The Education Frontier

One Teacher's Journey in Online Education

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

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?

ISTE Presentation on Wednesday

This week I have the honor of attending ISTE 2013 in San Antonio.  It’s an awesome opportunity to meet some of the leaders in educational technology, be inspired, and learn some new tricks.  I’m also going to be presenting at ISTE this year.  For a preview of my presentation, check out the Prezi below.  I’d love to see you there!  My session is called Teaching on the Education Frontier: Creating a Successful Blended Classroom and it’s on Wednesday at 11:45 in room 216.

p.s.  I’ll also be selling copies of my book at the presentation, signed if you’d like :)

Teaching on the Education Frontier Released!

Teaching on the Education Frontier:  Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms Grades 5-12

Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms Grades 5-12

I’m absolutely thrilled to let you know that my new book is now available! It’s a primer on teaching in an online or blended environment, both for new online teachers and experienced ones looking for some new tricks. The project has been a labor of love and I truly hope it encourages you on your journey. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or directly from the publisher, Wiley.  It’s also available in Kindle and Nook formats.

Limiting the Field: Choosing Only the Most Powerful Technology Tools

Note: This entry is a cross-post for a blog I wrote for Jossey-Bass Education.

Today the World Wide Web is absolutely overflowing with new web 2.0 tools.  From video editing to file sharing to image manipulation to brainstorming, there’s a tool for every possible task we could ask students to do.  At every conference I attend, I’m asked, “So, what tools do you use with your students?”  Everyone is looking for the latest and greatest websites, hoping for the silver bullet in their classroom.  I think that seeking out the best tools and making our classrooms as current as possible is a noble goal.  However, I think we also have a professional responsibility to start thinking about which tools are “best” for our classrooms and limiting the field to just those tools that are really powerful.  Otherwise, we risk spending just as much time teaching students how to use technology as we do teaching them our content area.

That’s why, starting a few years ago, I limited the number of tools I use regularly with students.  I forced myself to limit drastically to just six tools total all semester.  That small arsenal of websites then became the ones we went back to time after time to get the work of learning and demonstrating knowledge done in my class.  By the end of the course, students were experts with those tools because they’d used them several times, not just once for a single project.  Not only could they create efficiently within the tool, they also began to distinguish within that tool set to determine which tool was best for each task, an extraordinarily sophisticated skill (and one that is more what the real world looks like!).

Although every content area and classroom may look different, below are the basic tools that I use regularly in my classroom along with a brief rationale for each.  I try to choose those tools that are most powerful and most flexible for my needs.  Each of them is explained in far more detail with example assignments in my forthcoming book, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for the Online and Blended Classroom.

  • First, a Learning Management System is an absolute requirement.  My classroom is fully online so an LMS is where students access all of our collaboration tools, assignments, and grades.  However, even in a face to face classroom, using an LMS can make the classroom more engaging and more efficient (as I mentioned in this post).  My school district uses Schoology and really likes its powerful, intuitive interface, which looks a lot like Facebook.
  • Second, a powerful wiki tool is needed.  I use wikis for all sorts of projects in my class, from completing the prewriting for research papers to demonstrating competence on a final project.  Wikis are flexible, powerful, and engaging for all sorts of tasks.  I currently use Google Sites but have also had success with Wikispaces.
  • Third, students need access to a drawing tool so they can demonstrate their understanding of a concept in a non-linear, sometimes even non-verbal way.  At first, I used Webspiration as my core drawing tool.  Now that they’ve moved to a fee-based service, my default is Google Drawing.  It’s easy to use and powerful, especially if you teach students how to find and use templates.
  • Fourth, we rely on a presentation tool.  Students need a flexible tool where they can demonstrate their understanding in a visually pleasing way and also add more complex elements such as video, web links, and audio.  For my class, we use Prezi.  It’s a relatively simple tool to use with the possibility for extraordinary complexity when needed and as students become more experienced with the tool.
  • Fifth, because I believe wholeheartedly in the power of digital storytelling, a video editing tool is needed, preferably one that allows students to add images, music, and voice as easily as adding actual video.  Right now my students prefer Windows MovieMaker but we’ve also experimented with Photo Story 3.
  • Sixth, since we attempt some collaborative writing, an online word processor with the option to share, comment, and write together is important.  Google Drive, specifically the word processing tool, has proved to be powerful and simple to use.

And that’s all.  Although students occasionally choose to go outside these tools, these six tools are the ones we use regularly throughout the school year.  We spend time learning the ins and outs of them during the first six weeks and then for future projects, I expect that my students already know how to use the tool and can instead focus on the learning.  I’ve found that the result is a more efficient classroom and far fewer problems with technology and learning new tools.

What do you think?  What tools am I missing from my arsenal?  Or, are there some that are even more powerful that could replace my current go-to’s?  Just like you, I love to stay on the leading edge and make sure I’m using the tools that are best for my students, just as long as there aren’t too many of them!