The Education Frontier

One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

The Education Frontier - One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

Connected Educators Need Connected Parents

This is a cross-post of a blog I did for the Jossey-Bass Education blog during October for Connected Educator month.

Any educator will tell you that having children changes who you are as a teacher.  All of a sudden, those precious bodies in your classroom are more than just students.  They’re somebody else’s babies and you are impressed anew with Parent-teacher-Conferencethe responsibility of being trusted to educate them.  You know how much you love your own children and you have new respect for a parent’s role in building an education.

As my children have gotten older and moved into elementary school, I’m also learning what it means to take on the role of a parent with children in school.  I  am sometimes lost in the bureaucracy that is our school systems.  I  wonder what exactly is happening in my child’s classroom and I get lost in well-meaning systems that I’m not trained to use.  And if I’m lost, what about all those other non-teacher parents, even the ones from my classroom?  They must be lost too!

An encounter with a parent recently highlighted this trouble.  I teach in an online school where our student information system doesn’t share grades with our learning management system (LMS).  As a result, we post weekly grades in the student information system but all of our detailed grading information is locked away in the LMS.  I received this email from a parent.  “I’m trying to check grades using the Parent Portal but you only seem to have one grade in there.  Am I missing something?”  Here we are with a ton of information at parent’s fingertips.  They have their own logins to the LMS.  They can not only see the student’s grades, they can also see every single class activity, upcoming work, due dates, and grading comments.  It’s a wealth of information!  However, that information is only helpful if we actually teach our parents to use it.  Otherwise, it’s a wasted system.

So, this month as we consider what it means to be a connected educator, let’s also consider what it means to connect parents.  Most schools have great systems in place that help parents open the doors to our classrooms but those systems are only useful if we give parents the keys to the door, training them to use the systems to support their students.  Something as simple as a tutorial video or a newsletter can make a world of difference.  We’ll all feel more connected as a result and our children will get a better education.

Want to hear more?  I give more tips about how to teach in an online and blended classroom in my book, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms.

Keystone Habits of Online Students

habitI’ve recently been reading the awesome book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  He cites some amazing studies about how habits develop and are reinforced.

One of the key ideas the book mentions is the idea of a keystone habit.  These are habits that tend to lead to improvements in other areas of your life.  For instance, people who exercise also tend to eat better.  Exercise is a keystone habit for other healthy behaviors.  Also, families who eat dinner together tend to have kids that are more successful (and less likely to do drugs).  It’s not that the time at the dinner table automatically makes kids immune to peer pressure but somehow that keystone habit of eating together leads to other habits that create successful kids.

The idea has me thinking.  What are keystone habits of students, especially online students?  Here are a few I think could be keystones:

  • Having a dedicated workspace for school and a set time to work at it.
  • Using a planner or a to-do list on a daily basis.
  • Having a regular schedule for school and what classes are on what days.
  • Conferencing with a caring adult (parent or teacher) on a weekly basis about what you’re learning

What do you think?  What are some other keystones for successful students?

Time to Reflect and the Quandary of a Teacher Leader

It’s summertime! Finally, teachers have a chance to breathe, reflecting on the past year and regrouping for the year to come. I’m always amazed by the kind of thinking and planning I’m able to do over the summer. This year, I’m spending a lot of time reading Jim Burke’s awesome book, The Common Core Companion (Grades 9-12).  Burke makes the Common Core standards far more accessible and shows you ways to apply them.  I especially appreciate the layout of the standards in this book so that I can clearly see in one glance what a standard would look like in my English courses vs what it might look like in my history courses.  I’m definitely thinking through the implications for my classroom next year (more on that in a future post!).

But all this reflection has also gotten me thinking about the issue of time as it relates to teachers.  During the school year, there simply isn’t time to do my best thinking.  I rush from one task to another, following the trajectory I set at the beginning of the year, but unable to stop and reflect as much as I would like. It’s a real problem of practice.  I guarantee that our teachers would do better work and be more reflective practitioners if they had the time required to plan, reflect, research, and create.

Beyond that, there are lots of opportunities out there for teachers to get involved in public policy debates, fellowships, research opportunities, etc. but the average teacher simply doesn’t have the time to tackle it all.  I’m often frustrated when I have to turn down an amazing opportunity because I simply can’t spare the time away from my students.  It’s a true conundrum.  The best teachers need to be involved in those sorts of opportunities and have their voices heard by those who make decisions about education.  But, ironically, the best teachers can’t be involved because they’re busy working with students, where they’re also desperately needed.

Thoughts?  How do we ensure that reflection and teacher leadership opportunities are a regular part of the school year and not just part of the summer break?  Beyond that, how do we help teacher leaders to get involved in public policy and research without sacrificing their classrooms?

Here are a few pie-in-the-sky ideas I have off the top of my head:

  • Provide sabbatical opportunities for teachers much as professors have.  Let them take a semester to work on a problem of practice or a fellowship without fear of losing their income or their position.  This isn’t a paid vacation.  It’s letting a teacher focus on a problem with intention and having them create a final project/product that can significantly impact the organization and/or the profession.
  • Provide teacher leadership opportunities that don’t involve leaving the classroom completely.  Perhaps a teacher would like to be involved in creating curriculum but, in not working with students, they lose touch with the reality of the classroom.  Instead, give them an opportunity to be a 0.5 teacher and a 0.5 curriculum developer, offering the best of both worlds.
  • Value personal professional development in the evaluation process.  Go beyond adding it to a rubric. Instead, offer incentives such as a non-student contact days, a stipend, or even a pay increase for teachers that undertake meaningful professional development or public policy projects.

I don’t think that workload is ever a problem we can solve completely.  The profession of teaching will always be a bit overwhelming because of the nature of the work.  But let’s find some ways to help teachers be the best they can be year-round and let’s put the best voices in the room with policy makers to truly make a difference in the way we educate kids.

A Student’s Perspective

Below is another interview I did this week, this time with one of my students.  She is writing her senior research paper on the costs and benefits of online learning.  I thought her questions were insightful for all of us to consider.

 

1. Have you taught at a brick and mortar public school? If so, how did it compare to being an online teacher?

I taught in a brick and mortar school for 7 years before moving into the online high school full time.  In many ways, there are a lot of similarities.  I still do a lot of planning and grading.  I still spend a lot of time building relationships with students and encouraging them.  However, taking the classroom management factor out of my job does change the work significantly.  I’m always working one-on-one with students and that’s a completely different experience than managing 30 students at once.  I feel like, in some ways, I wind up getting to know my students better on a personal level than I did when I taught face to face.

2.What type of schooling have you observed to be more beneficial for students?

I very much believe that we should have lots of different school options for lots of different types of students.  I can’t say that one is more beneficial than another.  However, I can say that for some students, online classes are a much better fit for them and their learning style.  However, for others, it’s not and they need to be in f2f courses.  We are all very different and to say that one approach will ever fit for everyone is a fallacy.

3.Did you ever attend online schooling in high school?

Online classes weren’t available to me when I was in high school.  Online learning was really in its infancy then and it wasn’t readily available anywhere.  (Yes, I’m not that old but neither is online learning!)  However, I did take two “correspondence courses.”  They were basically classes where the school sent you a textbook and a series of assignments.  You completed the assignments and then sent them back to the school for grading.  I needed that option since I graduated from HS a year early and it was actually a good fit for me.  I enjoyed learning on my own.

4.What do you notice about procrastination of online students?

Procrastination in online learning is definitely an issue.  However, it’s not an issue that’s confined to online options.  F2F students have just as much of a problem with procrastination.  Come to think of it, humans in general have an issue with procrastination!  The big difference for online students is that, since you’re not in a class each day, there’s no one in your face reminding you of upcoming deadlines.  I try to approximate that experience with regular texts, emails, calls, updates, etc. but if a student isn’t logging in or connecting with me, then they can fall behind due to procrastination.

5.Do you think check in sessions are necessary for students success? If so, why and are they more essential in specific subjects?

I think that education is multi-faceted.  We learn by interacting with the material and creating new things out of it.  But, we are often motivated to learn by our relationships with the people in our class and with our teacher.  That’s why I ask my students to have a check-in session with me.  Many are already texting and/or calling me regularly anyway but for those who aren’t, it gives us an opportunity to connect.  I hope that our connection can help motivate them if they find they’re struggling or feeling discouraged.  They know I’m there to help and they know how to find me.  I also find that during a check in session, students will ask questions that they might not otherwise reach out to ask.  I think regular check-ins with the teacher are essential in every subject.  I can’t think of a subject where building a relationship with the teacher isn’t important.

6.Has online education changed at all since you started teaching? If so, how has it changed and is it a significant change?

I think online education has gained greater acceptance since I started teaching.  We’re seeing universities that are very favorable to online learners since they know that these are students who excel at being self-directed learners, a crucial skill for college and for the workforce.  I also get fewer complaints from students when they find that my courses are not “easy.”  In the beginning, many students took online classes thinking it was an easier option.  I think that myth is getting dispelled and students are coming to us realizing that the work they will do is equivalent to a f2f course, just in a different, more flexible format.

It’s also changed because of the trend of “blended” learning.  That’s where f2f and online options are blended in a school.  Blended learning is growing rapidly and that’s exciting to see.

7. Do you think teaching through the internet is more or less time consuming that teaching face to face?

It’s actually more time consuming but the workload is distributed in a different way.  I’m inundated with messages, assignments, and texts from students 24-7 so in many ways work tries to invade my regular life.  When I taught f2f, those interactions with students were limited to 8-3 M-F.  It’s a very different kind of workload.  But, since the workload is flexible, it feels different.  I may work for a few hours and then go take a walk for an hour to de-stress and refocus.  That’s an option I never had when I taught f2f and it makes the time commitment more manageable.  (I think my online students would say the same thing about their own workload!)

8.What are some challenges that you’ve experienced as an online high school teacher?

I work with a very different population in the online classroom than I ever did f2f.  My students now tend to be more at-risk, struggling students than the high schools I worked in before.  That can be really rewarding when I help a student reach graduation who might not otherwise get there.  At the same time, it can be really discouraging when I’m not able to reach a student and they drop out or fail to earn a credit in my class.  We’re all products of the complex fabric of our lives but sometimes, as a teacher, I feel like a failure when one of my students fails, even if the reason for their failure had little to do with me or my class.

The other challenge is the one I mentioned above about work trying to invade your life.  With any teaching position, there’s always more work to be done.  When I’m working from home, it’s hard to know when to stop and just live life (read a book, play with my kids, etc.).  I’ve had to learn to be really careful and make a clear stopping point for work each day.  Otherwise I could easily be a workaholic and burn out.  Then I’m no good for my students!

9.How do you feel about tests being graded automatically by a computer?

I think it depends on the test!  If I make a test for one of my classes where it will be mostly auto-graded by Schoology, then I spend a LOT of time working on the design of the test.  I want it to have really great questions that will discern who knows the material and who doesn’t.  That’s a much more complex task than it seems at first.  You want the questions to be difficult enough that they clearly show who knows the material at a higher level but easy enough that if a student read the material and processed it, they can answer every question correctly.  I also spend a lot of time trying to create questions that require critical thinking, not just basic fact knowledge.  So, all that to say that I’m ok with a computer grading a test automatically if the test was designed well in the first place, which requires the careful design of a good teacher.  Also, I almost always include 1-2 questions that require me to grade them by hand (short answer questions usually) so that I have a good understanding of what my students do and don’t know.

10.Who gets the most out of online school, part time or full time learners?

As I said above, I think it depends on the learner.  In general, my part time students tend to perform better in my classes but I think that’s because they’re already in the rhythm of school and my class becomes an extension of that rhythm.  However, I also have very successful full time online learners because the courses are a good fit for their learning style.  Every student is different and it’s the responsibility of the parents and the students to choose and help design a learning environment that works best for them.  I’m so grateful that we have that opportunity to be flexible for our students!

 

Questions from Aspiring Online Teachers

I recently heard from an aspiring online teacher who wanted to know a little more about what it’s like to teach online.  I thought her questions might be some you would have too.  Here’s our conversation:

How long have you been teaching at an online school?

I’ve been full-time at an online school for five years now but started developing online courses a couple of years before that, while I was still in a traditional f2f classroom.  I also taught part-time online before making the leap into an online school.

What attracted you to an online teaching school?

At first, it was the technology and the tools.  I love being able to customize the learning environment and do the design part of the work in the online course system.  But then, especially after I transitioned into online teaching full-time, I fell in love with the kids.  We work with so many amazing students with crazy situations and online learning gives them the flexibility they need to actually graduate.  It’s incredible to be a part of that option for them.

What training was necessary for you to become an online teacher? 

I did a lot of reading but when I first made the transition, there wasn’t a lot out there.  I read a lot of books that were intended for college-level professors and then adapted their ideas to my own classroom.  (Since that time, there’s more out there, including my book Teaching on the Education Frontier.) I also took an online course from PBS Teacherline about how to facilitate online courses and that was an invaluable resource.  There’s also, of course, the necessary technical training on how to live in an LMS every day and manage the workload.  However, my best training, as with all teaching positions, came when I actually started teaching online and figuring out what works (and what doesn’t!).

What classes do you teach?

I currently teach senior English and 10th grade history, which is Modern U.S. History from 1900-present.

How many students do you work with?

We max out by contract at 150 students per teacher (which are our #’s for secondary classrooms in any classroom in Jeffco).  I am running about 142 right now but there’s a lot of flux in an online school.  We take in kids throughout the semester who are expelled or ill or have extenuating circumstances.

How do students participate in your class?

Mostly asynchronously through the LMS.  We have “live” sessions in webinars but that’s a tiny part of their work.  The majority is through our LMS, Schoology.  They’re reading content, creating and submitting assignments, posting in discussions, participating in group projects, etc.

What expectations do you have for student participation?

Kids should expect my class to take the same amount of time as a regular course, 5-7 hours each week.  Kids can decide how to divvy that time up.  Some prefer to do it all at once (and tackle one class per day) and others like to do a small amount each day.  I’m flexible on that as long as they’re getting their work in each week.  I do have weekly deadlines.  Because of state law, we require each student to visit each class each day for attendance but after they’ve met the attendance requirement, they have flexibility on how to get the work done.

How does teaching online differ from interacting with students in a traditional classroom?

In some ways, I know my students better.  I work one-on-one with them as a tutor and cheerleader so they’re not afraid to share who they are.  There’s a lot more flexibility and I have to be far more flexible as a teacher.  We work with some very challenging situations and that means extreme flexibility while meeting kids needs but also ensuring they meet content standards.

What are some similarities between an online classroom and a traditional classroom?

Tons!  The planning is the same.  You’re still building content and meeting standards.  The grading is very similar except the system for returning papers is far more streamlined!  You use many of the same skills on how to talk with kids in a way that communicates your expectations while also showing them that you care about them.

What challenges do you encounter as an online teacher? 

One of the hardest things is creating a work/life balance.  Since you’re working on a flexible schedule and so are your students, it’s easy to let work slip into every nook and cranny of your life so you’re never “off.”  That’s not totally healthy.  I had to learn to shut down and unplug regularly so I wouldn’t burn out.  I also think there’s a lot of “vicarious trauma” as we work with tough situations and feel for kids.  We love our students and I absolutely hate that so many of them have such tough life situations.

What benefits do you find in working with students in an online environment?

The flexibility!  I can assign students different content and fully differentiate for them without the worry that the rest of the class isn’t getting what they need.  That online course environment is so amazing for meeting kids where they’re at.  I also love the organization of working in an LMS.  All my course content, grading, and communications are in one place and I can keep better tabs on how everyone is doing.

What online tools do you use to communicate with students?

I think as educators it’s our job to use whatever tools kids are most comfortable with.  Our job is to work hard to reach them, not make them work hard to reach us.  That means I use “whatever works.”  Since kids text message so much these days, I spend a lot of time texting with kids.  I use Google Voice to do that so I can text via a real keyboard and I don’t have to give out my personal cell number.  I also email and call with kids too.  I’ve offered to use Skype or Hangout with kids too but they generally prefer more traditional options (surprisingly!).

What other questions do YOU have?  I love to “pull back the curtain” to online teaching and help others whenever possible!

ISTE Webinar

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching a webinar for ISTE on September 11th about how to create a successful blended learning classroom.  It’s so exciting for me to get to share the tricks and tools I’ve learned in online ed with teachers who are getting started in blended education.  What a fun time to be in the field!  You can learn more about the webinar and preview some of the content here.  I hope to “see” some of you there!

The Place of Online Education

In the last year or two, I’ve seen a real push within our field to embrace blended learning.  I think that’s a wonderful trend and one that has the potential to really change face to face classrooms and bring them into the 21st Century.  However, at the same time, I think we need to think about and embrace the role that fully online education has in the spectrum of what we call good instruction.

Ultimately, blended learning fills a niche in our field but so does online learning.  For lots of different students, an online education is the only way to help them achieve their educational goals.  Here are just a few of the populations that need a fully online opportunity:

  • Young parents
  • Students who work full-time to support their families
  • Students with significant health problems
  • Students with mental health issues including anxiety that won’t thrive in a classroom environment
  • Athletes, dancers, singers, and other talented students who travel in pursuit of excellence in their field
  • Students who are credit deficient and must accelerate their learning
  • Students who can’t learn in a traditional classroom environment–for whatever reason

And this doesn’t even include the students who simply prefer an online environment, one that closely simulates the work environments they may face in the future.  While I think the promise of blended education is significant, I also think that fully online education has its place.  I fear that some in our profession are losing sight of the beauty and uniqueness of a fully online education in pursuit of the latest new model.  I’d encourage all of us to remember our roots and try to create the best educational opportunities for all students, including those for whom an online classroom is, hands down, the best fit.  They need best practices too.  Let’s ensure that we’re hanging on to what’s working and encouraging all unique models, not just those that fit the latest trend.

Valuing Thinking Above Right Answers

This summer I have the supreme privilege of spending pretty much every day hanging out with my kids, ages 4, 6, and 7.  It’s so awesome to see their little minds process the world and absorb new information.  We’ve taken a ton of field trips to everywhere from the pool to the science museum. Today, we visited the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado.  It was a great opportunity to practice thinking like a scientist and ask questions about why the world works like it does. In situations like this I’ve found that my best teaching strategy is to lay low.  I let them explore and make observations as they have them.  Then we ask questions and talk about possible answers.

Today was no exception.  While watching some butterflies perched on a feeder, the kids noticed that when the butterflies land, the outside of their wings are very plain, not fancy and colorful like the inside of the wings.  Being the teacher-mom that I am, I asked the kids why that might be, of course hoping that they’d figure out that when the butterflies land they might want to be camouflaged, and thus hide the bright side of their wings.  3462302660_74c3e4d42c_zImagine my surprise when a perfect stranger jumped in and answered the question for them!  He explained all about how the butterflies camouflage, assuming that I just didn’t know better.  I was so disappointed. It was a great teaching moment, ruined by the uncontrollable urge for someone to “give the right answer.” I wanted my kids to think through the answer themselves, maybe even coming up with some bad answers and throwing them out to eventually arrive at a reasonable hypothesis.  But they didn’t get that chance.

The whole experience got me thinking.  How often do we as teachers jump in and give the answer when we really should be coaching our kids on how to think through the problem on their own and come up with their own answers?  In an online classroom, how often do I let kids both ASK the questions AND answer them?  While we use a lot of constructivist thinking in our discussion boards, I fear that too often I’m controlling the conversation, like Oz behind the curtain.  That’s really not the kind of teacher I want to be.  Instead, I’d like to be purposeful about making space for asking questions and valuing thinking rather than jumping in with answers.  It’s just a better way to learn, even if it’s sometimes frustrating!

Fostering Innovation (ISTE Day 2)


As I reflect on this year’s ISTE conference, I am absolutely blown away by the number of buzz words I see thrown around.  The current trends such as flipped classroom, 1:1 computing, BYOD, iPad (or iPod, iAnything), mobile technology, virtual reality, design thinkingdigital literacy, and ebooks are definitely making an impact here.  I think all of these trends are good for education and challenge us to create better classrooms for our students.  However, I’m increasingly concerned that in our search for the “next big thing” we’re not allowing space or, more importantly, time to develop these new practices into tried and true methods that improve instruction.

What if at this conference I become enamored with the flipped classroom and decide it’s something I want to try?  I rush home and put together a plan for flipping my instruction and then I try it out for a year.  It’s hard work and I’m not sure how I like it.  There are positives, there are negatives, and there are things that just plain stink.  Then, I attend ISTE the next year and come across the next “big thing” and rush home to try it instead.  Rinse, wash, repeat, year after year.  While I might be cutting edge at all times, have I really become a better teacher?

I care about good instruction and I care about kids.  I care about using my classroom as a lab for what works but I don’t want to be a butterfly as a professional, flitting from one trend to another.  Instead, I want to commit to lasting improvements that I think will work and then experiment with them over time, continuing to improve them, more of a scientist than a butterfly.  That’s where quality instruction can happen–when I choose a high-quality idea and improve it over time.  I’m all for complete overhauls in education, after all I teach in an online classroom, but if we’re going to overhaul, let’s commit to those philosophies over time and find ways to make them truly powerful–lasting trends.

BabyandBathWaterThat’s my wish for all of us as we leave ISTE and head into the next school year–that we would critically reflect on what’s working right now in our classrooms and how we can improve it using the strategies and trends we learned at ISTE.  Let’s make sure we take care of the baby when we change the bathwater!

ISTE Day 1

Day one of ISTE is gone and a new day is beginning.  Both mind and body were challenged yesterday–by tons of walking and extraordinary ideas.   There are so many passionate educators here who are willing to try new things to improve our student’s educational experience.  That’s inspiring and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

The most interesting idea I heard yesterday is that we need to help our students become more connected and “self-organized learners.”  It’s a theme I heard mentioned in yesterday’s Ignite session, Will Richardson’s session, the personal branding breakout, and in a few of the poster sessions.  Our students need to be purposefully developing their digital footprint.  Beyond that, they need to be developing Personal Learning Networks (PLN).  As an educator, I’ve long embraced the idea of a PLN and seen the immense benefits to my development as a professional but I’d never considered that I should be helping my students develop a PLN.  The idea has immense power but I’m also a little stuck on where to begin.  Since Twitter has the most potential, perhaps beginning there and helping students find thoughtful tweets to follow, related either to my content area or to their future careers.  Even better?  Helping them engage those professionals in a dialogue.

I’d love to hear from you–how are you helping kids build their PLN?  Where’s the best place to begin and how do students react to the concept?