While the traditional process of learning within a brick-and-mortar schooling system remains the most popular choice among parents and students, online schooling is gaining traction as some realize it may be their best educational option.
Melissa Curiel, an eighth-grade English teacher for the Arkansas Connections Academy, said ARCA’s enrollment has doubled since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. ARCA, in its sixth year, is a tuition-free, online public school, and is now open for enrollment for students in grades K-12 across the state.
Parents and students realized that if they were going to learn online, they might as well do so with a platform that specializes in it.
But Curiel said that for a lot of parents and students, this online learning option has become more than simply a stop-gap solution. They actually prefer it moving forward.
“What I think is most satisfying is that the majority of our kids feel like they want to come back next year, even with brick-and-mortar schools reopening fully,” Curiel said. “It has been kind of like a trial run. I think a lot of parents didn’t know about a virtual option until they had to look for it. They were real worried about how we could connect with their child. Now they see how it works in a virtual environment and many are very pleased with that.”
Starting her career off as a teacher in a brick-and-mortar school for three years, before joining ARCA in 2016, Curiel knows the ins and outs of both ends of the spectrum educationally.
She said sometimes there is a misconception that online teachers like herself don’t need to be state-certified, when they in fact are required to be.
“We all are certified, Arkansas state-licensed teachers with teaching degrees,” she said. “We offer the same resources that you would have at a brick and mortar. Any kind of accommodation you can get in a general education classroom, we offer here as well because we are a public school.”
ARCA teachers use the Pearson Connexus learning platform for live lessons, small group discussions, chats with students and much more to provide them with all the resources they need to learn and get help. Curiel said they schedule phone calls with students quite often for that much-needed one-on-one communication.
“Most of our conversations with our students are one-to-one phone calls,” she said. “When I worked in a brick-and-mortar classroom, I didn’t really have time to talk to my kids face-to-face because there was always another child with me in the room.
“This way, I’ve already talked to five kids this morning and spent 30 minutes to an hour with each child. We talk about their lessons, what they learned and just how their life is going, in general. We really spend a lot of time building relationships with our students with phone calls.”
A virtual schedule is a versatile schedule, Curiel said.
“Our platform is open 24/7,” she said. “The doors don’t shut at 3. They’re always able to access their lessons. And even our live lessons where we do instruction are recorded and posted in our virtual classroom, so students can access them any time.”
Online learning platforms are often dismissed or questioned due to concerns about the development of social skills by the students partaking.
ARCA offers numerous opportunities for students to socialize amongst one another, through Commons social gatherings, field trips, prom, back-to-school and end-of-the year parties. COVID put some of these on hold, but they should be back sooner than later.
Curiel said what she appreciates most about the learning environment is the lack of bias involved, as she oftentimes isn’t aware of the gender, race or attire of the student she’s speaking with, creating an educational meritocracy of sorts.
“I don’t see what gender my students are or what race they are because I can’t see them face-to-face. So, they don’t have to face any bias that way,” she said. “And I don’t want it to sound like they always have bias at school, but it just happens. And they don’t have to have the cool shoes on or worry about what they’re wearing because they don’t know. We have seen students really thrive in this environment because they feel supported.”
She ultimately feels like ARCA is a good spot for students who don’t feel seen or supported in brick-and-mortar schools.
“I think the students who have affected me the most have felt like they perhaps weren’t heard or supported well in a brick and mortar, just because of the sheer size of the classroom,” Curiel said. “And in this environment, we’re able to have that one-on-one time with the kids that we were not able to do in a brick and mortar. When kids feel supported and loved, they’re going to do their work because they’re going to want to please you.”