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Real Challenges, Virtual Solutions in Alaska Classrooms

When the only road to school melts during the year, there has to be a backup plan for educating students. But virtual education may not provide all the answers.

By Cynthia Kopkowski McCabe

Jeff Schultz

Describing the towns and villages where teachers work in rural Alaska simply as “remote,” doesn’t really do the trick. Instead, let’s let the Rural Educators’ Handbook—drafted by NEA-Alaska for teachers considering the 49th state as a career move—do the explaining. “There are villages where running water is seasonal.... If showers and laundry are not accessible, this can greatly add to the hardship of bush living.... Some educators chop their own wood.... Electricity is usually prohibitively expensive....We advise you to bring first-aid supplies and a good guide to family health.” It goes on to discuss the advisability of snowmobiles and sled teams for transport. In winter, when temperatures can drop to 40 below, a cup of water thrown outside freezes to powdery crystals midair.

In other words, best not to complain to a teacher from rural Alaska about your school’s distance from a Starbucks. See more about their lives in the Real Life Challenges in Rural Alaska slideshow.

Extreme isolation is part of the reason that teacher turnover rates in rural Alaska are 22 percent compared with 15 percent in the rest of the country, according to a 2008 Institute of Social and Economic Research study. In recent years, that inherent need for teachers has collided with mandates imposed by the No Child Left Behind law that require teachers be “highly qualified” in every subject they teach. In rural Alaska, where educators often do double-, if not triple-duty, that adds even more staffing strain.

Virtual teaching—in this case through videoconferencing (not online education courses, which are another popular form)—offers one solution to two challenges. It allows teachers in a centralized location to beam across the tundra to remote villages, reaching students who might never see an applied mathematics or bioscience teacher otherwise. Also, it means those remote schools aren’t under as much pressure to stock their already hard-to-fill classrooms specifically with “highly qualified” teachers in even core subjects.

However, while the benefits are numerous, it is not a perfect solution, say educators and Association activists.

Andrea Pokrzywinski

Biology teacher Andrea Pokrzywinski in her classroom “studio” in Bethel, Alaska, from which she’ll beam out lessons to students in villages miles away.

Jeff Schultz

Let’s start with the basics. How does it work? To get an idea, peek into Andrea Pokrzywinski’s classroom in Bethel, Alaska. “Classroom” is an elastic term in this case: She’s in a small room that accommodates a table and a few chairs, a television, and a video camera on a tripod.

When the bell rings, she greets the classes through the camera and gets them started on a pre-test to assess their readiness. All of the students can hear her and, using a remote control, Pokrzywinski can activate the microphones in their individual classrooms when they need to share an answer or question. And that’s how, from the headquarters of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, she’ll teach students miles away in villages accessible only by flying or by driving on the ice road created when the river freezes.

In the village classrooms receiving the lesson, students speak up toward a centralized microphone. If it were a math class, they might be called up to an overhead projector that has a mounted camera, allowing them to show the teacher how they arrived at the answer to an algebra question. But today’s biology lesson is fetal pig dissection. So why isn’t the stench of formaldehyde in the air? Even this is a virtual experience, in which students use their laptop computers (every student has one) to work through an online program that allows them to get inside the pig, virtually, if not literally.

Watching the village school sites on her divided screen (the teachers jokingly call it “Hollywood Squares”), Pokrzywinski checks in on the students’ progress, answering questions and moving them through the lesson as she follows along online. She ends with a quiz to gauge comprehension. Roughly 100 students are getting instruction in a bioscience lesson from one highly-qualified teacher without having to travel from their home school or jam into one classroom.

Marc Leinberger

"We're able to offer a very consistent, high quality of instruction, and, for out here, that's part of the name of the game," says Marc Leinberger.

Jeff Schultz

“We’re able to offer a very consistent, high quality of instruction and, for out here, that’s part of the name of the game,” says Marc Leinberger, an applied mathematics teacher who works with 12 schools using the videoconferencing tools. One of the primary advantages is that an English teacher in a rural school won’t be asked to teach a math course, or vice versa. “Otherwise, they end up in a small school teaching all subjects and [feeling] they’re in pretty deep water,” he says. “Now we can offer not only support, but we can design the curriculum and deliver the instruction.” Also, lessons can be recorded live and streamed over a school district Web site, meaning there’s never a reason that a student should miss a class.

To see how things are going on the receiving end of Pokrzywinski’s lesson, we hop into a Cessna 172 and drop in on a classroom at Z.J.  Williams Memorial School in the village of Napaskiak. It is a tiny village with a population of 391 people, nearly all of whom are members of the Y’upik Tribe. In one classroom at the school—a building bearing a sign out front reading “Do not park snowmobiles on boardwalk”—roughly 25 students are gathered, staring alternately at their computer screens and the television screen.

But before they even enter the classroom, these students face significant challenges: poverty, a language barrier (English is a second language for all but one of the students in this particular class), and the reality that their state ranks last in the nation for the number of ninth-graders who will likely have a bachelor’s degree in 10 years.

On this day, the class dutifully follows along with Pokrzywinski’s lesson—once the classroom teacher gets the Web  site with the fetal pig program working. Keeping the hardware and software up and running can create a few headaches during a virtual teaching session. At one point, their teacher leans into the microphone and says, “Andrea, the server is blocking this site because it talks about ‘sexing the pig.’”

Animal gender identification aside, the mood in the classroom throughout the lesson is, well, underwhelming. When Pokrzywinski asks a question from her televised perch, nobody clamors to answer. (Leinberger says it typically takes at least a semester to get new students even warmed up to the idea of talking into the microphone. Many of them are struggling with not wanting to appear too eager to their teenage peers, or are reluctant as English Language Learners whose native Y’upik language comes easier.) Students rest chins on their hands or fiddle with their hair.

Therein lies the primary complaint about such virtual instruction. “It can be shoot-me-dead boring,” says one teacher. That feeling is espoused typically by teachers on the receiving end, who are reduced to proctoring classes they feel they could be teaching themselves, were it not for NCLB’s “highly qualified” requirement. More than one teacher admits to putting the virtual instructors on mute and simply taking the reins.

It’s not the fault of good teachers like Pokrzywinski, though. They’re having to transcend geographic and technological barriers, and at the same time compete with students who prefer to be staring at a television blaring My Super Sweet 16 and Chris Brown videos, rather than a teacher in a dully painted conference room, 20 miles away, talking about pig parts.

“We’re competing against Hollywood,” says Bethel technology specialist Ted Simmons. “How do you keep the attention of the kids? That’s really hard. Just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean you’ll succeed.” The lack of hands-on, in-person work with a teacher adds to the challenge. Leinberger devises lab work for his applied mathematics classes based on simple items that will likely be available at the village school, but it’s no substitute for a fully equipped lab with a teacher there to direct. So students are left to look at a screen and virtually dissect a pig, rather than get their hands dirty and truly experience the science they’re learning.


Students in the village of Napaskiak on the receiving end of a biology lesson. Despite a virtual teacher’s best intentions, it can be hard to engage students so far away, relying on a TV screen in the corner of the room and one microphone.

It’s no picnic back on the other end, either, being a teacher connected— but not really connected—to her students. “It’s a lot like teaching with a blindfold on because I don’t really get to know the students as well [as students in a traditional classroom],” says Pokrzywinski. The on-site teacher can be a critical ally in the virtual teaching model, making sure students are on track, that the lessons are appropriate for what they know, and making adjustments midstream based on reactions and feedback the virtual teacher may not see onscreen. “Site teachers have been awesome about emailing in the middle of a lesson, saying ‘It’s working!’” says Pokrzywinski. And an engaged on-site teacher can interact with the class to augment the lesson. In Napaskiak, when the lesson turns to how damaged tissue heals, the teacher knows to call on Jacqueline, who just had her tongue pierced, to talk about her recovery.

Then there are times when the students provide excellent motivation for the remote teacher. “Once in a while you can see a student pop their head up or something happens [that indicates they’ve had] a ‘lightbulb moment,’” says Leinberger. But, he adds,  that happens “not nearly as often as you would like.” He provides what might be the best assessment of virtual teaching: “It’s an effective tool, but I think we have all recognized the limitations.”

That same dichotomy between the benefits and the liabilities arises even when videoconferencing is employed for professional development, one of its other uses in rural Alaska. From the school district headquarters, instructor Julie McWilliams provides district-wide in-service sessions for teachers and support professionals, using videoconferencing tools that help bridge vast distances between trainers and staff. Some staff members relish the chance to get the training; others do not. “For some, it’s like having a conversation,” says McWilliams. “Others will passive-aggressively point the camera to something else” in the room. That’s why McWilliams says her first choice for training “is always face-to-face.” Because she wants staff to overcome their reluctance, McWilliams always asks for feedback: “What did you learn? Next time, what should we do differently?”

Association leaders have their own questions about the increased use of virtual teaching (both videoconferencing and online education courses). “First, it’s a question of quality,” says the immediate past president of NEA-Alaska, Bill Bjork, who served on NEA’s Distance Education Committee in the late 1990s. That committee helped craft NEA’s policy on distance education. “How do you maintain quality in this type of system?”

It’s a question worth examining nationally as the use of virtual teaching catapults. At least 22 states now offer some form of virtual schooling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most trend analyses show a dramatic increase in the use of technology in schools, including use for virtual education programs. In Florida, for example, a new law requires that by 2010, all elementary school students have access to a full-time online education program.

The state of Alaska, however,  does not administer a criteria-specific evaluation of the effectiveness of virtual teaching that is any different than the evaluative monitoring done for regular classes, says state Department of Education specialist Cecilia Miller. And the state also doesn’t collect data separately on how many districts, schools, students, and teachers participate in virtual education. Much of the development of distance education courses is done by individual districts to meet their specific needs. The Alaska Distance Education Consortium—of which the state Department of Education is one member—and the Alaska Society for Technology in Education partner to provide training for classroom teachers to become virtual teachers.

Also worrying Association activists is the idea that administrators and legislators may view virtual teaching as an effective way to avoid hiring enough teachers. “Distance delivery isn’t a way you short-circuit hiring teachers,” says Bjork. 

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