Joe Laflen is a live online science instructor. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

A few minutes before the start of his afternoon class in August, a longtime science teacher at Carver Middle School gave a tour of his new, temporary classroom.

“Here we are,” said Joe Laflen as he opened a storage closet door with a sign affixed to it that read: “Shhh! Launch Live Session in Progress!” 

Laflen is a live virtual instructor with Launch, the online learning platform developed by Springfield Public Schools. You’d think virtual learning was more valuable a year or so ago than it is today, now that schools are in-person again. 

But at a time when teacher shortages are impacting rural and urban districts alike, live virtual educators like Laflen are in high demand — especially for hard-to-hire roles like science teachers. Right now, Laflen is teaching students from 21 districts in his two live classes. They log in from rural and urban areas across the state where teacher shortages limit in-class learning.

Mr. Laflen has full attendance during his 6th-grade course. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Instead of working in front of rows of desks, Laflen is working in a school closet. Its shelves are lined with spare microscopes and lab kits next to Laflen’s setup of two laptops and a stool. Outside, there was a full-scale ambulance bay, hospital beds and thousands of dollars worth of training equipment. As renovations continue in Hillcrest High, some Launch educators are splitting classroom space with one of the school’s health sciences programs.

“So it’s a little different than your typical classroom,” he said. But online learning is where he sees education heading, and why this year he moved into a full-time role as a live virtual instructor with Launch.

The normalization of live-streaming class

He’s not wrong.

Launch now serves 373 of the 567 school districts across the state. That number ballooned during the pandemic, said Nichole Lemmon, Launch director of virtual learning. 

Something else changed during the pandemic, too. 

“Pre-pandemic, nobody ever asked me for a live course, ever,” Lemmon said. “Post-pandemic, that became more of a request — more time with a live teacher.”

A reminder to students that there is a class in session behind this closet door. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Launch had typically provided “asynchronous,” or pre-recorded, courses, for students to learn on their schedules, with instructors available via several lines of communication, including three live hours of tutoring each week. That’s still the most popular method, Lemmon said, but Zoom and other online meeting platforms showed people during the pandemic that live sessions were possible. 

A longtime Launch adjunct instructor, Laflen moved over to a full-time role only after live sixth-grade science courses were among the virtual platform’s offerings. 

Rural need is strong, but so is urban

During his late August afternoon class, Laflen had sixth graders from across Missouri. Chimes rang out over Zoom as each of his 35 students — the maximum amount Launch admits per session — logged in. An animated talker in general, Laflen brought out his DJ voice once the Zoom session went live.

“Man, we’re gonna have a full class today,” Laflen said after complimenting a few on their Zoom backgrounds. “We love that.”

Technology is helping to bridge the teacher shortage gap. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Across the two Launch live classes he leads, Laflen teaches students from several rural districts. Laflen grew up in Bronaugh, home of one of the Launch partner districts. He was one of 14 in his graduating class in 1991, which he said was the district’s largest graduating class up until that time. He said he was fortunate to have a retired university science professor as one of his teachers, “And that’s where I really got the bug for science, was him.” For Laflen, teacher shortages in rural districts hit home. 

“I just know that rural districts are so underserved, and we have a lot of rural districts that we serve,” Laflen said.

And urban districts, Lemmon added. 

“The misnomer here is that it’s a rural issue,” Lemmon said. “It’s not. We serve the largest urban districts with teacher shortage issues, to again, really, really small ones. So it’s about taking one teacher certification, and how can we maximize that? How can we take that one certification and expand it to as many zip codes as possible? (That) is what virtual ed has always really done for our state.”

Shortages in Walnut Grove

On Aug. 10, Walnut Grove superintendent Adam Willard notified parents of middle school students that the district received no qualified applications for its open middle school science position. A call out to administrators across the region netted a teacher with nearly three decades of experience, but health issues led her to resign. 

“We have searched but have been unable to locate a qualified candidate with experience in the science classroom,” Willard wrote.

“Due to the circumstances, we have decided to use Launch Online from Springfield Public Schools for our middle school science classes.” 

The district hired its baseball coach, who is also a student teacher in PE, to monitor students during their science periods and help keep them on track with their online learning. Willard wrote in the note that this was the best option available given the circumstances, and the district would evaluate how virtual learning served middle school science students over the first semester of the school year. 

Lemmon said parents often don’t know there’s a teacher shortage in their community until they get a letter like that, and Walnut Grove parents aren’t the only ones getting them these days. 

“We can view the teacher shortage as a blip, or we can really plan for actual solutions,” Lemmon said. “And Launch is an actual long-term solution to a problem I don’t see going away anytime soon. Our teacher education programs are down all across the state, all across the country. So we, as public schools, have to link arms on this issue and say, how do we solve it? And this is a viable option with Missouri Learning Standards. It keeps kids learning in Missouri, and not out to vendors out of state, which is what a lot of other states have had to do.”

School any time of day

On the first day of the 2022-2023 school year, 8,689 Missouri students were enrolled in a total of 22,108 Launch courses led by 553 instructors — full-time and adjunct, live and asynchronous. The Walnut Grove middle school science students, Lemmon said, are using Launch’s asynchronous curriculum, and that’s the direction requests are trending after a few mid-pandemic years during which Launch live requests for core subjects skyrocketed. 

“Kids like the nature of virtual where you can learn at a time that works for you,” Lemmon said. 

Springfield Public Schools all-staff back-to-school rally at Great Southern Bank Arena on the campus of MSU. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

That’s how Nixa Public Schools is using Launch this year, said Todd Mincks, virtual counselor at Nixa High School. Nixa was one of the first districts to partner with Launch, which charges districts a one-time fee based on K-12 size and then $225 per half credit for each class students enroll in.

“What we’re seeing is, particularly at the high school level, it is giving options to our kids and flexibility to our kids that’s just unprecedented,” he said. “We have about 2,000 students in our building, and currently I have about 10 percent of those kids with at least one virtual class.

“The entire launch course catalog is open to our kids. We don’t limit what they can schedule or what they can’t, but they do have some things that we do not offer seated. They offer some more languages, for example — German, Japanese — that we just could never offer seated because, number one, the demand isn’t high enough to justify hiring a teacher. And then, number two, it would be really difficult to find those teachers.” 

The pros and cons of online learning

Teaching in a virtual environment offers both challenges and opportunities, Laflen and Lemmon said. When Laflen introduced an educational video to his class, he made a point of noting its length — a minute and 37 seconds. In an online setting, Lemmon said, research shows attention spans drift when videos run much longer. To teach to the audience, she said, instruction needs to be both engaging and punchy. 

“Three minutes is too long,” Lemmon said. “We need to be changing the video every three minutes, or the activity every three minutes. There can’t be more than 100 words on the screen at a time.”

High school students study on laptops.
Students studying. (Photo courtesy Launch Virtual Learning, Springfield Public Schools)

That drives the way teachers teach via Launch. While keeping kids engaged from afar keeps Laflen on his toes, he said the Zoom platform also allows for a level of open communication he didn’t frequently experience in classroom settings. 

“I will say what’s really neat is, kids are more willing to ask questions, because they can type it in the chat box and ask you a question and you can respond to that without anybody knowing,” he said. “In the classroom, there’s always this stigma. Sometimes people don’t want to appear smart. And then sometimes people really don’t get it, and they’re embarrassed to ask that because they’re afraid people are going to judge them. And with Zoom, with that chat feature, they can say, ‘Hey I really don’t get this.’ There are things that you can’t do in the classroom that are really neat about (Launch).”

Laflen started his late August class off with a vocab quiz game to gauge his new students’ knowledge of the semester’s first lesson, on precision and accuracy, before they got going. Eventually, he said, they’d learn how to design a functioning catapult. But first, he just wanted to know what they knew before they moved ahead together, and apart. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson