Like many teachers, Kevin Dockery took a vacation this summer. But while he sank his toes in the sand of a Charleston, S.C., beach, he was also teaching a government class in a school district 500 miles away. All he needed was his laptop and cell phone.
“I’m pretty flexible,” says Dockery, a 1994 communication arts graduate in Nashville, Tenn. “I’ve given kids phone calls and tests over the phone from my son’s lacrosse games or sitting in the car in a parking lot somewhere.”
That’s par for the course for Dockery, who teaches online government and Advanced Placement U.S. history classes to high school students in a virtual school launched last year by the Metro Nashville Public School District. Virtual schools are popping up around the country as tech-savvy and time-strapped teens are finding online classes an attractive alternative to brick and mortar classrooms. Nashville’s virtual school offers classes in everything from psychology to algebra to economics—even physical fitness.
Many of Dockery’s students also attend a physical school. They use the virtual school to make up a class they missed or because it better suits their schedule. For some it’s to get ahead on credits or because they have a job. One student enrolled so she could look after an ageing relative. The flexibility of the model is the key to its success—students can do their coursework in a time and place of their choosing. Once he gave a telephone test to a student who was sitting in a McDonald’s.
Dockery, who spent five years teaching history in a Georgia high school, doesn’t miss the logistics of brick-and-mortar education. It’s not all sunny in cyberspace, though. He has to be prepared to answer student questions at all times of the day. The Internet makes it hard to employ the Socratic method and generate engaging discussions, and some students don’t adjust well to the self-directed learning. Plus Dockery misses the face-to-face interaction with students. But he’s pleased to see technology creating more learning opportunities for teenagers.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” he says. “The technology opens up doors that weren’t there 10-15 years ago.” Is it the wave of the future? “I don’t know if it will ever be exclusively this way,” he says, “but I do think it will be something that’s available for a lot of kids.”