Sitting in my Adirondack chair one summer morning, I had an entrepreneurial moment – yes, an epiphany of sorts — achieved through a synthesis of my professional experiences: teaching experiences as an adjunct professor at NYU, as a full time high school English teacher and — formerly — as a homebound instructor. It was 2007, I had just finished my book, Preventing Plagiarism for NCTE, and I was restless, wanting a new challenge for myself. I am one of those people who are virtually always pre-occuppied with one idea or another. I am accused of reclusiveness sometimes, but at such times I am fully engaged — free writing ideas on an abstract canvas — via my mind’s eye.
NYU had recently offered me free training in online instruction. Because I live in Sparta NJ, my one day a week commute to NYC, was not too arduous but certainly the idea of teaching my composition course synchronously via my laptop at home, in my pink fuzzy slippers, and with hot cocoa at my side – was certainly highly tempting. I could still do what I loved, and now in the environment I most loved, ensconced in my writing space (I am also a playwright) — teaching writing from the place where the muse met me from time to time. I certainly embraced the concept but I would not be in a position to assess its merits or flaws until I started teaching my first course online. My composition students met me in the virtual classroom. The class was live and the critical discourse even more engaging because I think we felt we were overcompensating for lack of body language. So expression became even more precise – diction, emoticons, clarification. I found new paths to teaching, which re-invigorated me. The passion was still there and we (my students and I ) inspired each other, learning new ways to communicate and allow our minds to meet up in this new virtual place. Online learning is certainly not devoid of inspiration and critical discourse – odd condemnations that are floating around out there. And the marvelous thing was, after these wonderful online sessions with my students, I would close my laptop and not have to commute home to NJ at 9:50 PM.
Eventually NYU went asynchronous (to accommodate international students) and I received additional training to meet new challenges in pedagogy and online tools for the asynchronous environment. But the classroom experience went a bit flat for me. I missed students’ verbalizing and presenting their work, and their collaborating in breakout sessions, but mostly I missed the teaching that is of the moment – the tangents, the genuine epiphany of a student in response to Morrison’s Beloved or Roy’s The God of Small Things. I found ways, in discussion forums, to engage and share but, as a teacher, a light had gone out for me.
So, sitting in my Adirondack chair that summer day in 2007, I reflected on my various experiences as an instructor and asked myself if, after 23 years, I was ready to stop teaching at NYU. At this point, I still view it is a temporary leave of absence. But, in reflecting on the past, I found myself needing the challenge of the present and I met that need for a challenge via synthesis: how could I take what I learned about online instruction and apply it to the secondary school environment — my full time experience of teaching high school students in the brick and mortar environment? I pulled in an element from my past, my teaching of homebound students, and a light went on. Why not enable teachers to connect to homebound students (who are out for the short or long term and who often fall through the cracks) via synchronous online instruction? What if I could bring the subject specialist into the student’s home via the virtual classroom? Typically, a homebound teacher instructs a homebound student in all required subject areas – staying two math problems, or one history chapter, or one poem ahead of the student. World languages make the homebound assignment evening more challenging and usually language instruction becomes a monitoring of the student working through assignments independent of any instruction. Usually, the teachers who are willing to do homebound instruction are those that have lighter paperwork loads (grading) and that often means they are not academic subject area teachers. What if I could secure the AP Chem teacher to teach the AP Chem class to the homebound student? What if the Spanish IV teacher was wiling to go home and open her laptop (rather than apportion time to visit the student at his/her house) and teach the lesson of the day via the virtual classroom? Then, what if I could place homebound students across the state of NJ together in the virtual classroom? Other students, who are out due to illness or disciplinary action, were missing Algebra I, Biology, and English I classes. That would allow homebound instruction to be more like brick and mortar instruction because these students would no longer be isolated at home, but mainstreamed with other students who found themselves in the same circumstances. The social element of learning would no longer be compromised in homebound instruction. In addition and equally impactful, homebound instruction would no longer be tutoring but teaching. My online instructor would teach lessons and assess his/her students. Students would not be catching up, but keeping up.
Secure in the merits of my vision for my company, I launched Innovations in Online Education http://innovationsonlineed.com in 2008. I currently partner with districts in NJ to offer homebound instruction, semester and full year academic courses to supplement their course catalogues, and summer school. We are a synchronous-only online education program – a decision made based on my firsthand experiences in both online education contexts. I currently employ a staff of over 20 part time teachers but I am hoping one day to employ them full time.
The hardest part was the journey from idea entrepreneur to actual entrepreneur, but I think the virtual element of the company allowed for this: what could have remained merely surreal ( a product of my imagination) found a home as a virtual reality (oxymoron intended).