A Quarter Century Later, Catching Up with A Trailblazing Teacher
Online learning celebrates a milestone in FLVS and Mary Mitchell.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As Florida Virtual School (FLVS) celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, what better way to showcase the amazing advancements in online learning than by chatting with 24-year FLVS teacher, Mary Mitchell?
FLVS has changed quite a lot since its humble beginning in 1997 when it had only 77 enrollments and five courses. As the 15th employee and first biology teacher hired in 1998, Mary saw these changes firsthand.
She would often travel to students’ houses to give them their discussion-based assessments (and then stay for dinner with the family after!). She also used a beeper, so students could reach her.
Mary is an instructor who has held several positions at FLVS over the years. A National Board Certified Teacher, she has been recognized as a Teacher of the Year for FLVS, the United States Distance Learning Association, and Discovery Middle School in Orange County, FL.
Mary offers a unique insight into the changes, challenges, and successes of online learning throughout her distinguished career with FLVS. Here, Mary shares her thoughts on the journey, the lessons, and the future of learning.
You’ve been in education and e-learning for a long time – how did you get your start? What prompted you to embark on this journey?
I was a brick-and-mortar science teacher before Florida Virtual School (FLVS). I taught middle school, high school, and community college. I learned image processing from the National Institute of Health and did some Global Positioning Systems work with a professor at the University of Central Florida. I was integrating these technologies into my classroom. I had experience writing grants and challenging myself to obtain computers and technology for my classrooms. Some might say it was a risky move (FLVS was not a regularly funded school then), but I saw FLVS as another challenge. I believed there were great ideas for teaching Biology online and I wanted to be a part of that. I was excited and full of confidence.
JUST A YEAR IN. Virtual school pioneer Julie Young, who founded FLVS in 1997 and served as President and CEO until 2014, applauds teacher Mary Mitchell as part of the 1998 Milken Educator Award program. Both are very much active in the field today; Young is Vice President, Education Outreach & Student Services at ASU as well as Managing Director of ASU Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital, while Mitchell will celebrate her 25th anniversary in teaching with FLVS in the summer of 2023.
My first time seeing the positive impact of online learning on a student’s life was when I taught a student with an autoimmune disorder. He had to live in a bubble. Everything had to be sterilized to pass through to him. He couldn’t experience school and friendships the same way other students could. He was always in a “classroom of one.” FLVS provided him with a feeling of acceptance from his peers for the first time in his life. He was able to interact with other students and build relationships. It was then that I knew online learning would have a huge impact on students in the future.
We’ve been through much in the last 2.5 years – what’s your take on it, including remote learning, the surge in online, and post-pandemic habits and attitudes regarding e-learning?
I think the pandemic magnified that no student learns the same way, and therefore we need alternative education options, like online learning, to help all students reach success.
Unfortunately, most students experienced remote emergency learning in the 2020-21 school year, not true online learning. True online learning has been around for more than 20 years (I am proof as I have been with Florida Virtual School for 24 years!) and provides students with an individualized experience with one-on-one teacher support, comprehensive and engaging digital courses that are challenging yet easy to understand, highly engaged and communicative teachers, teacher training and professional development, and flexibility that allows students to work at their own pace. Students also have opportunities to work together with life lessons, and our 60+ clubs allow students to interact with each other in areas that they are passionate about.
UPDATE: MILLIONS OF ENROLLMENTS LATER
Florida Virtual School® (FLVS®) is a fully accredited, statewide public school district offering more than 190 courses to Kindergarten-12 students. Its certified teachers use a variety of personalized instructional programs to create individualized educational plans for every student. Since 1997, FLVS students have successfully completed more than 5.1 million semester enrollments. FLVS also provides its digital curriculum and expertise to online and blended learning programs across the nation. Services include curriculum licensing, FLVS Global School, County Virtual Schools, digital learning labs, and professional development.
In contrast, emergency remote learning didn’t offer teacher professional development due to lack of time, students were taught synchronously on video calls from 8 am-3 pm with little to no breaks, and due to that “time-boxed” schedule, there wasn’t time to personalize lessons for students.
What is the state of education today?
I think the state of education today is all about school choice.
What makes you say that?
The reason I believe that is because the pandemic highlighted what we already knew – that students learn differently, and we need to adapt and evolve to address their needs. Students and families each have different situations, dynamics, and goals. Having choices in how students learn opens doors and opportunities for each student to succeed.
What is tech’s role in education and learning? And what should it be, ideally?
I think technology plays a huge part in education and learning and will continue to increase in the years to come. If you think about it, student populations are constantly changing, and so are their educational needs. For example, Gen Z is the first truly internet-dependent generation where information, communication, and entertainment are more accessible than ever before. Therefore, educational strategies need to evolve with the way students are experiencing the world to reach students where they are.
Adapting to the way students consume information doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers need to dance to lesson plans on TikTok, but it does mean that educators need to use technology strategically to engage students in their learning. Ideally, technology is the tool and conduit to engage students in immersive learning experiences where they have choices and opportunities for mastery of content.
Any advice to companies creating technology products and services for the learning sector?
My advice to companies creating technology products and services for the learning sector, would be to create more content that moves in the direction of the students, such as video games. Specifically, those that focus on historical events. These games teach students how to play within established rules, find clues, learn together with others, and gain historical knowledge.
‘My advice to companies creating technology products and services for the learning sector, would be to create more content that moves in the direction of the students…’
Over a hundred of our FLVS students participate in our eSports Video Game Club, for grades 6-12, which supports multiple teams across the 7 eSports games that they play. Additionally, many Florida Virtual School teachers incorporate games into their lessons, tests, discussion-based assessments, and more. Students love it – and it makes them feel comfortable and confident.
How do you see the future of learning shaping up? What might we see in the next 25 years? How will it look?
I think we will see more of these game-type learning opportunities happening as our current students become developers, and with their experience, produce more video games for this type of learning. I also think there will be more Computer Generated-Imagery and immersive technologies used to build courses.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize regarding the future of learning, e-learning, tech in learning, or anything else?
Over the past 24 years, I’ve seen the positive impact true online learning can have on the lives of students. For example, I have a student who is a competitive cheerleader. She is on her traditional school’s cheer team, as well as a travel team. She takes one online class and the rest at her school. Having one class online at home helps her and her family with their schedule, providing them with the flexibility they need.
Another student of mine is dual enrolled and takes some classes online and others at the local college. In addition, he has soccer practice after school each day. Taking his classes online helps him balance his school, sports, and family time.
I also have a student with dyslexia who likes taking my online class because she finds that technology helps her read and comprehend the material. Having a variety of videos, visuals, learning activities, and manipulatives help support her understanding of the content. Online learning isn’t going anywhere, and I believe we should all embrace it so that we can leverage it to its full potential.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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