«VIRTUAL K-12 LEADERSHIP: A POSTMODERN PARADIGM by Tommy N. Tucker A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of The College of Education In Partial ...»
Similar differences were seen in the comments of the teachers. Like the virtual charter school leader, the charter virtual school teacher took a focused, business approach to virtual education, suggesting improvements in the underlying infrastructure or “delivery system.” The district virtual school teacher expressed reservations about virtual education (“It doesn’t fit everybody”) in much the same manner as the district virtual leader. The state teacher, much like the state leader, acknowledged the unknown, novel aspect of virtual education, advocating “more research into how kids learn online.” The interviews provided an opportunity to more fully understand the unique contextual issues inherent in the different types of virtual schools. Interviewees were deliberately selected based on their expression of dissenting views during the round on surveys. This increased the likelihood that the views expressed during the interviews would be more representative of those dissenting, contrarian views necessary for postmodern analysis. The interviews also gave the researcher an opportunity to delve more deeply into the manner in which relationships and collaboration are fostered in the virtual environment. Most importantly, they humanized the subjects of the study for the researcher, creating a connection with the subjects and the data. The following sections discuss the major findings from the interviews, articulating those voices and views of dissensus.
There are issues with the existing virtual K-12 infrastructure. The full time virtual charter teacher had some issues with the way student achievement is promoted.
This teacher observed that the amount and quality of feedback in the virtual setting was lacking.
The primary concern was with the choice of Learning Management System (LMS) software:
There are systems out there, if schools would just invest in them. We need a good delivery system. It’s like sending your kids to a dilapidated building. Schools spend millions of dollars, and just throw stuff out there. They use some free or cheap want to teach the kids virtually, you need to have a system that works.
This teacher went on to suggest:
You want to ‘model the model.’ You want to have your leaders model what the teachers are experiencing. Teachers should create more content in community.
Leadership should come from teachers.
The virtual charter leader described the job as “reporting and resolving technical
issues.” This leader went on to say:
My big piece is there’s always something that doesn’t work in the world of technology. I have skills that I didn’t get through formal education to be able to solve and resolve issues, whether it’s technologies or computers or networking or wireless technology, compatibility, or browsers. This is a different skillset, requiring a different kind of flexibility and ability to adapt than traditional leadership. While it is true that both must be flexible, the demands of managing and resolving technological issues require a level of patience not found in most
The virtual district teacher was also focused on the technological context as a
Administration looks for bells and whistles in virtual-type things, like animation, which… I don’t know that that’s the way to go. You still have your student, and you’re still communicating with them, but the pipeline between the teacher and the student needs to be improved. It needs to be more seamless. More like a classroom, or one on one, or whatever.
This teacher went on to advocate improvements in the technical aspects of the virtual
You need to improve the delivery system so that teachers and students can talk almost like it was a conventional classroom. Many of our tools look neat, but when you go to use them, they “sort of work.” The technology is starting to get
Some virtual educators have concerns. A very telling response from one charter leader expressed a common sense of student achievement seen in this study – “Our biggest focus is we want successful course completion.” This was validated by a state teacher. “We strive to get a certain percentage of students – I hate to say this – passing our courses.” One noteworthy finding stood out in many of the interviews – relationships are difficult in a virtual environment. When asked about relationships, one district leader replied “It’s difficult, because at the end of the day, it’s difficult to replace face-to-face communications when it comes down to relationships and understanding people.” This same leader said “If you want a relationship, you can’t take out all face-to-face contact.”
One charter teacher sarcastically observed:
The relationships are very minimal, they have to be cultivated by leadership, creating things that allow relationships to happen. I don’t know that our leadership places any importance on that. It’s mainly just “teach.” This teacher went on to say “There’s constantly talk about creating relationships with students, but I just don’t see that happening.” The university researcher participant in the interview phase summarized the difficulty of virtual relationships. “This one, for me, hinges on presence.” “Someone needs to be able to come across well in writing to a greater extent in the online environment. The leader needs to make a specific effort to bring people together to form those relationships, to spur those collaborations.” It is important that leaders address the needs of virtual teachers, to “show that they are valued, which is something that can be very difficult at a distance.” Closely related to relationships, collaboration was another topic in the interviews.
All of the three interviewed leaders reported that collaboration was alive and well in their schools. It is not unusual for leaders to see themselves as highly collaborative, despite the
prior references to relationships being difficult. One leader reported:
I feel that in the virtual setting versus the brick and mortar setting, even though I have worked at the administrative level in both, that I am far more informed, not only on what our school is doing, what the direction of the district is, but also I feel more in tune with the state level decisions, which aren’t really communicated well, at least in my experience, at the brick and mortar setting.
Teachers are a bit more reserved in their assessment of collaboration in the virtual domain. “We have monthly meetings online.” “During the summer we always do a Summer Institute, where we get together in one place for two or three days.” “I don’t have too much contact with other teachers.” The charter teacher says “As a cyber schoolteacher you are on an island. You really don’t get a lot of interaction with others.” This teacher went further, noting that the virtual communication tools work great for one on one communication, “but when you add two or three other people, you lose something.” In face-to-face communication “there is an additional back-channel of things going on that get missed. If you want to have good communication – face-to-face is the best.” The state virtual teacher focused on the differences resulting from distance as an
important contextual factor:
I can tell you that there are some students that I didn’t get to know much at all.
Some students I felt like I had known for years. The same thing with the facilitators. I think it’s mostly – I hate to say it, but it’s mostly quantity rather than quality. Whoever you talk to the most you get to know better.
Others noted differences arising from the school sponsor. The district virtual leader made a comment that may be an indication of the challenge faced by districts that are primarily engaged in traditional K-12 education that find themselves engaged in
The person that is the principal of the virtual school is also in charge of other alternate programs. They just added this to the plate that she already had that was
The failure to dedicate fulltime leadership to the school may be indicative of a lack of commitment to the endeavor.
The virtual district teacher revealed an attitude about virtual learning that might
indicate a lack of leadership or commitment to the virtual learning environment:
In online teaching it’s like making lesson plans for a substitute. You kind of have to do the same thing with students. You have to develop your online course from the point of view that the student is the substitute teacher. You give them material and a direction and they need to be able to follow through and do the learning.
The district virtual school leader focused on a perceived shortfall of virtual K-12
My recommendation has been that kids take at least one math class in a classroom with a teacher somewhere along the way, so they get that interaction with other students and the vocabulary pronunciation. This way they are catching things that they don’t know that they don’t know.
The leader of one state virtual school noted the experiential disconnect that exists
between leaders in traditional and virtual schools. The leader observed:
My perception is that, once you are in the virtual field, you understand it. The tricky part is getting the non-virtual leader to understand it, to get it. That’s the
The district teacher suggested that there are aspects of virtual education that limit
its effectiveness for all students:
Virtual education does a good job for kids that apply effort to the classes. I think it’s a good system. Kids need to be a certain profile to succeed online. They need to be self-starters. It doesn’t fit everybody.
The state virtual schoolteacher acknowledged the differences created by context on how the educational process is conducted. This is an area that those in virtual
leadership could provide valuable leadership in accomplishing:
I think that one thing that might be missing – virtual education is so young – research into how kids work online. What works? It would be helpful to have more research into how kids learn online.
Virtual leadership overlaps, but is not the same as traditional leadership.
This was concisely addressed by the researcher participant in the interview phase:
I think that, of course, there is overlap, just like there is for teachers. If you pick any professional who has been prepared to be effective or exceptional in a traditional school, the core of the job is the same, and the tasks that person is required to attend to are very similar. But I would say that there is only about a 50% overlap. Because the nature of the work – there are facilities in one, there are systems in the other. Where you take out something in one environment, you put in something different. It takes different skills and knowledge, and it takes different mixes of people, and it takes different budgeting structures, and it takes different outreach conversations to make that work happen. I’m gonna say that there is about a 50% overlap and the rest is relatively unique.
The participating researcher went on to explain:
I’m thinking about the difference between elementary and high school. That’s probably at least a 2/3 overlap. The kids are different, the programs are different, the faculty is different, there are enough differences that to be really good at one you’ve got to have some preparation or some experience. You can’t just walk from one to the other in a day and do it as well. You’ve got to know what those differences are. It’s much more different than that.
The researcher participant in the research phase further described these differences:
In thinking specifically about the activities of leaders in those different environments, obviously communication channels are different. Because of the largely virtual nature of communication in the virtual schools, communication has to be more planned. There’s less of the hallway conversations and incidental conversations. Because they are more planned and more structured, my sense is it tends to adhere more to org charts and reporting lines. In the traditional school a principal might have a conversation with anyone in the building at any time.
That’s possible in the virtual school, but discussions and workflows tend to be a little more official and organized.
Above, the participating researcher described within-school communications; however, in
elaborating on the topic of communication, the researcher participant went on to say:
I also believe that the group of people virtual school principals communicate with probably represent a bit of a broader range than in a traditional school, because of the elective nature of the virtual school and the fact that it’s new and less understood. Virtual school principals and virtual school leaders have said that they spend quite a bit more time communicating with legislators, policy makers, and members of the public than they did when they were in a traditional school, because people know what a traditional school is for the most part. They don’t have to be persuaded of its effectiveness. They don’t have to buy into the concept or the approach. But virtual school principals spend quite a bit more time sort of promoting and explaining what they do and trying to persuade people that it’s a legitimate form of education and providing evidence. There seems to be more of a demand for evidence of effectiveness. So those I think would be the major differences and how the work happens, and the nature of the day-to-day activities