The digital ecosystem: Virtual schools and gifted students

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Kevin D. Besnoy

In 2015, two agencies (Mathematica Policy Institute and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes) published separate findings about the impact of online charter schools on students’ academic growth. The purpose of both reports was twofold: first, to inform local education agencies and policy makers about the growth of the online charter school movement, and second, to engage the general public in an in-depth discussion about the role that online schools should have in K–12 education. In short, both publications report disappointing academic growth for students enrolled in online schools. While they did not address the growth of gifted students enrolled in those schools, their findings must be further researched through robust empirical studies.

Most gifted students enrolled in public schools who are taking online classes are not classified as full-time virtual students, meaning that they are attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school and taking two or less online classes. This hybrid approach is a viable option for gifted programs unable to hire teachers with specialized expertise, too few gifted students identified in the school to justify a teacher for advanced classes, or programs looking to offer a curriculum that meets gifted students’ needs. Whatever the reason for leveraging online classes as a gifted program delivery option, it is important to understand the demographics of those teaching our gifted students in these settings.

Although the differences between teaching in an online versus a traditional classroom are vast, those differences are more about using digital technology to resolve student related issues as opposed to student related issues not being present. For example, while online teachers do not have to deal with traditional classroom management issues, there are digital classroom management issues that exist; the potential for cyber plagiarism, communicating with students exclusively through a digital medium, and troubleshooting students’ technical issues. Effective online teachers are able to leverage digital technologies to create a robust digital ecosystem that engages gifted students in meaningful instruction.

A majority of online teachers are traditional classroom teachers who also teach in an online environment outside traditional school hours. They report enjoying the flexibility of teaching in an online environment, not having to follow a bell-schedule, and the ability to individualize instruction based on student’s needs. Additionally, many online teachers purport finding fulfillment in being able to extend their expertise to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to take advanced classes.

Those interested in teaching online classes to gifted students must possess certain characteristics to be successful, including traditional and well-researched characteristics such as, but not limited to, expertise in a subject area, ability to motivate and establish rapport with students, and ability to differentiate the curriculum to meet individual needs. While this condensed list does not begin to fully define every necessary characteristic, effective online teachers must demonstrate all of them while teaching from a distance. Their readiness level to teach with technology must be high, even if their students’ readiness levels are not. While many teachers of gifted students will bring years of teaching experience to the online classroom, they must be willing to learn new skills and become proficient in the use of a variety of instructional strategies, multimedia resources, and digital communication tools.

Unfortunately, very few educator preparation programs train teachers of gifted students to teach in online environments. As a result, teachers of gifted students must develop specific ‘online pedagogy’ skills through professional development opportunities and independent learning. For example, effective online teachers are able to utilize screen capture software to reinforce course content, customize Learning Management Systems (LMS) to meet a class’s specific needs, and leverage video conferencing tools to establish rapport.

The criticism put forth by both reports referenced above is valid and is something the field needs to address. The trend of online education is ascending. While the benefits of this trend for gifted students will be debated for years to come, we must hold online teachers of these students to the same standards we hold their traditional brick-and-mortar peers. At the same time, we must consider the robustness of the digital ecosystem when determining the effectiveness of online education, something that these two reports did not fully take into consideration.

Kevin D. Besnoy is director of ACCESS Virtual Learning and associate director of K12 Programs at the College of Continuing Studies, University of Alabama.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the August 2017 issue of Teaching for High Potential.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


Gill, B. (2005). A report of the national study of online charter schools: Inside online charter schools. Cambridge, MA: Mathematica Policy Research.

Woodworth, J.L., M.E. Raymond, K. Chirbas, M. Gonzalez, Y. Negassi, W. Snow, and C. Van Donge. (2015). Online charter school study 2015. Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Stanford University.