How to Teach Online, Part 2

As I was writing the first part of this, I got to the section on keeping instruction brief and realized I wasn’t doing a very good job of that. So we took a little break.

14264443808_8e851ed817_wWe were talking about how all schools are probably going to be blended to some extent. We need to easily be able to move back and forth between online learning and face to face learning. I shared some ideas about emphasizing a caring relationship with the students, establishing norms for your class, using asynchronous modes when possible, leveraging the content that’s already out there, and keeping instruction short and varied. Now, let’s get to the rest of the list.

In an information-abundant society, education is about more than just imparting knowledge. Our students already have access to all of the knowledge. The important part is how they can analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge to solve new problems. Chances are, you use some sort of taxonomy to describe this. Bloom’s Taxonomy is pretty common. So is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. And there are a half dozen alternatives if neither of those works for you. The point is that we want to aim at higher-order thinking skills when designing learning experiences. We differentiate to meet students’ needs by adjusting the rigor. That is, if we aim for the strategic thinking (Webb) / Analyze (Bloom) level, we can adjust downward for students who are struggling (skill/concept or understand/apply). For students who need extension, we can elevate to extended thinking or evaluate/create. All students are learning the same content, but they’re interacting with it and applying it at different levels.

This approach also side-steps one of the huge problems with online learning: you can’t measure recall. In a face-to-face classroom, you can set up an artificial environment of information scarcity. Put your phones away. Put your books on the floor under your desks. We’re going to take a quiz, so I can measure the content you remember. In an online environment, you can’t keep students from cheating on assessments like this. Even if you put a bunch of tech controls in place to lock them into a testing app, they have another device at their fingertips and can just Google the answers. At best, you can use these kinds of quizzes as formative assessments, but if there are any consequences to performing poorly, the students will quickly figure out how to game the system.

PBL has been around in a number of incarnations for a long time. I’m going to over-simplify it by saying this: the student creates something that demonstrates learning. Maybe it’s a presentation or a video or a web site. Maybe it’s just an essay or report or poem. It might be collaborative. It doesn’t have to be. It might be public, or not. It might not be digital at all. But it is something that shows that the student has developed an understanding of the concepts of the unit, and that they’ve been able to compare, assess, analyze, apply, organize, investigate, or critique it. Some of the best projects use an iterative process, where other students (or the teacher) provide feedback on the projects and the students go back and revise them. The point is that the project itself demonstrates the learning; the deliverable IS the assessment. No end-of-unit test is needed. It’s much harder for the student to cheat. And hopefully, it’s a project they’re interested in and motivated to work on.

On the computer I’m using right now, there are three different ways to create a spreadsheet. There are three different tools for starting a video conference. I have access to four different personal calendars. There are lots of ways to do everything.

You need to pick one. Hopefully, you’ve already talked with your colleagues, and you’ve settled on some standards for your school. If you haven’t, you need to do that. Can we all agree that we’re going to use Zoom? It’s not the perfect tool for everything, but it works reasonably well and in the name of consistency, that’s what we’re going to use. Let’s all agree that we’re going to put our assignments in Google Classroom. I know you like Schoology. I know you still have all of your content in Moodle. But Google Classroom is the platform we’re using, and we need everyone to get on board. The actual tool doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re all using the same one in our school.

Our students are overwhelmed. Our parents are overwhelmed. They need a common ecosystem. They need predictable places where they can find things. They need a finite set of tools to navigate. As teachers, we need to bear the burden of discomfort, so our families don’t have to.

This also helps tremendously from a professional development standpoint. This is how you do a screen capture. Watch this video. Install this add-on. That’s it. We don’t have time to debate the relative merits of half a dozen different products. We have more important things to do. Use the one we’ve all agreed on, and move on.

Back in the olden days, when 2020 was a fresh new year and COVID-19 was a global news footnote from halfway around the world, we were talking about limiting screen time. It’s not good to have students on their devices for hours at a time at school, and then send them home to do more online work in the evenings. We need some balance. They need to get outside. They need to be more active.

That’s all still true. In the moment of crisis, we stopped worrying so much about screen time. But it’s okay to have students actually do non-digital work. They can read real books. They can draw. They can do things outside. They might be able to bake or paint or sew or dig. Offline can be more difficult. Students may not have access to the same resources. They definitely don’t have a consistent level of parent involvement, support, and supervision. But if we can think of relevant ways they can learn new things without their screens, we should take advantage of that.

Assume for a minute that your classes next year are going to be entirely online. You’re never going to see your students face to face. Remote learning is the new normal. How do you react? Other than looking for a new job, what is your approach? You organize your class in the learning management system. You put together instructional resources and activities that students can complete online or at home. You structure the class to check in with students on a regular basis. Maybe you do some of the things I’ve described above.

Now, you find out that you’re actually going to be in school sometimes, and you’ll have some kids in your class some of the time. Great. You just got some valuable face to face time with your students. How do you make the best use of that time? It’s probably not providing direct instruction. All of that is already set up. It’s probably not having students working independently at their desks. They can do that when they’re not in your room. It might be differentiating, meeting with small groups or individual students. It might be facilitating a class discussion instead of an online forum. Maybe you’re asking students to do presentations to demonstrate what they’ve been working on. Maybe they’re working collaboratively with a rare opportunity to interact in a face to face environment. Class time is different when it’s rare. You’re going to focus on doing the things in class that are hard to do online.

It’s a lot easier to go in this direction than it is to go the other way. March was REALLY HARD because we were trying to take face to face classes and move them online. If we START with online classes, moving pieces to a face to face model is much easier.

Now think of all of those in-between cases. What if 15% of your students are absent? If everything is already organized online, it’s much easier for absent students to keep up, and it’s not a burden for the teacher. What if the teacher is absent? If everything is already set up in an online environment, the sub just has to make sure the students are safe. The learning continues. What if we find out our school is a hotspot, and we’ve had an increase in infections, so we’re going to close for two weeks, starting tomorrow? If we change our default approach from “face to face” to “online” it puts us in a much better position to adapt to whatever circumstance comes along.

This isn’t easy. Nobody has all of the answers. We all want to create valuable educational experiences for our students. We all want to support our teachers and our parents as we navigate these uncharted waters. And none of us signed up for this.

But we’ve been working on this for a long time now. We’ve been slowly putting the tools in place. We’ve had the conversations about authentic assessment. We’ve talked about using grades to measure what students have learned rather than what they have completed. We looked at the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity until we were embarrassed to call them “21st century”. We slowly put powerful digital tools into the hands of every teacher and every learner. We spent years teaching both tools and how teaching and learning can take advantage of those tools. We have all the pieces.

The only thing that’s different now is the urgency. We HAVE to adapt. We can’t choose to ignore this stuff and go on doing the same things we’ve always done. The world is different now. We learned a lot this spring. We tried new things. We experimented. We failed spectacularly. We found some successes. Now it’s time to reflect on that experience. Figure out what worked. Put together a game plan for fall.

Let’s take the best of what worked for us this spring, combine it with what we know about valuable learning experiences, and create fantastic experiences for next year’s students.


Photo credit: Bluefield Photos on Flickr.


The Opportunity of Crisis

What an unsettling time.

In a couple weeks, our world has dramatically shifted. It’s like 9/11. It’s like JFK. It’s not, really. Those were sudden national tragedies when the world changed in an instant. This is slower. Our world changed over the course of a week, not in minutes. And, at least for now, it’s temporary.

2809961438_56d48f9969_wBut it’s like those other events in the sense that the world as we know it has come to a sudden arboreal stop. Life isn’t normal anymore. It’s unsettling. It’s troubling. It’s disconcerting. It’s exciting.

We don’t know what the effects of this are going to be over the long term. But we know what the next month is going to look like. And we have a pretty good idea that things aren’t going to be back to normal in the next few months. After that, we have to wait and see.

In the nineties, the Internet was a place that brought people together. Before the web and all the “information superhighway” hype, it was fundamentally a way for people to communicate, to find their tribes, and to be parts of communities that were geographically disparate. From my earliest days as a teacher, I thought it would revolutionize learning by bringing people together. In some ways, I’ve spent most of my career trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to help make that happen.

Three weeks ago, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that school closings would be coming. She told the public to “Ask about plans for teleschool.” A few hours later, all of my online communities were converging on this topic. The email listservs and the Subreddits and the Twitter stream and the Facebook friends all landed on it at the same time. We’re not ready for this. What do we do now?

The transformation never happened. We built the infrastructure. We put all the tools in place. We built wireless networks and put devices in the hands of every student. We did tons of professional development, and focused on next generation pedagogy and things like formative assessments, differentiation, project based learning, portfolios, and authentic assessment. We adopted learning resources that are primarily digital resources and stopped relying so much on textbooks. But we weren’t really changing much. We were nibbling around the edges. For the most part, school was the same as it was when our teachers were students.

But this week, somehow, when faced with no alternatives, everyone stepped up. I keep thinking of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to fix the CO2 problem.

“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
“Let’s get it organized.”
“Okay, let’s build a filter.”

Nobody signed up for this, but it’s the task in front of us. What do our students have at home? How can we use that to teach them as well as we can? Our teachers sorted through the pile of stuff on the table and they started putting pieces together. Our instructional coaches gave up sleeping and spent a lot of time filling in the gaps. Our curriculum director and our principals started triaging the problem and setting priorities. Nobody complained about a change in working conditions. Nobody refused to step up. We’re going to do whatever we need to do.

This isn’t a matter of life and death. The world isn’t going to end if our kids miss a month of school. As I’ve been saying, there aren’t any expectations. Anything we do is better than doing nothing. That’s a very liberating place to be. We can try things that might not work. We can roll the dice on long odds. We can try things that we weren’t willing to try a month ago. We have a get out of jail free card. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m excited about this. I’m hoping that we’re going to learn some things about us, and about our students, and about how learning can be. I’m hoping that we’re going to pick up some practices or ideas or some out-of-the-box methods that we never tried before because we never had to. In the end, eventually, we’re going to go back to school. But hopefully, we’re going to take some of these lessons back into the classrooms with us. And our kids will be better for it.

Photo credit: Max Klingensmith, Flickr.

Changing Standards

The media specialists were describing how the elementary schools are using technology. Because the first graders did a lot of work in Google last year, the second graders aren’t having any trouble at all with Google Classroom. They log right in, and can access the resources that their teachers are sharing with them. It took a couple days at the beginning of the year to work through the login and password issues, but after that, they were ready to go.

ipad-1126136_640Don’t get me wrong. The second graders aren’t taking online classes. They’re not doing most of their work online. They don’t have hours and hours of screen time at school. But when the tool is appropriate, they have no trouble using it.

In a different meeting the same week, we were discussing the rollout of our 1:1 program for the high school next year. It’ll be the first time we issue take-home devices to high school students. Up to this point, the high school has used classroom sets of devices, and we’ve been focusing on the take-home program at the middle school. There was a lot of talk about the Google ecosystem, and the need to get our teachers Google certified. They’d like to get more classes using Google Classroom.

A few years ago, we developed a technology skills graph based on the excellent work done by Joanna McNally and Janette Kane at Orange. It took quite a bit of time to weave together the ISTE standards, the information and media literacy pieces, the old Ohio technology standards, mandatory training on digital citizenship, online safety, and cyberbullying, and the need for so-called 21st century skills. We debated how and when and where each topic would be introduced, and when students should be expected to show competency. Part of this was driven by the need to apply that technology in other areas. If students are doing a research project in 7th grade, then they need to know how to evaluate and cite sources before they get to that project.

Now that we’ve grown into the skills chart, we’re going to spend some time this year amending it. There are new state learning standards for technology that will need to be considered. We can also take some time to assess what’s working and what’s not working at different grade levels, and make adjustments to make sure students have the right skills when they need them.

That’s getting more difficult. The first time we went through this process (in 1999), we said that we wanted the tech standards to be covered by the end of 8th grade, so students can apply them to their work in high school. We revised that to the end of 5th grade to accommodate 1:1 a few years ago. Now, it’s looking like we need to be doing a lot more in kindergarten and first grade, because our learners are digital almost before they’re literate.

The key, of course, is to embed the technology instruction when it’s needed for something else. That breaks it into small, manageable pieces while providing an immediate application for the new skills. We’re fortunate to have professionals to help our teaches with that process, as well as teachers who are willing to take risks to increase rigor, improve differentiation, and better meet the needs of their learners.

Photo credit: Pixabay.