The Art of Teaching Online

Transitioning from in-the-flesh teacher to internet instructor isn't easy, but there are unexpected advantages.

online teaching
Sean Chapman in front of the computer monitor that connects him to his remote classrooms. (Photo: Courtesy of Sean Chapman)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Sean Chapman sits in his home office in Illinois, looking at his laptop, while his face pops up on a drop-down screen in a rural Arkansas school. Chapman operates a camera from his desk to zoom in on a student who is speaking. A facilitator works in the classroom, passing out papers and helping Chapman with any discipline problems.

Welcome to a 21st century class, kids.

Chapman has taught remotely for four years to several Arkansas high schools that can’t afford to hire an AP English teacher or speech and debate coach. He works for the Arkansas School for Math, Sciences and the Arts’ Office of Distance Education, which is part of the University of Arkansas system. Each year, the program receives a grant from the Arkansas Department of Education to teach Arkansas high schools.

According to a 2011 study, online distance education “has become pervasive” and is a “feasible and attractive option for rural schools, which educate 29% of all K–12 students in the United States, and often struggle to provide advanced courses and attract highly qualified teachers.”

That study noted that in the 2005-06 school year, more than 700,000 K–12 students were served through virtual schools. That number is much higher now, many education experts estimate.

But teaching in this new way comes with challenges, Chapman says. Much like English teacher John Keating in "Dead Poet’s Society," Chapman is a physical teacher who likes to express himself in class, and that has been a challenge for him in this brave new world.

“Getting out from behind the podium shows students that you are excited about what you’re teaching,” he says. “I was a very physical teacher. I would get exercise when I was teaching. Now, I never move. You have to focus on what you are saying and how much time you have to say your message. You have to change the physical element of it with excitement in your voice or face.”

Chapman says he misses seeing someone’s eyebrow raised and knowing they didn’t quite get what he said. But while he has had to adjust to this new way of teaching, Chapman says that the technology comes almost second nature to the students. “I think they find this kind of communication as real and direct as face-to-face,” he says. “It’s great for students who are shy and quiet because they can email me. I can be more focused on that one student and that one question they have.”

The students often work in Google documents, a favorite technology of Chapman’s. He can watch the students as they write and then he can make comments on the side. “When I teach English classes, students have time in class to work on essays and turn in extra drafts.,” he says. “I will also be working in Google docs and they can ask me a grammar question or it can be a bigger issue like “I’m just not feeling confident in the direction this paper is going.” In class it would be awkward for them to say that. I don’t think they would own up to that. But they do in email. That’s a huge positive.”

For all the benefits of distant learning, Chapman says he fears losing the human connection with his students. In that regard, he thinks some technology may be going too far. “I don’t like the idea of dumping my semester plans and assignments up on a bulletin board [like in MOOCs] and just commenting,” he says. “I will always be worried about that disconnect between teachers and students, but if you can get good teachers into small towns where they wouldn’t be lured and allow them to teach poetry, creative writing, and be able to spread their gifts, then that is great.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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