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Teaching Anatomy & Physiology on the Virtual Highway

Karen Smith


Virtual schools offer multiple advantages, including:

  • accessibility—you can literally “go to school” anywhere and retrieve information from almost limitless resources
  • flexible course offerings—virtual schools can offer a variety of courses that benefit the gifted and talented, as well as those that are educationally challenged
  • enhanced learning—students are introduced to new technology, which will enhance future endeavors

June 2008

Students can study anywhere they find an Internet connection. Photo: Microsoft Image.

The science classroom is changing! The students are the same. The instructor is the same. The course of study is the same. BUT, the learning is different! Welcome to Bio 141 and Anatomy & Physiology 142 via the Internet and the Virtual Highway.

My class covers 4000 square miles.

The scenario described is happening. I presently teach 130+ gifted and talented high school seniors who are located in 39 different high schools, 15 school systems across 4000 square miles in Southwest Virginia. Actually, my students could be taking the class at home, in a hotel, while on a school trip or anywhere, they can find an Internet connection. I really do not know where they are, and they do not always know where I am.

What is a virtual school?

Virtual schools are becoming popular.

“Virtual Schooling can be seen as part of a larger phenomenon, eLearning—a concept that is increasingly used in the K-12 environment to describe not only distance teaching and learning, but also the general use of educational and information technology in support of teaching and learning.”1 Virtual schools, with their mix of traditional content and technology, are attracting students. A Peak Group report of 2002 “anticipated annual student enrollment of over 1,000,000 by the 2004-2005 school year [in America].”2 According to a 2007 report from the North American Council for Online Learning, enrollment in K-12 online courses increased by 50% in some U.S. states, with 42 states offering either supplemental online learning courses, full-time online learning programs, or both.3

Certified teachers follow state standards.

Virtual schools are not home schools (although home schoolers can and do participate); they are distance education schools run by the public school system, following state curriculum requirements and achievement standards. Instruction is web-based and given by certified teachers. Students complete assignments at home on their computer. In the U.S., some states offer a complete curriculum, while other states offer select distance classes in a variety of subjects.

Students get equitable access to education.

A survey of 33 virtual schools in 2001 found that “access to an expanded curriculum was one of the most frequently stated objectives of virtual school programs.”4 The survey also showed that virtual learning provides equitable access to high quality education to students who may have difficulty in a traditional school setting, such as students who are:

  • from high-need schools, both urban and rural;
  • lower achievers;
  • from minority groups;
  • from low-income families; and
  • special needs students.

Why did we start a virtual school?

Virginia geography is challenging for travel to schools.

In the mid-nineties parents and educators in Southwest Virginia realized that the needs of gifted and talented high school juniors and seniors could not always be met at their local schools. Several factors contributed to the problem. The number one obstacle was the geography of the mountainous terrain, which made it impossible for these students to come to one physical location. This has also impacted the total number of students in the local high schools and prevented the students, who were capable of accelerated work, from taking classes with their peers. Along came the Internet, and the virtual school concept became the solution.

A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School became a reality in the fall of 1998, and the school admitted its first student body. It is the first virtual school in Virginia and most likely the very first interactive one in the United States. We are currently celebrating our 10th anniversary, and our school is impacting the lives of our students very positively.

What are the challenges of a virtual classroom?

We adjusted technology to meet our needs.

Teaching in the virtual classroom has had its challenges. The software had to have applications that accommodate audio, as well as video components. The technology required many financial adjustments for the school districts. The classroom sessions almost had to be choreographed. We were the first instructors teaching this way so every day during our first year we used the “trial and error” method. We had no one else’s experience to draw from. But, we did succeed.

A typical day for my Anatomy & Physiology classes begins at 7:20 AM EST. This period allows students to take the class without interfering with their schedules in the individual high schools. Some of these students take the class from home. I am often greeted with “Mrs. Smith, my Mom just brought me pancakes.” I assume they are eaten while I am lecturing. I have heard that some of the parents are quite amazed at the amount of anatomy they are learning from the lectures as they watch the students who are at home.

High school students earn college credits.

My first and last classes last 50 minutes, and they are completed in 2 semesters. I also have 90-minute classes that complete the course in one semester. All students receive 8 hours of college credit through the community college system in Virginia. The state pays for this opportunity. Many Holton Governor’s School students enter college as sophomores.

Communication is both synchronous and asynchronous.

In the virtual classroom, I communicate with my students verbally as well as with text chat. They can talk to the class, too. We can have group discussions that will allow several to speak and do presentations. I lecture using PowerPoint slides. With the synchronous web browser, I am able to take the class to any website that enhances the lecture. This also allows the class to quickly research new medical advances that are discovered. As a result, they are able to make this new information their own.

I use a power board explanations.

A power board, which is a virtual chalkboard, is helpful with the physiology portion of the course. I can give the floor to the students, and they can take the class to a website that they feel explains the topic we are studying. In other words, the technology keeps the students engaged during the entire class. I need to mention that our classes are archived so that students can watch the class later for reviewing purposes, or in case they had to miss class.

Interactive lab activities foster inquiry.

Software makes anatomy visualization possible, such as Argosy’s Visible Body. Source: Software screenshot, Argosy Medical Animation.

Often, I am asked how laboratory activities are accomplished, which did present some problems at first. It was necessary to develop lab activities that could be done at home with proteins, different enzyme sources, detergents, milk, jell-o, contact lens cleaners, and even chickens. It is amazing what students can learn from a whole chicken. Several interactive lab activities can be done on the Internet. We use one that shows students how to isolate DNA. My students have five CD-ROMs that have video clips of physiological processes, diseases, case studies, and dissections. Especially helpful is the CD-ROM of the human body, which allows the students to study the body systems by dissections.

Students meet each other on field trips.

Each semester, I take my students to one of the medical schools in Virginia so they can apply what they have learned in class to real life. We have visited Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, where my students learn what it is like to be a medical student; they witness an autopsy; and they spend much time working on cadavers in the gross anatomy laboratories. This is the highlight of the course for my students—they get to be together and see each other too.

Student feedback is very positive.

The big question I am asked is how teaching this course online compares with teaching it in the regular classroom and laboratory. The content of this subject requires students to be disciplined in their studies. My students have found that the addition of synchronous and asynchronous technologies makes the classroom even more enticing. This technology allows them to talk to people miles away by using a program on their computers. Here are some of their comments.

  • “Technology helps me learn new information faster and easier.”

  • “Virtual labs are convenient and allow me to take my time.”

  • “Technology allows feedback to be personal and speedy—a real positive.”

  • “I can make new information become mine with technology.”

  • “The opportunity to be in a virtual class that is really interactive while I am in high school will be very beneficial when I have regular online classes in college.”

Is virtual schooling the next wave for education?

Virtual schools offer everyone quality education.

“Distance education finally brings democracy to education. It gives the student in East L.A. or Brentwood, or Martha’s Vineyard, or Harlem, or Pakistan an equal opportunity to content curriculum and to people with many perspectives. …Students who learn with each other will learn from each other. Until now, the single biggest factor influencing the quality of education was where you live. …For the 21st Century it is not going to be where you live, but how you are connected.”5

If you are considering implementing virtual schools or courses, Clark and Berge provide information that may help you in your planning (see “learnmore links” below). These two educators identified eight aspects of virtual high school organization:6

  • funding;
  • technology;
  • curriculum;
  • teaching;
  • student services;
  • assessment;
  • policy and administration; and
  • marketing and public relations.

My experience with “Virtual Reality” has been very positive. It is especially successful in the science classroom. There are no boundaries with the Internet. Learning becomes easy for all types of learning abilities. This is the future of education.

Karen Smith holds a M.S. Ed. in Biology from Milligan College, Tennessee. She has completed graduate studies in biology at both Wake Forest University and East Tennessee State University. In addition to teaching in the graduate education departments of the University of Virginia and Milligan College, Mrs. Smith has many years experience teaching high school chemistry, biology, and environmental science. While teaching biology and medical sciences at the Holton Governor’s School, Smith also was an adjunct professor with Virginia Highlands Community College and Southwest Virginia Community College, where she has taught biology and human anatomy and physiology classes.

Teaching Anatomy & Physiology on the Virtual Highway

What is a Virtual School?

Quick information and facts. Check out the other topics in the menu.

Virtual High Schools: The High Schools of the Future?

Article in Education World illustrating examples of virtual high schools and classes.

Virtual Schools and eLearning: Planning for Success

Tom Clark, PhD, and Zen Berge, PhD presentation at the 19th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning.

Online Learning: Pure Potential

Tom Clark looks at the possibilities of virtual learning in the journal Educational Leadership. On home page of this web site, click on publications and then the May 2008 issue (Vol. 65, No. 8).

NACOL resources

The North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) provides news, reports, and resources for online K-12 teaching.

Evaluating Online Learning

The US Dept. of Education has published a guide to evaluating K-12 online learning programs, “Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success.”

Read a book

  • » The National Education Association has made its Guide to Teaching Online Courses available for reading online (2006, Washington, DC). The guide is meant to serve policymakers, administrators, educators, and others engaged in selecting, hiring, training, and supporting teachers to provide quality online instruction to students, or in making policy choices affecting online education.
  • » Learning Without Boundaries: How to Make Virtual Schooling Work for You was written by the Connections Academy parents and teachers. This book is a primer on virtual K-12 schooling. Topics include Classroom Set-Up, Time Management, Motivation Strategies, and Curriculum Planning. Though oriented to the Connections Academy, designed to help homeschooling, many of the ideas in the book are applicable to all students—whether they attend a traditional public school, another virtual school, or are homeschooled. (2005, Connections Academy). Read the free preview on Google Books and find out where you can purchase the complete version, as well.
  • » Education Outlook Series Report, Virtual Schools Across America: Trends in K-12 Online Education, 2002, gives an overview of virtual education in American and analyzes models and trends. This report may be too expensive for some, so look for a copy in your library. Published by the Peak Group, Los Altos, CA.
  • » Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice from the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) is a 2007 report that examines state-led online learning programs and considers the policies, funding models, training programs, and other factors necessary to establish effective online learning environments.

Virtual School Symposium (VSS)

The VSS highlights the cutting-edge work in K–12 online education across the country. It is a national conference focused solely on K–12 online learning and virtual schools in a comprehensive way. Practitioners and policymakers seeking to develop e-learning programs within educational institutions in the United States, Canada, Mexico and abroad attend VSS.

Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC)

FETC, a division of 1105 Media Inc., is one of the largest annual conferences in the United States devoted to educational technology. The conference program is designed so educators and administrators have an opportunity to learn how to integrate different technologies across the curriculum—from kindergarten to college—while being exposed to the latest hardware, software and successful strategies on student technology use. The conference is a national event held in Orlando, Florida every year.

  1. Clark, T., and Z. Berge. 2005. Virtual Schools and eLearning: Planning for Success, University of Wisconsin. 19th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. (accessed May 25, 2008).
  2. The Peak Group. 2002. Virtual Schools Across America: Trends in K-12 Online Education. Education Outlook Series Report. Los Altos, CA: The Peak Group.
  3. Watson, J. and J. Ryan. 2007. Keeping Pace with Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Practice and Policy. North American Council for Online Learning. (accessed May 26, 2008)
  4. Clark, T. 2001. Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues. DLRN/WestEd Consulting. (accessed May 24, 2008)
  5. Chaika, G. 2005. Virtual High Schools: The High Schools of the Future? Education (accessed May 24, 2008)
  6. Clark, Tom and Zen Berge. n.d. Virtual Schools and eLearning: Planning for Success. 19th Annual Confrence on Distance Teaching and Learning. (accessed May 25, 2008)


Understanding Science