U.P. teacher reaches kids across the state with virtual classes

In some ways, Annette Gleason's life as a high school math teacher is just like any other teacher's. She develops relationships with her students, shares progress updates with parents and checks students' work to make sure they're grasping the material. On the other hand, none of those things take place in a classroom. At any given time, the 100 to 200 students under her instruction could all be at different points in their curriculum. And though she gets to know each kid, she rarely meets any of them in person.

Gleason is an instructor with Michigan Virtual Schools. While she lives in Negaunee in the Upper Peninsula, her students are scattered throughout the state. Some take her classes during a regular hour of their school day, while others sign up as an extra course to take after school hours. Some of her students are kids who don't attend regular classes at all, such as training Olympians or traveling musicians. With Michigan Virtual Schools recently celebrating its 200,000th course enrollment since its inception in 2000, Gleason's students are far from alone.

"For many people it is becoming more evident how important online learning is," she says, "and how likely it is that it's going to be utilized in not only high schools, but also at the college level."

While the variety in her students and courses from semester to semester is wide, like so many traditional classroom teachers, Gleason works hard to keep one thing the same for every single student: a high quality, comprehensive education.

Quality online learning

Like any industry-disrupting technology, online learning certainly had some critics in its infancy. But according to Gleason, online learning delivers her students a quality education, and she relies on many of the same principles teachers use to ensure quality in traditional education.

It begins, she says, by connecting with the kids. She personalizes her course, sharing information about herself on her instructor information page, and is careful to give specific, growth-minded feedback to all of the students.

"That makes the students realize there's someone real on the other side of the computer," Gleason says. "I work one-on-one with them through messages or phone calls or Google HangOuts. Whatever it is that they prefer."

In fact, it’s because of this contact with each student that Gleason feels they get more personal attention than they might in a classroom setting.

Gleason says she's able to offer all 150 of her students one-on-one instruction, "as opposed to dividing my time between 30 students, which is really unique."

Of course, there are times when face-to-face contact is helpful, such as when a student isn't being responsive, or is really struggling with the materials. In that case, Gleason can contact an in-school mentor for the student to figure out the problem and help them get back on track.

"We work as a team to make the experience successful for students," she says.

And like many classroom teachers, Gleason works hard to get the parents involved in their kids' classwork, believing the more hands-on they are, the better their children will perform.

Her work isn’t going unnoticed. Last year, Gleason was recognized by the Michigan Virtual University as its 2015 Online Teacher of the Year. But that doesn’t mean teaching online doesn’t come with its own challenges.

A different set of challenges

No matter where or how education takes place, it always includes challenges for teachers. While Gleason doesn't have to worry about marking students tardy or catching them texting during class, online teaching presents a unique set of challenges, particularly with 150 students all moving at their own pace.

"You're going to see students who work way ahead. You'll see students who are on pace, and yes, you will see students who fall behind," she says. "I contact them, or the mentor, and we figure out what the reason is."

Of course, without face-to-face contact with the kids, communication is different. If a student is struggling but can't articulate why or how in a written message, Gleason will seek an alternate way to connect with them and get the whole story. These are the cases in which a phone call or video chat can be effective.

A unique set of benefits

Whether a student passes a high school math course in a classroom or online with Gleason, the primary outcome is the same: learning the desired set of math skills. But online learning leaves kids with a number of side benefits as well.

"Students are given the opportunity to be more independent in their educational experience with the assistance of an instructor and mentor," says Gleason, "so they are learning to be self-motivated."

And while most kids already come to her class with the technology skills they need to succeed, sharpening their online communication skills is an inevitable result of working with Gleason.

"They're learning how to communicate using the internet," she says. "I work with them in the discussion boards to remember to use y-o-u instead of 'u.'"

Finally, in addition to building a relationship with Gleason, her students get the opportunity to build relationships with each other. Using an online blackboard and discussion boards, they can post about themselves and their interests and meet classmates who may live hundreds of miles away from them.

From connecting with other students across the state to developing a relationship with their instructors, the opportunities students receive from online learning might surprise those who are unfamiliar with the state of digital courses today. And with teachers like Gleason keeping a close eye on quality, the addition of online classes to a student's curriculum seems to offer a number of benefits to education overall.

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.
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