Online Teaching and Learning: Set the Stage for Success
by Susan Brooks-Young
Compelling reasons lead K-12 educators to explore online learning and expand the classroom beyond the physical school building.
Students want to exercise more control over their own learning. Upper-elementary and middle-school students are interested in resources that they can use to get extra help with specific subjects, while high-school students want access to courses that offer early college credit. According to Project Tomorrow’s “Learning in the 21st Century: 2009 Trends Update” report (bit.ly/3tCGUe) nearly one-half of students in grades 6 through 12 believe that online courses can help them achieve these goals.
Growing numbers of principals and teachers view online courses as a viable option for providing individualized, timely staff professional development. One-third of the teachers who participated in the Speak Up 2008 survey report taking at least one online course, an increase of 57% over the 2007 survey. Experts predict that as more education professionals become online learners themselves, they will become more comfortable with offering online courses for students. But to date, the number of online courses offered to middle- and high-school students lags far behind the offerings available to adults.
There are compelling reasons for K-12 educators to explore online learning and expanding the classroom beyond the physical school building. For example, last spring’s school closures due to H1N1 flu outbreaks had less impact on classrooms where teachers and students conducted business nearly-as-usual using existing online learning tools. Small schools serving grades 6 and up can offer courses in foreign languages, advanced math and science, or other subjects on-site staff are not able to provide due to time and certification restraints. And well-designed online courses support frequent one-to-one interaction between students and teachers and promote learning that is student-centered. So where does an interested educator begin?
Learning Management Systems
Ideally, online courses are created using web-based learning management systems (LMS), which may be fee-based or free. These systems support both blended learning, where the teacher uses the site to support face-to-face instruction, and full-blown online courses where all class activities are on the Internet. In order to build and deliver effective online learning environments, the course designer and instructor (often the same person) must have an intimate understanding of the workings of the LMS including which features are best suited to meet the needs of the instructor and the students. This means that simplicity of use, training, and sufficient support are primary concerns.
Fee-based LMS’s can be quite pricey, but typically include professional development, technical support, and hosting services. “Free” LMS’s have hidden costs for support, training, and online hosting of courses, but may still be more cost-effective depending upon the availability of in-house resources. It’s important to do thorough research and talk with existing users prior to making a choice. Once a system is adopted and in use, it’s more difficult to switch to something else, even when the LMS is not meeting the school’s needs. Here is a short list of LMS products frequently used in K-12 education:
• Moodle (moodle.org): A free, open-source LMS. While there is no cost for the platform, the software must be housed on a web server either in-house or through a hosting company.
• Blackboard (blackboard.com): A fee-based LMS that supports the K-12 learning community.
• Desire2Learn (desire2learn.com): Another well-known fee-based LMS frequently used in K-12 settings.
• CSK12 (csk12.com): A virtual school offering online courses especially geared to Catholic schools, including religion courses.
Alternatives to Learning Management Systems
Full-blown LMS’s typically include blog and wiki features along with a variety of other modules such as calendars, gradebooks, discussion areas, chat rooms, and much more. But there are situations in which it’s not practical to adopt an LMS. For example, just one or two teachers may be interested in launching a pilot program focused on augmenting classroom instruction through the use of web-based tools. Or budget restraints may prohibit financial investment in an LMS. In these cases, imaginative teachers have used free Web 2.0 tools including blogs and wikis to establish a web presence to extend classroom activities or launch full online courses.
WordPress.com is a popular blog host that can be used to supplement face-to-face learning or deliver an online course. The Pages feature, not found in most free blog hosts, enables the blog owner to add multiple pages that can be linked to one another or appear as tabs in the blog header and used to display various course sections. It is also possible to enable or disable comments on each of these pages, depending upon their purpose in the course.
Well-known wiki hosts that are education-friendly and lend themselves well to online learning activities include Wikispaces (wikispaces.com) and PBWorks (pbworks.com). Both sites provide ad-free wikis for educational use and offer good technical support for beginning users. One source of information about how wikis are being used to support online learning is WikiEducator (wikieducator.org/Main_Page).
AirSet (airset.com) supports creation of private classroom groups which are password protected and provides access to group calendars, to-do lists, threaded discussions, and other tools that may not be available in some blog or wiki tools. The links area makes it easy to connect students to outside blogs and wikis. However, there is a monthly fee for ad-free groups. A free alternative is Google Apps (google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu), which enables teachers to facilitate communication with students using Gmail, shared calendars, and Google Groups.
Remember, this strategy is not ideal because instructors often find they need to cobble together two or more tools to mimic some of the features of a full LMS. However, it is a viable alternative to having no web presence at all.
Designing Online Courses
Online course design is a time-consuming process, requiring more than automation of a face-to-face course. Prior to developing the course, spend time laying the groundwork. This may include
• a needs assessments to justify going online;
• professional development to learn the ins and outs of the online class platform; and
• establishing policies ranging from minimal hardware and Internet connection specifications to class performance and communications expectations.
Many online instructors find that prior participation in an online course as a student is a helpful experience when designing their own courses.
Effective online learning environments shift focus from lecture-based instruction to student-centered learning activities. Emphasis on problem solving, research, and investigation enables instructors and students to take advantage of a variety of collaboration tools that support engaging activities and interaction (both teacher-student and student-student) at levels not possible in traditional classroom settings. These courses must also be constructed so that students increase their skills in self-directed learning and time management.
The scope of designing blended and online instructional activities cannot be fully explored here. There are a host of online resources readers can access including articles and classes in online course design. Many target adult learning, but the principles of design can be applied to K-12 classrooms. An excellent starting point is the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) National Standards for Quality Online Courses (bit.ly/IvaxN).
Tips for Online Teachers
Experts agree that the most critical factor in the success or failure of an online course is the teacher. In fact, the educator’s skills are so important that iNACOL and SREB have also published National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (bit.ly/Gec6N). Of the 13 standards included in this document, 12 stress individual teacher skills.
While this column cannot cover every aspect of online course design and delivery, there are tips for instructors that pop up regularly. Here are a few that appear most frequently:
• Teachers who have taken online courses are more likely to be successful at providing online instruction.
• Teaching online will require more time than you think. To stay on top of class activities, check in every day, including weekends and holidays!
• Avoid technical problems by offering students an orientation to the course platform before the class begins.
• Make expectations for student participation clear from the beginning.
• Quick responses to student messages are a must. You may promise to respond to student posting in 2-3 days, but for most students any more than 24 hours is too long to wait. Phone calls are sometimes better than emails.
• Monitor online discussions carefully. While it’s not good for an instructor to dominate the conversation, it is necessary to jump in if a discussion is faltering or drifting off topic.
Tips for Online Students
Students must also assume responsibility for online success. Here are a few common tips for online students:
• Participation in an online course will take more time than you think. Schedule time each day for going online and tackling assignments to avoid rushing through assignments and posting work at the last minute.
• Online students are often expected to take more responsibility for their own learning. When you see that something needs to be done, get started on the task immediately. If you have a question, ask it right away.
• Online discussions are only as good as the participants make them. Posting responses like “I agree,” or “That’s a great answer,” do not move a conversation forward. Ask thoughtful questions or share your own related experiences to keep the discussion lively and interesting.
Students believe that online learning is a critical element in today’s schools. Educators who are online learners themselves tend to agree. Explore ways you can use blended and full-blown online courses at your school. To help you get started, the web addresses in this article can be found in an online webliography at bit.ly/10Hbt4.
A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is Making Technology Standards Work for You: A Guide for School Administrators, Second Edition (ISTE, 2009). Susan invites your comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.
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