Sue Ekimoglou is a district math/cross-curricular coach at Gloucester High School in New Jersey. She also teaches online courses through the Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.), an educational nonprofit organization based in Maynard, Massachusetts.
Designed to mimic an introductory college class, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and their exams are challenging for students. They also present unique hurdles for teachers who must balance curriculum with exam content — the latter of which is never easy to predict. Even the most experienced teachers grapple with presenting an extremely complex subject in a way that engages and resonates with students.
When my 2,100-student district began using The Virtual High School (VHS) a few years ago — starting with 25 students who wanted to enroll in AP courses that we weren’t offering — my whole world changed. I was not only able to offer an expanded selection of courses to my students, but I also become an online instructor (and later, the developer of three online math courses).
Along the way, I uncovered these eight reasons why every teacher should consider teaching at least one online course during their tenures.
- Get an up-close-and-personal look at online courses. Early on, I decided to take VHS’s graduate-level Online Teaching Methodologies course, and become an online instructor. It wound up being the best thing I ever did because I got to see what a well-done online course looks like inside and out. From that experience, I was instantly hooked on the idea of augmenting classroom learning with online courses. Online learning is the wave of the future. In fact, I’m currently taking my second master’s degree 100% online.
- Students become more self-reliant. Virtual education is great because it teaches students to be precise and to answer questions directly because they don’t have a teacher standing in front of them. In that way, online learning is great at enabling students to help themselves. For example, when my district first rolled out its online learning initiative, I found myself fielding questions from students who needed a lot of hand-holding. Over time, those students learned that the course materials themselves provided most of the answers that they were looking for — they just needed to know where to look. Some of them just didn’t know how to phrase the question, for example, but once they got the hang of it, the pieces really started to fall into place naturally.
- Teaching quality improves. When you teach in a traditional classroom, you can use your tone of voice, posture and other body language to get through to your students. When you’re teaching online, you need to write everything down and make sure that you're teaching goes from point A to point B to point C without skipping anything. Whereas if you're in a classroom, you can skip all over the place. Teaching online has helped me become more sequential and work through all of the process points instead of just thinking, “Okay, the students are going to get this.” This is one of several ways that being an online instructor has improved my teaching — both online and offline.
- It can be done from anywhere. About three years after becoming an online instructor, VHS approached me about becoming a subject-matter expert and helping to write an AP Calculus BC course. I was already teaching that subject in the classroom, so I welcomed the opportunity to delve down into yet another layer of online instruction. Working remotely with Amy Miele, VHS senior curriculum and instruction coordinator, I spent about eight months developing and honing the new material.
- It enhances classroom connections. Over the next two years, I went on to develop two additional courses with Miele (Algebra I and II). Developing these courses and becoming a subject-matter expert not only helped to extend my math-teaching skills, but it also helped me connect more closely with the students in my classroom. Because I’m an online teacher who has developed online courses, for example, I’m now much more fluent when it comes to helping my face-to-face students with their online questions.
- I learned to love summer school. Most teachers cringe at the thought of having to come back and work over the summer, but I actually taught summer school online for several years and loved the freedom that working remotely allowed me. I did it while traveling through Europe over the summer, and without a blip in the schedule.
- It gives students critical time management skills. Every student I’ve taught has told me that online learning is an effective time management tool. They all thought it was a wonderful skill to learn, and something you don’t always get in the traditional classroom setting. It didn’t take them long to figure out that putting assignments off until the last minute is not the way to manage their time wisely in an online setting.
- Students want to stick with it. At least for AP classes, retention rates were higher online than they were in the traditional classroom setting. Sometimes in the face-to-face classroom setting, students decide early that AP Calculus is too hard so they focus their energies on another AP class. I didn’t see that happening with my online students. In fact, all of the students in the online classes wanted to do well and really put the time into it. They were highly motivated, which is a really good thing.
Getting out of the rut
It’s easy to get in a rut with your own students, and to assume that they’re doing everything that they possibly can. However, when you broaden those horizons and use online learning platforms to create connections with students from around the world — some of whom are enrolled in three or four online courses — those perceptions change.
To districts and schools that are just kicking off their online learning initiatives, I say, “Go for it.” Don’t fear it, but instead embrace it by either signing up for an online learning program — or by becoming an online instructor. Through these experiences, I’ve grown in ways that I never thought possible. Not only did it immerse me in the world of online learning, but it also helped me better engage with my face-to-face classroom students.