NEW PORT RICHEY — Substitute teacher Michael Grabau handed out headsets as the students from Ridgewood High prepared for their next biology lesson.
"All I do is walk around, get them off their phones. The internet is full of distractions. And if they have biology questions, I answer them," said Grabau, who has a biology degree but does not have the qualifications to teach the class.
That duty would fall to Stacy Brown, whose face popped up in the right corner panel of the students’ screens as they logged in. A countdown clock appeared below Brown’s visage, letting students know how much time they had until she would begin talking about species classification from her Virginia classroom.
Ridgewood principal Chris Dunning said he chose the distance learning option after his science teacher left mid-year, and he couldn’t find a qualified replacement.
With that, Pasco County joined a growing number of school districts across the country that are using technology to fill gaps in staffing — a step beyond the usual practice of regularly scheduled online classes. District leaders blessed the idea as an option to ensure students get their academic needs met as teachers increasingly are in short supply.
Large urban systems such as Chicago’s are latching onto this concept, as are a handful of districts in Florida. And while local districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties are not there yet, some other Florida districts are looking.
The idea of bringing far-off experts to teach material that students otherwise might never learn was one of the original selling points for online education. Rural communities could offer advanced or unique classes even if they couldn’t find, or afford, that expert.
But the concept has taken on a new dimension as large numbers of older teachers retire, and the pipeline of new ones coming out of education schools continues to shrink.
"For a couple of years we’ve been really looking for a solution for, typically, when a teacher isn’t able to complete their assignment," said Vanessa Hilton, an assistant superintendent in Pasco. "It obviously is a whole lot better than a substitute not doing any instruction."
Proximity Learning, the Texas-based firm that Brown works for, saw the need. It advertises itself as "your K-12 staffing solution … so learning does not need to stop with a substitute."
Students in Ridgewood’s biology class are experiencing what New York University researcher Leslie Siskin calls the "least worst alternative." Siskin said the distance model can work "reasonably well," so long as it is done sparingly and planned out meticulously, with the classroom monitor playing a key role.
On a recent morning, Ridgewood freshman Erika Bowling basked in Brown’s praise for getting answers correct, and also liked having Grabau, the substitute, available to offer insights and lead classroom activities.
Yet she was lukewarm on the idea of having a far-away teacher with most of the work on websites.
"I wouldn’t want to do any other subject like this," Bowling said, raising her hand by clicking an on-screen icon. "Given the circumstances, this is fine. She’s a good teacher and it’s a good program. But I feel like I might learn better with a teacher in the classroom."
Classmate Rachel Howman agreed this approach was better than lost weeks of instruction with a rotation of substitutes. Still, she focused on the lack of connection between students and teacher.
"There’s not a real relationship here, because she doesn’t know us," Howman said as she took photos of the on-screen slides for future reference. "She doesn’t even know what we look like."
Then there were the distractions. One student complained the wi-fi was lagging and he could not connect to the lesson.
Several students’ headsets stopped working, so Grabau connected the audio to overhead speakers, which some students continued to talk over.
One boy’s course log-in didn’t work. Grabau caught a few kids reading online comics or playing games.
Brown acknowledged the shortcomings, and said she does her best to engage the students within the constraints of screens and speakers. She provides interactive lessons, offers time to answer questions, gives positive feedback, and emails individuals to make sure they’re understanding the material.
She also noted that she’s available 24/7.
"It works very well, but you have to have a level of student engagement to the tenth power," Brown said, praising the Ridgewood students for adapting with relative ease.
The online teacher’s abilities to connect make a huge difference, Siskin said.
"It requires a skilled teacher," she said. "So much depends on the teacher."
Phyllis Harris, Hamilton County career and technical education director, agreed on that front. Her district offers video conference learning for dual enrollment, so students do not have to drive 20 miles to the nearest college.
Aside from the occasional technical issues, she said, the program works well. Unlike virtual school, where students learn independently and get delayed answers to their questions, this way allows instant interaction.
Still, Harris said, "some instructors are better at it than others." With some, "it’s like they’re not at a distance. They’re right there with him."
With others, she continued, students do feel the disconnect.
It’s an important issue for Hamilton, just south of the Georgia border, because distance learning might need to grow for regular courses, too.
"We usually have a very high teacher turnover rate," Harris said. "That could be an option for us in the future."
Moving forward, schools need to determine whether this style of teaching is effective before diving in, said Larry Miller, education dean at Florida SouthWestern State College.
The success rate of students in these courses versus the more common virtual schooling, which has less frequent live lessons, will be a key point, said Miller, also a research associate at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
"If they’re saying this might hold some promise … then the situation probably warrants more scrutiny," he said.
It’s not a first choice for many. Like Ridgewood, Pasco’s Fivay High also used the model for a science class when a qualified replacement wasn’t available midyear.
But "I have been able to hire science teachers for next year with the appropriate credentialing, so I do not plan to continue this after this year," principal Christina Stanley said.
Still, it’s an option that few are prepared to dismiss out of hand.
Said assistant superintendent Hilton: "It’s not always easy to find the teachers that we desperately need."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org.