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Student Impersonates Teacher at Ohio Online School For More Than a Year

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Friday, September 7, 2012 at 6:08 PM

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Or a teacher who's not really a teacher sometimes.

For more than a year, a teacher at one of Ohio's largest online schools hired a former student to teach her classes and work with students. The students apparently had no idea their "teacher" was a college dropout whose work experience consisted of stints at Burger King and in a hospital laundry.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow found out about the incident only after the hired student complained to the school about not being paid. ECOT, as the school is known, fired the teacher, Marilyn Hiestand, the following week. The State Board of Education is set to revoke her teaching licenses next week.

"She had in essence outsourced parts of her job to a former ECOT student and that's clearly against our policy," ECOT spokesperson Nick Wilson said.

In response to ECOT's notice of her termination, Hiestand wrote, "I hired a former student to assist me. I did not realize this was a hiring offense."

We left a voicemail at a number listed on Hiestand's personal website and sent an email to her personal email address. She has not yet responded.

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Marilyn Hiestand began working at ECOT in 2000 as the director of counseling and later began teaching business classes, according to a state Board of Education hearing examiner's report. ECOT is an online charter school enrolling about 15,000 students from across Ohio. Students log on to ECOT classes from their homes.

In August 2009, Hiestand hired a former student who was then about 19 years old as her "teaching assistant" at $10 an hour, according to the state examiner's report. Hiestand gave the student assistant her username and password, allowing her to log onto ECOT's learning platform, view student records and interact with students.

The teaching assistant had spent a year at Kent State University before dropping out. The assistant graded students' work, sent them assignments and answered their questions, according to school records.

The students never knew they were dealing with someone other than Hiestand, according to the state examiner's report.

Wilson, the ECOT spokesperson, said he was unaware of any other similar situations at ECOT.

The school has since changed how it operated to try to prevent non-teachers from impersonating teachers online, Wilson said. ECOT classes now include more live, online "classroom" sessions in which students and teachers interact. And school principals are supposed to regularly monitor the online classrooms.

ECOT does not use biometric security devices like fingerprint or retinal scanners to confirm that the person teaching a class is the teacher hired to do so. But school supervisors can monitor phone conversations and view webcam communications, WIlson said.

"I think it's just like in a traditional school, 'How do principals know what's happening behind the doors?" WIlson asked. "You monitor your teachers and know that they're doing the professional thing."

As part of its internal investigation, ECOT asked the student assistant how she had accessed the school's online learning platform, emails show. The student explained she used Hiestand's username and password.

"I see many problems with this," the student wrote. "I am a trustworthy person, but there should have been no reason to do that."

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