SHERIDAN — Technology in education will likely increase in the future. More students are likely to participate in something similar to the Cowboy State Virtual Academy, an online school started earlier this year by Sheridan County School District 1.

The CSVA is relatively small, though, serving about a dozen students. Meanwhile, a full-time online school already exists in Wyoming. Wyoming Connections Academy is a public online school that serves students from across Wyoming in grades K–12 under the umbrella of Big Horn County School District 1.

The online school was established in July 2009 as Jackson Hole Connections Academy before changing its name in 2011. The WYCA is part of Connections Academy, a business that began in 2001 and now operates 34 online schools in 29 states.

The Sheridan Press spoke with two WYCA teachers about why they wanted to teach at the online school and how it differs from more traditional public education.

Amber Townsend resides in Sheridan and teaches middle-school language arts and social studies, along with ninth-grade English, from her home. She has taught at the WYCA for the past six years, usually instructing between 150 and 200 students in a given year.

Before that, Townsend taught at brick-and-mortar schools. She viewed the job change as a good fit and new challenge for her.

“I was really intrigued by the possibility of working at a place that I believe is growing in the educational world,” Townsend said.

Daniel Bradford lives in Cody and teaches high school mathematics. He is currently in his fifth year teaching at the WYCA and instructs between 100 and 150 students each year. The WYCA main offices are located in Cody, so Bradford works at the office Tuesday through Thursday and from home Monday and Friday.

Prior to the WYCA, Bradford taught at traditional high schools in Florida for nine years, so it took time to adjust to the new occupation.

“Once you kind of get in there, it’s a learning process as you go, especially for teachers and students doing this for the first time,” Bradford said. “I had a general idea about what to do, but once you kind of get in there and get your hands dirty doing it all, you kind of get to really feel what’s going on and actually interact and help students.”

Townsend also said the job change was not a seamless transition.

“There was a learning curve, for sure,” Townsend said. “It’s a huge shift in the way you approach teaching. For the first couple of months, I had to get my feet underneath myself and learn how to use the technology really effectively, but once I was able to do that and kind of get a grasp of all the technical aspects, the teaching part just kind of came naturally. This sounds cheesy, but I kind of felt like I was home, like I was in a job that really did suit me quite well.”

Despite the seemingly vast differences, Townsend said online education shares many similarities with physical classrooms. Most of her days are split between group and individual instruction and she estimated that 90 percent of her day involves direct communication with students.

“It’s sharpened me as a teacher to what the individual needs are of a student,” Townsend said. “I feel like I have gotten to know my students even better than I ever did in brick and mortar (schools) because I’m on the phone with them every day.”

Bradford had to adapt his presentation style to teach online instead of the front of a classroom. The WYCA job also involves more individual meetings with students who need additional help.

It is not as easy to explain math questions and answers over the phone, so Bradford tries to meet with students during live online sessions — where the teacher and student can both see each other over the computer — as much as possible and uses a whiteboard to better explain problems and solutions to students.

Both instructors said the type of students at WYCA are not much different than in traditional schools.

“Maybe where I had expected it might be more of the lower end, needing more help type of students, it hasn’t really proved to be that,” Bradford said. “We have those, but we also have a good number of students that just want to take charge of their education and work ahead.”

Townsend also said she enjoys the welcoming, communal environment of an online school. She has never dealt with bullying or ostracization based on a student’s physical appearance.

“There are no judgments,” Townsend said. “An online setting — I feel like it’s the great equalizer. Everybody has the same opportunity.”

Both said teaching at the WYCA involves as much work as their previous occupations.

“People think it’s easier (to teach online), and it’s not,” Bradford said. “There have been times where I’ve almost been pulling by hair out (because) it’s so busy. There is so much to do, and I don’t think a lot of people realize [that].”

Townsend agreed.

“I find myself grading papers a lot of nights, just like I would in brick and mortar (schools),” Townsend said.

Bradford has entertained the thought of returning to traditional education, but not seriously.

“Right now, that’s not a consideration for me,” Bradford said.

Townend shared similar sentiments.

“For now I feel really happy with where I’m at,” Townsend said. “I never say never but for the time being, I feel very strongly that I’m where I need to be.” 

The teachers’ full-time jobs are a fairly recent trend, but similar occupations may increase in the future.