Fetzer said she “jumped at the chance” to begin teaching online.

Through a combination of blended learning, individualized instruction, and enthusiasm, online biology teacher Leslie Fetzer’s dedication to helping her special-needs students develop core learning skills contributed to her new title as the 2012 National Online Teacher of the Year for K-12 education.

Fetzer, who teaches in the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) Occupational Course of Study (OCS) blended learning program, teaches special-needs students in grades 10-12. Students are paired with an exceptional children’s teacher in a classroom, as well as with a content specialist teacher online.

Fetzer said that teaching online lets her instantly individualize instruction for her students, and she is able to personalize lessons to appeal to each student’s own areas of interest or preferences. Access to different online tools and technologies is an added benefit.

“I can spend more time with each student individually and adapt to their likes or dislikes and strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “And they become very comfortable with us; sometimes they might be more comfortable saying things to their online teacher than they would to their classroom teacher, especially students who have communication barriers.”

Teaching biology and lab-based sciences might seem difficult online, but Fetzer said her students participate in a combination of virtual labs and “kitchen sink” labs for hands-on experience.

“There certainly are challenges, but it’s definitely not impossible,” she said. “I try to figure out what my students like so that I can adapt my instruction.”

Classroom and online teachers “chunk” the information that students receive, Fetzer said, meaning that they dole out instruction in manageable pieces that are easy for students to learn and review.

In daily conferences, teacher teams identify areas where students struggle with comprehension. Fetzer creates new content pieces targeted specifically for each student and reviews those lessons with students to help them understand the material.

The OCS program and its success prompted huge increases in enrollments. When the program opened in the fall of 2010, Fetzer said, it offered three courses and numbered 500 students. Enrollment doubled in the next semester, and it doubled again in the fall of 2011.

Teachers and administrators have noticed increases in attendance and on end-of-year tests, as well as decreases in behavioral problems.

Fetzer offered a few tips for other online educators:

  • “Just like in the classroom, the most important piece of online learning is that student relationship,” she said. “Building that, incorporating parts of their lives … that needs to happen in the online environment as well.”
  • Presenting material in manageable ways, and knowing when to stop instruction before students experience information overload, is key for special-needs students. NCVPS classroom and online teachers reinforce a topic once students understand it, review it the next day with a different learning tool, and then teach something new. Reviewing the material is an important step, Fetzer said.
  • Make sure that material is presented cleanly and in an uncluttered manner. Fetzer attaches audio to her online instruction, so that students can opt to listen to instructions instead of reading them. Instructions should be clear, usually with no more than three or four bullet points, and fonts should use large sizes for easy reading.

“Leveraging the power of the internet for learning allows students to have access to courses they need regardless of where they’re located or what time of day is most convenient for them,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, via video, at the March 1 award presentation.

High-quality online learning “cannot exist without phenomenally effective and committed teachers who understand how to use technology to personalize the learning experience,” Duncan added.

The honor is awarded by the Southern Regional Education Board and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.