Anita Young, Virtual Learning Specialist.
Edwige: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you teach, where and how long you’ve been teaching?
Anita: My name is Anita Young and I am a Virtual Learning Specialist at Appalachia Intermediate Unit 08 in Altoona, PA. Within IU8 I work with the World of Learning Language Institute. I am a Spanish instructor as well as provide support to my colleagues of other languages in building content online and providing tips on virtual tools to create engagement in virtual sessions. I started in this role about a year and a half ago. Prior to going entirely virtual, I taught in a brick and mortar setting for ten years as a Spanish Teacher, English as a Second Language Teacher, and a Gifted Services Teacher.
Edwige: So how did you come to teach online?
Anita: I started teaching online about four years ago when I was home on maternity leave with my daughter. A family friend of ours worked for Blended Schools at the time and her supervisor, Dr. Pat Mulroy, was looking for a Spanish Instructor. I started working part time as a virtual instructor and did so for two and a half years before transitioning to full time.
Edwige: Are your classes mostly synchronous or mostly asynchronous? Why? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Anita: The World of Learning Language Institute is an amazing language learning experience because we provide asynchronous learning opportunities; however, our focus and highly demanded synchronous environment is what sets us apart from online language learning. Our synchronous environment is a live virtual session with a group of learners. We meet with our learners 1-3 times a week in Zoom and have well prepared lessons that engage our learners in speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Learners are exposed to a variety of virtual tools and authentic learning experiences. The asynchronous piece supports the synchronous learning and also allows learners to develop their language in authentic learning experiences that are all targeted at achieving mastery and competency in that language. The advantage of having this type of experience is that learners make a real connection to their instructors. They build a relationship and the instructor knows who the student is. Experiences and course work can then be personalized to meet a student’s needs and interest areas.
Edwige: Do you teach fully online? How many classes/ how many students per class?
Anita: Yes, I teach and work entirely online. I currently teach two classes, Spanish 1 and Spanish 2. Spanish 1 has approximately 50 students and Spanish 2 has approximately 25 students. I meet with them once a week in virtual live sessions (three different times slots) and support their asynchronous learning throughout the week in answering questions, engaging them with messages, grading, providing feedback, and maintaining communication with school districts and other facilitators. In the last year and a half I have transitioned more into a supportive role with my colleagues to help them in developing content and building their virtual tools toolbox; however, I have requested to never stop teaching so I can “practice what I preach.”
Edwige: Were you given a curriculum to follow or did you have to build your own?
Anita: No, I was not given a curriculum to follow. I have created my own content using my experience as a Spanish teacher and using Open Education Resources. One of my favorite places to locate Open Education Resources is COERLL. Our World of Learning courses are designed using a 6E Virtual Learning Design format that takes learners through six stages of learning. They go through the process of Engage, Explore, Explain, Evaluate, Elaborate, and Express. In this 6E model, learners can access all of their content virtually and can complete all asynchronous tasks. We are currently using Canvas as our learning platform. Each year I review the content and make changes to get it modern and up to date for learners. Over the past year I have added more opportunities for voice and choice. Having created my own curriculum allows me the opportunity to edit and personalize as I see fit for my learners.
Edwige: What do you like about teaching online? Do you miss the classroom?
I love teaching… period. Whether I am teaching online or in a brick and mortar setting, I love the opportunity to educate learners about Spanish language and culture. I love seeing engagement on their faces and due to our virtual live sessions at the World of Learning, I can still see the excitement on my learners’ faces, even online. One of the very few things I miss about the brick and mortar classroom are the impromptu social communications I would have with teachers or learners. I make it a point to build relationships and get to know my learners, but it is hard to keep up with how they are all doing in sports, band competitions, musicals, etc. I have a wide range of learners across Pennsylvania and it can be difficult to keep tabs on all of them and the great things they are doing outside of class.
Edwige: What are your biggest challenges? How do you work to overcome them ?
Anita: Many learners turn to online education for multiple reasons. I enjoy the opportunity of getting to know my learners and their stories on why they are engaging in online education. Sometimes it is because their rural school doesn’t have a range of opportunities, sometimes a language teacher is out on a leave and their district turns to us for a temporary solution, sometimes a student is being bullied and transitions to home school, etc. Once I know their background and their interests, then the fun challenge begins on how do I engage them in their online education. How do I make sure they attend live sessions, are my sessions engaging enough? Do they connect with me as an instructor and want to be in my classroom? How do I ensure they are completing their tasks online? Is my communication sufficient? The challenge of online teaching keeps me going. There is a much bigger learning curve than what people think in teaching online, especially to do it effectively in both a synchronous and asynchronous environment. Through my learning experiences, I have turned to my colleagues and supervisor numerous times. It is so great to have a group of experienced instructors that I bounce ideas off of, get ideas from, and share effective practices. They are wonderful!
Edwige: How’s teaching online different from teaching F2F?
Anita: In my situation, I don’t think teaching online is much different than teaching face to face. Just like a brick and mortar teacher, I am responsible for planning, grading, providing feedback, supporting my learners, and communicating. Depending on how often we meet with learners in the virtual live session, this can change how an instructor plans. In a brick and mortar setting, an instructor typically sees their students five days a week. In our program we only meet with learners 1-3 times a week in the live virtual session. We want to ensure in those times that learners have ample opportunities to communicate and listen in the target language. We use a lot of comprehensible input resources to do this, just like many classroom teachers do as well.
Edwige: Can you tell us a little bit about our students? Who are they? Why do they take the course online? Are they geographically distributed?
Anita: I currently have a variety of students. Some of my students attend a public high school in our IU8 region. Due to their limited language resources at their school, their district works with us to provide synchronous virtual live sessions during the week and asynchronous content to the learners. This school is located in a rural area of Pennsylvania which makes it difficult to find language teachers. Some of my other learners are students enrolled in a cyber charter school. The cyber charter school does not have staff to teach languages so in order to meet student needs, they work with us to offer these opportunities. Lastly, some of my other students attend schools that offer customized learning schedules. This provides opportunities for students to have flexibility in their schedules, whether they attend school or not, so they may have more working opportunities or internships in the community. These three groups of current learners are all spread out in various parts of Pennsylvania. I also just recently finished up a short term substitute position, in which the Spanish teacher at the high school was out for maternity leave and they could not find a certified Spanish teacher to ensure the ongoing learning of the learners. For six weeks I met with learners and designed personalized curriculum based on communication with the teacher on where they left on, and what she wanted them to cover so she could continue when she returned. This was approximately 90 students in Central Pennsylvania and it allowed them the opportunity to have no interruptions in their learning.
Edwige: Do you feel like you have a sense of community in your online courses?
Anita: Yes! I make it a point to get to know my learners and build a relationship. This takes place in both the synchronous and asynchronous environment. I make it a point for the students to understand that no matter what their situation is or why they enrolled in an online course, that everyone is there for the same purpose, to learn a language. I also feel like a community amongst my colleagues. Our World of Learning team is very unique in that we all come from different cultures and backgrounds, but we all same the share goal and really try to help each other.
Edwige: What do you do to achieve that sense of community?
Anita: Most of my learners are high school aged so I try to appeal to what is trendy and what their interests are. I try to relate to their experiences and pull that into live sessions. I try to create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes and this way learners feel comfortable working around each other and with each other. The best way to create this sense of community is through virtual live sessions and having students share learning experiences together. There are so many great virtual tools out there now to create this collaborative environment, some of which we use often are Padlet and Flipgrid. One of the weekly tasks we also have students complete in their asynchronous environment is discussion boards. This provides another opportunity for learners to communicate with each other and share ideas. They get to know more about each other through these different modes of communication which can all be done in the target language.
Edwige: Do you still teach F2F? How has teaching online affected your F2F teaching?
Anita: I no longer teach face to face to learners in a brick and mortar setting. I occasionally meet with learners face to face to orient them to our program. From teaching online I have learned that is not safe to assume that younger generations are experts at technology. They need guidance on how to use technology for education, how to time manage, and how to effectively communicate in an online learning setting. When I do meet with learners face to face, these are some of the topics I am sure to discuss, which in the past I just assumed they knew how to do all of it. In my role as a Virtual Learning Specialist, I also work with adult learners, both face to face and in virtual live sessions, on how to integrate virtual tools or how to build virtual content. I have used a lot of the engagement strategies I have learned in teaching online and can apply them to both teaching environments with adults as well.