Monday, December 10, 2012

Virtual Learning

We are more than a decade into the 21st century, and much has been written about 21st century teaching and learning, but are schools actually using these strategies in their classrooms?

Last week, I had the opportunity to join others from the Department to meet with personnel from Florida Virtual School which is an on-line public school for students in grades K-12.  The group was small which led to relevant discussions and questions/answers.  Most of the presentation was geared to middle or high school, but we were able to take away and contribute to the discussions because of our experiences with our Blended Learning pilot project.

 Our program blends face-to-face learning with on-line learning. The fourth and fifth grade students in this program come to school three times a week and access their lessons on-line at home on the other days. We are still learning and revising, but here are a few lessons learned from this first semester which were validated by the presenters from Florida Virtual Learning.

a)  Although we had hoped to register 20 students from each grade level for the Blended Learning class, we only have half that number.  Parents were interested in learning more about the program, but they weren't willing to have their children be the "guinea pigs" in this pilot program. This was a blessing in disguise; it gave us time to work out the kinks and to make changes if necessary.  Additionally, according to studies, on-line teachers burn out more quickly than those who teach in face-to-face environments, and this is something we want to avoid.  Our Blended Learning teachers are not available 24/7, but they do feel a responsibility to regularly communicate with their students and parents, and they  are constantly checking for understanding with their students.  Our teachers have stated that this year, they are truly partners in the teaching/learning process with the students and their parents.

b)  We decided that we wanted a rigorous curriculum which addressed the Common Core State Standards as well as projects based on the grade level interdisciplinary units.  Designing lessons to be placed on-line is challenging.  Directions need to be clear and not too lengthy.  Our teachers spent many, many hours with the course designer to ensure that the lessons and assignments were understandable for students.  As they teach, teachers are constantly reviewing and revising their lessons. Although this is time-consuming, we believe that the curriculum our teachers created addresses the 4C's - collaborating, communicating, critical thinking, and creating.

c)  In order to be successful in online classes, students need to be self-directed.  This is one of our Department's General Learner Outcomes, but until now, I don't think we truly defined what this means.   As teachers, we often have control over our classrooms.  Students are told when to listen and when to talk, when to work, when to turn in their assignments, where to turn it in, what to do for homework, etc. There is  very little opportunity for students to learn to organize or manage their time, or even to have choices in their assignments or how to share their learning.  The successful Blended Learning students have learned to budget their time to get all assignments completed in the time allocated.  They have learned to prioritize, to be organized so they can track what they have completed and what they need to do next.  They have learned to ask for help, not just from the teacher, but from their classmates or from tutorials which are placed online for their use.  They are able to choose their projects and to determine the best way to share what they learned.  They are truly self-directed.

d)  If we want teachers to begin integrating technology seamlessly into their instruction, we need to provide  professional development, mentoring, and ensure that they have access to technology  -- computers or mobile devices. One of the expectations of the Blended Learning teachers is that they will share and encourage their colleagues to use some of the resources which are available on-line for teaching and learning.  Students are excited when they are able to use technology to learn something new and to use Web 2.0 tools to share what they've learned.  Therefore, they must have access to the tools to be able to demonstrate the 4C's.

e)  We need to prepare our students from the time they enter kindergarten.  Technology is an integral part of their lives -- both in and out of school -- and waiting until they're "ready" is not going to help them down the road.  Technology is changing so quickly, and an important disposition for students is adaptability/flexibility.  We have seen preschool-aged students playing with their parents' mobile device; we need to make sure all of our students have opportunities at school to use technology and Web 2.0 tools as important learning resources.

This first semester has been a huge learning curve for our Blended Learning team.  For me, evidences of student work and conversations with these students and their teachers have validated what I believe about teaching and learning -- that students are capable of learning so much more when we give them the tools they need to succeed and provide an environment which values independence, interdependence, and individuality.

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