From Someone Who’s Been There: Virtual Schools Can Learn A Lot from Higher Ed

From Someone Who’s Been There: Virtual Schools Can Learn A Lot from Higher Ed

I’ve been a student and a teacher in so many different situations, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. 

In high school, I participated in the original form of distance learning: a correspondence course. When I moved on to college, I decided to teach. It got even more eclectic from there, when I taught as an adjunct journalism professor before moving to the high school English classroom.

After four years of diverse education experiences, I left teaching just when virtual schools were coming to the forefront of ed-tech. I had already integrated blogging and e-readers into my own classrooms.  All of a sudden, those classrooms were being replaced entirely.

As I’ve written before here at TeacherCast, I worry about technology overtaking the K-12 classroom. Were this to happen, I believe the only way for it to be successful is for virtual learning, especially at the secondary level, to itself take lessons from higher education. Higher ed online learning has proved to be more successful in a number of areas, to which I can attest personally as a recent online student.


Accountability in the traditional classroom falls most squarely on the shoulders of the student, especially as they get older.  I remember handing my own students their fair share of responsibility while I sat back and simply had to grade their essays, which to me wasn’t that difficult.  As a student in the online classroom, I realized that accountability was a little different, as there’s more to it than showing up and graduating.

In the online classroom, we are all equally accountable for each other’s learning outcomes.  Professors are required to have the syllabi and assignments for an entire session of class, whether that be eight weeks or 16, prepared and downloaded to the learning platform, before students even log in.  There’s no opportunity to roll in the TV/VCR combo if you forgot to plan a lesson the night before, which I remember doing once or twice as an educator.

At the same time, if my classmates weren’t prepared for their assignments, my own could suffer.  Because I was in business courses like Global Business and Management Law, the majority of the assignments were discussion board posts in response to questions posed by the professor.  These questions were available from day one of the course, so we all had the opportunity to be ready to post on-time if not early.  However, there were instances where classmates were late in posting or obviously didn’t read the questions properly.  This made it difficult for others to post responses, as it was sometimes difficult to even understand what they were saying.

Assessments are an integral part of any educational experience, for both teacher and student.  Regular assessment can be done in the traditional classroom simply through observation.  I could always tell who was “getting it” just by looking around the room as I was speaking.  It’s not so easy when you’re taking or teaching an online course.

Instead, there are modules that are available in online classrooms that allow instructors to gauge students’ learning as well as their accountability.  One of the best assessments is the opportunity for self-reflection throughout the course.  Each week, my courses included a learning module called a Weekly Review and Assessment.  We answered questions about how much of the reading we completed, how many of the discussion responses we completed, etc.  We were also given the opportunity to provide true feedback regarding the courses.  More than once, I offered suggestions for additions to the reading lists.  I also admitted frustrations regarding classmates’ behavior and online etiquette.


When collaboration occurs, this is where those gaps in accountability also become obvious in the online classroom.  As a highly-motivated learner, I feared the rise in project-based learning in online education.  I didn’t want my grade being predicated on collaborating with classmates I couldn’t speak with, let alone couldn’t meet with face-to-face.  To me, there was too much separation.

My fears were allayed quickly when I realized that there is enough technology in the world to allow groups to collaborate around the world.  I didn’t think it was possible because I had never been given the opportunity to try.  In my Organizational Dynamics class, where we studied the concepts of corporate culture and the structure of organizations, we were required to complete an ethnographic study within a group.  In a practical lesson on dynamics, our professor structured our groups so that mine could actually meet in person.

After an initial meeting, we were then able to collaborate through Google Docs and other Cloud-based services.  Collaborating on projects was much easier than we believed it could be.  Now that I’ve taught and learned in both the traditional and the online classroom, I can see how easily it would be to integrate this tech into a secondary classroom.  Imagine the dwindling stacks of papers?

On the other side of that coin, these types of assignments are where I miss the traditional classroom.  Collaboration in the traditional classroom was able to occur in a more organic fashion.  My Business Ethics course would have been a disaster online.  It was a rare face-to-face course in my MBA program, and was almost an Aristotelian discourse each evening we met.


The realm of communication is where I preferred the online classroom over the traditional one, at least as a student.  There were three weeks during my Capstone course where I got a Migraine a week, which is rare for me, but does happen.  During the week of the third one, I finally contacted my professor via email, at some completely random hour of the day, and informed him that I was sick and would be late posting my discussion board responses.  Because I contacted him early enough and was able to explain the circumstances, leniency was allowed for the week.

This kind of open, real-time communication is invaluable when you happen to fall behind in a class.  Contacting the professor immediately is the first line of defense when this occurs.  I didn’t want to fall too far behind, not even by a day, and the ability to contact my professor at a moment’s notice helped that.

In the traditional classroom, that luxury doesn’t really exist, though today you can certainly email a professor when an emergency occurs.  However, communication isn’t as close to real-time as it is in the online classroom.  If I wanted to speak with a professor face-to-face, I had to wait until class.  On the same token, I could actually speak face-to-face with professors.

Communication in the online classroom is much less personal while still being more immediate.  I was not prepared for that, yet I came to value it.  If I had a question for a professor, I simply asked it, and the professor could answer whenever he or she had time to do so.


Were I a professor of an online course, I would love the ability to grade discussion posts from the comfort of my couch or if I happened to be travelling.  I certainly took full advantage of the flexibility afforded to me by the online classroom, even though I sometimes stretched it to the limits of procrastination, like many online learners do

As most of us educators, current or former, know, students of any age like to test those limits.  The added accountability toward fellow students helps keep procrastination at bay.

Because professors had to have all our assignments posted at the beginning of each eight-week session, I was able to plan out my schedules in great detail.  Did that mean things didn’t go awry?  Of course not, but the opportunity to plan ahead was there.  This came in handy if I wanted to go on a trip, or if I knew something important was happening in my family.

My youngest sister got married right in the middle of a session of school.  I finished all my homework early three weeks in a row for two girls’ weekends and her wedding.  The flexibility and open communication I had with my professors allowed me to prepare for time away and let them know that I would be off-the-grid.


Years ago, when online learning was a growing trend in higher education, Boston University’s Jay Halfond predicted the nebulous nature of it in an article for the Huffington Post.  He cautioned that online education would not look the same across all institutions.

Halfond is right, and this is true for virtual classrooms at the K-12 level as well.  Online education should fit the needs of the students at-hand.  Virtual schools for rural students will need to meet differing needs than those for inner-city students.

Having been a student of an online classroom, I believe that in the secondary setting, virtual learning still needs to be combined with hands-on learning.  However, making online secondary learning a little more rigorous will hurt no one.  In fact, it will only help prepare those wanting to move on to higher education.


Img Src

About the Author
Author: H. E. James, MBA

Like what we do?

The Latest EdTech News To Your Inbox

Follow us:


Subscribe to our Newsletters.