Online teacher Andrew Vanden Heuvel lands stars and national award

ByMike V. Cooper

Mar 4, 2011
Andrew Vanden Heuvel, 28, teaches advanced physics and astronomy at the Michigan Virtual School. He was chosen as one of five finalists nominated for the second annual National Online Teacher of the Year Award for K-12 Learning. Vanden Heuvel works from his home office in Grand Haven.

There’s outer space and then there’s virtual space, and 28-year-old Andrew Vanden Heuvel uses one to teach the other.

The Grand Haven resident teaches advanced-level physics and astronomy at the Michigan Virtual School. He’s so good at it that he was chosen as one of five finalists nominated for the second annual National Online Teacher of the Year Award for K-12 Learning.

One of them will be named the 2011 Online Teacher of the Year Thursday in Atlanta at a dinner of excellence at the Southern Regional Education Board’s Education Cooperative’s Teaching and Learning Symposium. The finalists were announced in early February by SREB and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the two educational non-profit organizations running the competition.

“I believe I was selected as a finalist not because I am the best online teacher,” said Vanden Heuvel, “but because of my enthusiasm for online education and its power to transform the way we approach teaching and learning in our country. It is an honor to be selected. I feel that I do not deserve this recognition, but I am thrilled to represent Michigan Virtual School at this national level.

Vanden Heuvel was recently honored as the 2010 Online Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Virtual School.

The Michigan Virtual School is an online resource that enables high schools and colleges in Michigan to offer courses, all taught by certified teachers, and other learning tools that students would not otherwise have access to. It was funded by the Michigan Legislature in 2000 to be operated by Michigan Virtual University, a private nonprofit Michigan corporation. MVS works cooperatively with individual school districts to award course credit and degrees.

Through MVS, Michigan students can take a variety of courses and learn anywhere there is a computer and an Internet connection. Eligible students include gifted and talented; those with special needs; students who need “remedial” credit; and public, non-public, and home school students. MVS courses cost between $100 and $350. MVS’s goal is to serve as a catalyst for change by providing quality Internet programs that enhance teaching and learning.

Vanden Heuvel said there were about 14,000 statewide student enrollments at MVS per semester, had seen a 40% increase in 2010, and were growing significantly. He added that most online teachers teach full-time in a traditional school and the salary for teaching online was comparable.

His “classroom” is in a quiet office he has created in his home. You could say that his “blackboard” is his state-of-the-art computer that sits on his desk. Working from home allows him to spend time with his wife Laura and their five-month-old son, Leo.

MVS courses are taught “asynchronously,” Vanden Heuvel said, meaning students aren’t online at the same time as the teacher. “It’s a big advantage because students can work and study anytime, anywhere.”

Andrew Vanden Heuvel was honored as the 2010 Online Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Virtual School.

Instead of listening to a teacher lecture, Vanden Heuvel said MVS creates videos, interactive simulations, computer-graded exercises, textbooks and has pre-recorded real teachers.

“Research has shown that teaching in a traditional classroom is not the most effective way to teach,” he said. “Students should learn by doing it, without hearing anyone talk about it. An online teacher spends time helping people do it, rather than telling them how to do it. »

Some of the benefits of online learning, Vanden Heuvel said, include that students can work at their own pace and teachers become supporters. “We say online teachers become the ‘guide next door,’ rather than an ‘on-stage sage,'” he said. “Online learning also connects directly to the real world in which students already live.”

Online learning, Vanden Heuvel said, is also very democratic in the sense that it provides anonymity. “There are no stereotypes related to appearance, race, religion, economic status, or knowledge of past successes and failures, which gives students freedom.”

Vanden Heuvel works weekdays to perform the duties of a traditional teacher, including grading student work, providing feedback and answering questions via email. “My students know I’ll get back to them within the day,” he said. He has never met any of his students in person, but occasionally speaks to some on the phone.

“First and foremost, caring about students comes first. Whether teaching online or in a traditional classroom, it requires the same student-centered qualities

“When it comes to making a connection, it’s important to remember that these students are already creating and maintaining substantial, real-life relationships online through things like social media and YouTube. The concerns about the teacher-student relationship are the adults’ problems, not the children’s, because they are already there.

M0304ONLINE2Andrew Vanden Heuvel, 28, of Grand Haven, teaches advanced physics and astronomy at the Michigan Virtual School. In 2003, while a student at Calvin College, he discovered an asteroid.

Teaching for MVS is only a small part of what Vanden Heuvel does. He is also an MVS course developer, teaches once a week at Calvin College, is a NASA Solar System Educator, and a consultant for USA Today Education, where he helps develop projects for teachers nationwide.

Among his accomplishments is the discovery of an asteroid at the age of 22 in 2003 while a student at Calvin College. He also came close to becoming an astronaut, and out of 3,500 applicants in 2009, he was one of 450 selected as a “highly qualified candidate”. “I always wanted to be an astronaut,” he said, but he failed to make it to 120. “I didn’t expect it, but it was still an honor.”

Vanden Heuvel said being an online teacher is personally rewarding for him as he works to build a new model of education. “The universe is as cool as it gets.”

Other finalists for the National Online Teacher of the Year award are Kristin Kipp of Jeffco’s 21st Century Vitrual Academy in Colorado, Thomas Landon of Virtual Virginia, Dianna Mill of Florida virtual School, and Emily Parrish of North Carolina Virtual Public School.

“By putting these deserving teachers in the spotlight,” said Co-op Director Myk Garn, “this award is a powerful advocate for online learning.”