With the COVID-19 pandemic requiring schools across the country to close their doors and teach students remotely, an interesting topic of discussion has emerged about how traditional classroom teachers could effectively keep students engaged in a virtual environment when they were never trained to do so.
As school districts announce plans to open their own permanent online academies after the pandemic, perhaps an even bigger question in the long-term: will teachers be prepared to work in an online classroom?
According to Angela Ferguson, Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction at Ohio Connections Academy, an online public charter school that has been serving students in Ohio for nearly twenty years, this is something the online school has been considering, even before the pandemic, given how technology continues to change the way students learn and teachers teach.
Starting her career more than 14 years ago in a traditional classroom, Ferguson has been working with students in the virtual environment for several years. She knows firsthand the two environments require significantly different approaches to connect with and engage students.
Speaking of her own experience, Ferguson said when she was in college studying to be a teacher, she had no idea online schools even existed or that students would be learning electronically from anywhere there was access to the Internet.
Marie Hanna, Superintendent of Ohio Connections Academy said the faculty at the online charter school had always been interested in providing field experience for teacher candidates. They had previously discussed the idea with colleges that turned out to not be comfortable with the idea of virtual teaching and learning.
That experience changed a few years ago when Hanna, and other staff members at Ohio Connections, met Dr. Paula Saine from Miami University. Hanna said Dr. Saine was very passionate about virtual tutoring and wanted teacher candidates to be more equipped and have the confidence to teach in any classroom space, whether 100 percent onsite, online, or hybrid.
“She was ahead of her time in leading the way for teacher candidates to teach and learn in the virtual environment and knew the impact it would have on teacher candidates and the students they would tutor virtually,” Hanna said.
Dr. Saine and Ohio Connections Academy designed a plan to provide the university’s early childhood education majors the opportunity to work with the OCA teachers in their LiveLesson classrooms. In addition, they would tutor the OCA students with literacy support.
This semester Dr. Saine has made the collaboration part of the course syllabus to give students the opportunity to learn and observe some of the best practices Ohio Connections Academy teachers utilize in the virtual classroom.
Almost 50 students majoring early childhood education program are now participating in the field experience program where they attend and work in the LiveLesson classroom for Kindergarten and 1st grade students with an Ohio Connections Academy teacher and provide tutoring for students in reading.
An additional group of approximately 70 students from the Oxford, Ohio campus are getting two hours of field experience observing students in grades 6 through 12 during LiveLesson classes with an Ohio Connections Academy teacher.
The partnership with Miami University follows a similar collaboration that Ohio Connections Academy has enjoyed with Cedarville University for several years where 30 education students observe LiveLesson classes and receive mentorship support from OCA teachers.
This fall, Ohio Connections Academy and The University of Akron began another collaboration where 50 students are given the opportunity to observe the LiveLesson classrooms and work with elementary students in reading literacy. Some of the students in the special education program are also participating in the program.
The college students work with Ohio Connections Academy to learn what a typical day for a student was like and used the knowledge to better grasp the concept of teaching in a virtual space. Ferguson said most of the college students attended a traditional brick and mortar school where the teacher engaged the student from the front of the room.
“The college students discovered when they have their camera and microphone on, they basically are face-to-face with the students,” Ferguson said. “They discover they can still establish an effective working relationship with the students.”
Alvaro Villalobos, a third year Integrated English Language Arts Education student at Miami University was given the opportunity to tutor Ohio Connections Academy students last year about an hour a week. Since September he has been tutoring a first grade English Learner class and a ninth grade English Language Arts class.
According to Villalobos, as an ELA tutor he works with students with whatever they need to focus on that week which includes going over topics they might still struggle with or helping them create essays for class. He also to observe all the behind the scenes and see how team-teaching works online.
His most engaged responsibilities come with his work with Jude, a first-grade student for whom Villalobos creates short online lessons based on what her English teacher recommends. Sometimes it includes short readings or lessons dedicated to writing.
“With OCA I’ve learned a lot about online learning, specifically tactics about how to keep student engagement regardless of its online setting,” Villalobos said. “Not only does it give me a tool set of handling online learning, but it also showed me why creativity is so important in the classroom. With future classrooms I feel a lot more confident in my ability to overcome unexpected challenges.”
One observation Ferguson noted since the field experience collaborations have started, with each week the student teachers come back more confident in their ability and their students are more comfortable with their student teacher. This is how the whole student enrichment process works in online environment, she said.
“When we started the conversations about providing the college students the opportunity to observe our online classroom sessions, I never imagined it would come together as well as it has. But this has truly turned into an amazing experience for our teachers, for the teacher candidates and for our students.”
Listen as Ohio Connections Academy Superintendent Marie Hanna and Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction Angela Ferguson describe the online school's collaboration with with three universities in Ohio to provide education majors the opportunity to observe and work with students in a virtual classroom environment. Listen here.