As a chemistry teacher at Wilton High School, located in the Gold Coast of Connecticut, Stephen Sobolewski is used to seeing motivated, high-achieving students every day. Strong parental involvement is common at the school and so is supplemental learning support in the form of private tutoring. Not surprising in a part of the country where the average income exceeds $100K.
So when Wilton High School partnered with VHS Learning and Sobolewski volunteered to teach classes for the online program, he received a bit of a culture shock. “One of the things I had to manage was that the VHS students had very different motivations and academic abilities,” Sobolewski said.
VHS Learning is a non-profit organization that provides online classes for middle and high school students. Students in the program log in from all over the world to take classes covering a broad range of topics at standard, honors, and Advanced Placement levels.
Sobolewski spoke to EdSurge about his experiences connecting with an international group of students and shared how technology amplified his ability to teach and connected all the moving parts of the program together.
EdSurge: How was teaching students virtually different from teaching them face to face?
What I didn't want was for these kids to put in some effort in my class, end up with a "B", and then they go to take AP Chem the next year and know nothing.
Sobolewski: I think virtually was easier. Imagining 40 kids in one room, it'd be tough and logistically—one would separate that into two classes. But I think with the VHS summer class, a lot of these students didn't need much hand holding from me. A lot of them had taken online classes, whether through VHS or otherwise, so many of them understood the gist of discussion posts and how to download and upload files in the correct formats. They pretty much did the work.
Was it difficult to adapt to teaching online?
I would say that the Brightspace LMS didn’t have much of a learning curve. Before I taught, I took a six-week summer class on how to use the LMS, so I was pretty well prepared in terms of that. I would say the thing that took some time was becoming familiar with VHS Learning's class itself, because when I signed on, they said, “You don't need to create everything yourself. We have the class made for you already. All you need to do is teach it.” In terms of managing the technicalities of Brightspace itself, it was very user friendly.
How were you able to ensure that students were learning the material?
One of the better parts of the class was having an assessment component every week. It was through the online textbook, but it was like a quiz, essentially. I think having something like that in a science class especially is important because it was really easy for students to do bare minimum work for a lot of the assignments and get good grades, but those types of assignments were what would indicate whether they really took the material seriously or not—students need to read that material in order to do well on these.
She literally wrote me, “By the way, I don't know if I'll be on next week. My mom and I might get refugee status in any of these three countries or not."
I think something like that is really important so as to not inflate the grades because what I didn't want was for these kids to put in some effort in my class, end up with a "B", and then they go to take AP Chem the next year and know nothing.
For the discussion posts Brightspace tracked not only how many comments they wrote, but also how many they read—I really liked that. I was able to see who was more involved, although I will say one thing that happened was I had a requirement that students needed to read at least half of the posts in any discussion because I didn't want them logging in, typing up their reply, and then just closing it out and never even reading anyone.
Are programs like this providing real opportunities for students who aren’t able to attend class normally?
One of my students was a refugee from Turkey. She literally wrote me, “By the way, I don't know if I'll be on next week. My mom and I might get refugee status in any of these three countries or not. I'll keep you updated.” Then two weeks later, she pops up again. She says, “Hi, we're in Canada. We are moving into this place and there's no Internet. I'm typing this from the airport.” I was very empathetic for her and telling her to do what she has to make sure that she’s physically safe.
After a few more weeks, she was situated. She had a strong Internet connection and then she just took off. This was a super-motivated girl. I think she was taking five VHS Learning classes. Basically, she was doing this instead of going to school. Without online school, what would she be doing? I worked out a plan to get her caught up on what she missed, and she ended up being one of the top students at the very end. She ended up getting an “A”.
Do you think that your success with the VHS Learning is repeatable?
I think with the right teacher in there it can be done anywhere. There's really nothing about me being at Wilton that made me any better at the job, so I think it just requires a teacher that's willing to put in a little extra effort to make sure students are really understanding. There are great teachers all around the world, and I definitely think it's the type of model that can be repeated and used to help a lot of students.