A university professor who postponed her retirement to join a new approach to education. A former teacher who returned to her passion after homeschooling her children. A seasoned teacher who decided to work from home so her child could attend half-day kindergarten. These educators were among the more than 800 teachers from 23 states who gathered at a luxurious conference center last week in order to enhance their teaching skills for the upcoming fall semester. They were all employed by schools that partnered with K12 Inc., an online education provider.
The conference, organized by K12 Inc., was said to be the largest face-to-face meeting of virtual educators to date, according to experts. Most of the teachers at the conference were experienced in traditional classrooms but were new to online instruction. They dedicated hours to understanding the different teaching style they would have to adopt within a short period of time. "There are reasons why face-to-face conferences are important," said Susan D. Patrick, CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning. "They help teachers become familiar and comfortable with the new culture and online environment." Patrick, a former education technology adviser, acknowledged that gatherings like this indicate the growth of online teaching as a distinct career path, calling online teachers "the frontrunners of innovation in education."
At the conference, technology was not the main concern for the teachers. Competency with digital tools such as email and the internet was already considered by K12 Inc. during the hiring process. Instead, the teachers focused on adjusting to the different approach to teaching that online instruction requires.
Overall, face-to-face gatherings for virtual educators are not uncommon, as they provide a way for teachers to develop their skills and adapt to the demands of online teaching.
According to educators who train K12 teachers, the company’s online educators need to change their approach from lecturing to coaching, while students have a lot of freedom in directing their own learning. Instead of relying on visual cues and classroom participation, teachers must now rely on electronic records to monitor how engaged their students are. The K12 gathering, where an Education Week reporter was present, focused on using the company’s tools and curriculum to manage the education of students who are spread out across different locations. In this instructional system, teachers don’t need to create daily lesson plans but are expected to follow K12’s curriculum and use their creativity for online discussions and supplementary activities. Teachers use online tools to interact with students and their learning coaches. Students also receive books and activity or lab kits through the mail.
While most online tools are used asynchronously, there are a few synchronous tools such as telephone, instant messaging, and Elluminate Live! This tool allows an entire class to interact with each other using multimedia content, regardless of their location. The teacher has control over who can participate. In a breakout session, a veteran teacher at the Florida Virtual Academy commented, "I Elluminate in my pajamas."
Other sessions at the gathering focused on teaching teachers people skills and strategies to personalize instruction even though it’s primarily done through electronics. Under the K12 model, teachers are expected to communicate more frequently with families and have office hours to receive calls from students and parents who act as learning coaches. Teachers need to monitor student progress and intervene if necessary. For example, if a student is falling behind, the teacher should speak to the learning coach and provide alternative learning methods. Elementary school teachers rehearsed how to make the initial phone call to parents and how to address any concerns they may have. Forming relationships with parents is just as important as with students, according to the presenter.
Much of the advice given at the gathering focused on surviving the first 30 days of the semester. Later, K12 teachers receive additional help, such as online training, a support hotline, and mentorship programs for first-year instructors. Many teachers decided to transition to online teaching due to family considerations and a desire for technology.
She stated that she was raised alongside her brother, who had a high IQ but struggled in traditional schools. According to her, he would have benefitted from the flexible learning offered by K12. Michael E. Kobylski, from the Ohio Virtual Academy, expressed that the school was a good fit for his family of four children and is aligned with the cutting-edge technology used by colleges. Mr. Kobylski transitioned to teaching online science after working for a technology company and briefly teaching in a traditional school before being laid off. He explained that he didn’t want to teach in the same classroom for thirty years and finds his current teaching experience dynamic and ever-changing.
K12 officials highlighted that this year’s conference brought together double the number of teachers compared to a similar event held by the company last summer. This increase reflects the growth of partner academies and a surge in enrollments for elementary-grade students. The company, established in 2001, aims to expand its model to more states. Additionally, K12 plans to launch an international academy in the upcoming fall, which will operate in the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Korea, and potentially India. Ronald J. Packard, K12’s founder and CEO, confirmed these plans.
Mr. Packard acknowledged that currently online schools have the advantage of attracting talented teachers who may have left the education field if they didn’t have the option to teach online. However, he predicted that as the company grows, more experienced and certified teachers will need to be converted into online educators. It is crucial to support these teachers in establishing personal connections with students, parents, and their colleagues, despite the distance. According to Mr. Packard, successful teachers in this setting are those who prioritize and actively cultivate these relationships.