several factors contributed to the problem. The number one obstacle was the geography of the mountainous terrain, which made it impossible for these students to come to one physical location. This has also impacted the total number of students in the local high schools and prevented the students, who were capable of accelerated work, from taking classes with their peers. Along came the Internet, and the virtual school concept became the solution.
A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School became a reality in the fall of 1998, and the school admitted its first student body. It is the first virtual school in Virginia and most likely the very first interactive one in the United States. We are currently celebrating our 10th anniversary, and our school is impacting the lives of our students very positively.
What are the challenges of a virtual classroom?
Teaching in the virtual classroom has had its challenges. The software had to have applications that accommodate audio, as well as video components. The technology required many financial adjustments for the school districts. The classroom sessions almost had to be choreographed. We were the first instructors teaching this way so every day during our first year we used the “trial and error” method. We had no one else’s experience to draw from. But, we did succeed.
A typical day for my Anatomy & Physiology classes begins at 7:20 AM EST. This period allows students to take the class without interfering with their schedules in the individual high schools. Some of these students take the class from home. I am often greeted with “Mrs. Smith, my Mom just brought me pancakes.” I assume they are eaten while I am lecturing. I have heard that some of the parents are quite amazed at the amount of anatomy they are learning from the lectures as they watch the students who are at home.
My first and last classes last 50 minutes, and they are completed in 2 semesters. I also have 90-minute classes that complete the course in one semester. All students receive 8 hours of college credit through the community college system in Virginia. The state pays for this opportunity. Many Holton Governor’s School students enter college as sophomores.
In the virtual classroom, I communicate with my students verbally as well as with text chat. They can talk to the class, too. We can have group discussions that will allow several to speak and do presentations. I lecture using PowerPoint slides. With the synchronous web browser, I am able to take the class to any website that enhances the lecture. This also allows the class to quickly research new medical advances that are discovered. As a result, they are able to make this new information their own.
A power board, which is a virtual chalkboard, is helpful with the physiology portion of the course. I can give the floor to the students, and they can take the class to a website that they feel explains the topic we are studying. In other words, the technology keeps the students engaged during the entire class. I need to mention that our classes are archived so that students can watch the class later for reviewing purposes, or in case they had to miss class.
Software makes anatomy visualization possible, such as Argosy’s Visible Body. Source: Software screenshot, Argosy Medical Animation.
Often, I am asked how laboratory activities are accomplished, which did present some problems at first. It was necessary to develop lab activities that could be done at home with proteins, different enzyme sources, detergents, milk, jell-o, contact lens cleaners, and even chickens. It is amazing what students can learn from a whole chicken. Several interactive lab activities can be done on the Internet. We use one that shows students how to isolate DNA. My students have five CD-ROMs that have video clips of physiological processes, diseases, case studies, and dissections. Especially helpful is the CD-ROM of the human body, which allows the students to study the body systems by dissections.
Each semester, I take my students to one of the medical schools in Virginia so they can apply what they have learned in class to real life. We have visited Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, where my students learn what it is like to be a medical student; they witness an autopsy; and they spend much time working on cadavers in the gross anatomy laboratories. This is the highlight of the course for my students—they get to be together and see each other too.
The big question I am asked is how teaching this course online compares with teaching it in the regular classroom and laboratory. The content of this subject requires students to be disciplined in their studies. My students have found that the addition of synchronous and asynchronous technologies makes the classroom even more enticing. This technology allows them to talk to people miles away by using a program on their computers. Here are some of their comments.
“Technology helps me learn new information faster and easier.”
“Virtual labs are convenient and allow me to take my time.”
“Technology allows feedback to be personal and speedy—a real positive.”
“I can make new information become mine with technology.”
“The opportunity to be in a virtual class that is really interactive while I am in high school will be very beneficial when I have regular online classes in college.”
Is virtual schooling the next wave for education?
“Distance education finally brings democracy to education. It gives the student in East L.A. or Brentwood, or Martha’s Vineyard, or Harlem, or Pakistan an equal opportunity to content curriculum and to people with many perspectives. …Students who learn with each other will learn from each other. Until now, the single biggest factor influencing the quality of education was where you live. …For the 21st Century it is not going to be where you live, but how you are connected.”5
If you are considering implementing virtual schools or courses, Clark and Berge provide information that may help you in your planning (see “learnmore links” below). These two educators identified eight aspects of virtual high school organization:6
- student services;
- policy and administration; and
- marketing and public relations.
My experience with “Virtual Reality” has been very positive. It is especially successful in the science classroom. There are no boundaries with the Internet. Learning becomes easy for all types of learning abilities. This is the future of education.
© 2008, American Institute of Biological Sciences. Educators have permission to reprint articles for classroom use; other users, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for reprint permission. See reprint policy.