THORNTON, Colo.—Teacher Jane Good hurries around her kitchen on a recent morning in this Denver suburb, preparing breakfast in what will serve as her work attire for the day: black exercise pants, a black, long-sleeved running shirt and white slipper booties.
“This is one of the perks of being an online teacher,” Good says as she flips a fried egg and removes quinoa and poblano peppers from the microwave.
Good, 46, is one of 11 full-time teachers in Colorado’s three-year-old 21st Century Virtual Academy, an online school of about 750 students that is part of the state’s largest school district, the JeffCo Public Schools. She teaches a mix of full-time and part-time students in seventh- and eighth-grade science, ninth-grade Earth science and 10th-grade biology—all from the comfort of her home office, which has stunning views of the Rockies.
Good makes around $63,000 a year, the same amount she’d earn in a brick-and-mortar school in her district.
Scant research exists on the effectiveness of full-time online learning, but 30 states allow K-12 students to learn entirely online from teachers like Good, who has about 125 students, some 50 of whom are full-time. Across the country, more than two million K-12 students participate in some form of online education, and nearly 300,000 do so full time, according to John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm in Durango, Colo.
Online education has its origins in a movement in the late 1990s to bring specialized and Advanced Placement classes to rural areas whose districts couldn’t otherwise provide them. Since then, shrinking school budgets have opened the door to companies that offer a range of online alternatives for special-needs students and parents dissatisfied with available options. Steady growth has meant there’s a pressing need for virtual teachers, some of whom never set foot in a classroom.
They are a new breed, these teachers who work remotely, and they face an array of challenges, including tracking down students they can’t see. On a recent weekday, Good tried to connect with roughly a fifth of her students who, more than a week into the spring semester, had yet to log on for her class. Good has never met most of them and likely never will.
A little after 9:00 a.m., Xavier Long, a student in Good’s ninth-grade Earth science class, calls.
Xavier, who’s never taken an online course before, is confused. Good goes over the assignments for the week, explains how to submit work and then guides Xavier through downloading a plug-in tool that takes screenshots of his desktop and documents his work.
Good finds time in the same day to reach out to over 20 students and almost a dozen parents. She spends a half-hour helping a father who’s having difficulty helping his son access Blackboard, the learning management software used by the 21st Century Virtual Academy.
“Parents are much more involved in some ways online,” Good says. “They are literally in my classroom if they want to be, which creates a lot of that ‘Why did you do this this way?’ ”
The 21st Century Virtual Academy, run by the suburban JeffCo district of about 86,000 students, is Good’s second foray into online teaching. After a decade in the classroom as a high-school science teacher, she took a job in 2003 at Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a nonprofit cyber charter school managed by K12 Inc., a Virginia-based, for-profit company that is the largest operator of online schools in the United States.
She hoped the move would allow her to spend more time at home with her children, Keegan, now 17, and Delaney, 12.
Most of COVA’s training for virtual teachers focused on how to keep students enrolled rather than on how to teach them. Good left after two years. “I didn’t feel like a teacher,” she says. “I was basically a data-entry person.”
COVA’s head of school, Heidi Heineke-Magri, says the role of online teachers has evolved since Good’s experience, and teachers now spend a lot more time on instruction, along with preparing lessons, grading work and speaking with students and parents.
Good found herself back in a classroom again after her COVA experience, teaching science to at-risk high-school students. But after budget cuts eliminated her position, she moved back online to her current job with the JeffCo Virtual Academy and found herself facing another steep learning curve.
“I was in tears every day at the beginning because I didn’t have all the training,” Good says, articulating a common problem for virtual teachers. Only 25 percent of teachers nationwide who were surveyed for “Going Virtual! 2010,” a study by researchers at Boise State University, said they received training geared specifically to online instruction before beginning their work.
Over her three years at the JeffCo Virtual Academy, Good has received training and grown much more comfortable teaching online. Monthly professional development meetings, combined with learning from experience, have helped her better guide students and use technology to support them.
Good is still hampered by her inability to read body language or hear the tones of her students’ voices, making it difficult at times to diagnose their troubles—another common complaint of online teachers.
“You have to be so good at communicating with students and making sure that they truly understand what you want them to do, and that you can recognize when kids are not understanding and not asking for help,” Good says.
Once a week, Good turns on her webcam and teaches students in live sessions. In her biology class, 17 students “raise their hands” or answer questions by clicking buttons. Good can turn the microphone over to students, allowing them to address the class, but most opt out and choose instead to type into a box for instant messaging. Sometimes questions and comments pile up faster than Good can field them.
It’s frustratingly hard to tell what and how well they are learning.
“In a classroom, you can look at kids and know pretty quickly whether or not they understand what you’re saying,” says Good. “We don’t have that advantage [online].”
Michael Barbour, a professor of education technology at Wayne State University in Detroit, agrees that this is one of the biggest challenges of teaching online.
“Teachers need to figure out how to deliver lessons when they don’t have that real-time interaction with students,” says Barbour. “It’s just something that is new to them.”
The solution lies in finding ways to train online teachers to adjust to the different nature of the interactions—which some schools of education and online schools themselves have begun to address with special programs directed at those aspiring to teach virtually.
Good still has no way to be sure what a student is doing, or to what extent he or she understands the material. And while online environments open many lines of communication, no one really knows which methods work best for individual students. Roughly one-third of teachers surveyed in the “Going Virtual! 2010” study acknowledged a need for training to help students become self-reflective and independent learners.
Today’s virtual students choose online learning for numerous reasons, from supplementing their studies with specialized courses to making up classes they’ve failed. Athletes, performers and students with special health needs may all be drawn to online studies.
Tabbie Smith, a 15-year-old in Good’s Earth science class, is a perfect example: she’s studying online after getting mononucleosis and then chronic fatigue syndrome, which caused her to miss seventh grade.
Smith has excelled since making the move to the JeffCo Virtual Academy last fall. She attributes her success to teachers who go the extra mile.
“I was failing science. I hated science. I could not stand it,” Smith recalls. “I even told [Mrs. Good], ‘I’m probably going to fail your class,’ and she said, ‘No, you’re not,’ and I didn’t.”
Now science is Tabbie’s favorite subject. She finds online school harder than her previous traditional school because she has to plan her own work schedule and ask her teachers when she doesn’t understand something. “If you email [teachers], they can’t see where your thinking went wrong,” Smith says. “So it’s hard for them to help you sometimes.”
While she admits to missing the social aspects of traditional school, Smith is happier learning online because “it has taken all the stress out of school.”
Good and her colleagues, who work mostly in isolation, have learned to reach out to one another. They attend monthly in-person training sessions where they swap stories and strategies.
At a recent meeting of JeffCo Virtual Academy’s staff, teachers discussed topics ranging from how to create podcasts that explain concepts and outline assignments to how to embed the HTML-code for videos into their virtual lessons.
Afterwards, they go out for drinks and chat about everything from work to weekend plans.
“It gives us that water-cooler time that other people have with their co-workers,” Good says. “I think it just makes us feel a lot more connected.”
The teachers know they are navigating new terrain. Good likes the challenge of keeping up with technology and figuring out how to use it to improve teaching and learning, and believes online learning is especially effective for students who can’t get the courses they need in school—or for those who are self-motivated and organized.
She worries most about those who are not, about the quiet students who sit in the back of the classroom and don’t pay attention—and then end up learning online, where they log on only to drift off.
“You can’t be a passive learner and be online,” says Good. “Unfortunately, we get a lot of that.”
This story appeared on Time.com on June 13, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Republication is not allowed.