Virtual learning labs use robots to bring certified teachers to MCHS
Dr. Marsheila Ksor greets her students warmly at the start of their English II class at Marlboro County High School, then consults with each one individually as she looks over their shoulders to check their work and ask about their progress.
That wouldn’t seem unusual for a Monday morning, unless you realize that Ksor is not physically in the classroom at all. She is part of the State Department of Education’s VirtualSC program, and she is teaching the students via computer from her home elsewhere in the state.
It’s a scene that might read “science fiction” to some. As the students sit at their computer stations, a robot moves easily among them. A wheeled stand with a tablet-sized monitor on top, it is controlled remotely by the teacher, who can see and be seen by the students in real time, thus being able to conduct her classes as if she were in the same room.
“It’s like FaceTime,” said MCHS’ principal, Dr. Mark Bunch, referring to the popular video chat application.
But it isn’t just fun and games in the context of education. Utilizing the Virtual Learning Lab option offered by VirtualSC, the high school is able to circumvent the state- and county-wide teacher shortage and make sure all classes are being taught by certified, highly qualified teachers.
“Whereas in the past we may have had to use long-term substitutes, we can now have certified teachers filling these positions,” said Bunch.
The State Department of Education introduced the Virtual School program, now called VirtualSC, as a high school supplemental pilot program in 2007. According to the program’s website, it partners directly with schools to offer Virtual Learning Labs “to help schools fulfill several needs from budget cuts, reduced funding and unfilled teaching vacancies at smaller schools across the state.”
The robot aspect was introduced last year as a pilot to be part of the Virtual Learning Lab option. In 2015-16, five classes with robots were offered, and that has expanded this year.
Marlboro County High has been utilizing the program since the start of this semester.
“After first semester, we moved some of our more veteran teachers into ninth grade classes, and we were not able to fill all our needs with certified teachers,” said Bunch. “This allows all our students to be taught by certified teachers.”
He said it was only introduced “after many, many meetings with teachers, parents and students” to make sure they were on board and all their questions were answered. Students were given the opportunity to opt out of the program if they chose, but instead, Bunch said, “we’ve had some students opt in.”
Currently, the school has two robots and three classrooms dedicated to the virtual classes. Five subjects are currently being taught in this manner - Algebra II, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, English II and World Geography - with a total of about 185 students participating. Most are 10th and 11th graders, with a few seniors in the mix.
Care is taken to ensure that all the participating students get the support they need. The teachers, though not actually in the classrooms, develop relationships with the students and work with them one-on-one as needed. All their work is automatically uploaded and emailed to the teachers, and there are online textbooks and pacing guides to keep the students on track.
Each class has an assistant who is actually in the classroom to facilitate the classes and assist the students. One guidance counselor has been dedicated to handling virtual classes, and other teachers at the school are available as well if students need extra help.
Bunch said the transition has not been difficult for the students, who have grown up in the 21st century with exposure to all types of technology from the time they were very small. “They are very receptive,” he said. “It comes very easily to them, because they do this kind of thing all the time.”
Eleventh grader Robert McNair said he appreciates the virtual classes for what they may mean to him in the future. “It’s preparing us for college, because I know we’ll do it there,” he said. “It’s simple and easy. When you need (the teacher), she’s there.”
Plans are already in the works to expand the course offerings next year, possibly in the areas of foreign language and upper level math and science classes. While the primary objective is always to fill positions with certified teachers who will be in the classroom physically, Bunch said this is a good alternative when that isn’t possible.
“It’s very interactive, and it’s been very successful for our students,” he said.