Building a Better Online Classroom (From the #ISTE11 Bloggers Cafe)


Photo credit: dcJohn

I’ve been spending a lot of time in online learning spaces recently and would love for you to consider three scenarios.

  1. This online learning space is built on a discussion board where each student posts responses to a weekly two- to three-page syllabus with readings and viewings from course textbooks, links to articles and videos. Students have to post an original response to the weekly readings as well as comment on at least two of their fellow students’ responses. Each unit is posted on Sunday, initial responses have to be posted by the following Saturday, with follow-up responses posted by the following Saturday. There is occasional feedback from the teacher in the response threads.
  2. In this online space, units are slowly unveiled over the course of several weeks, but students generally don’t have a set schedule to complete each unit’s assignments, as long as they’re done by the end of the term. Each unit’s activities and assignments are posted in a popup window that is part of the online classroom that a student pages through, but responses to questions are posted in a separate discussion board and assignments submitted through a submission link. There is generally little discussion in the assignment discussion areas, and even less teacher feedback, though there are occasional messages to all students from the teacher.
  3. In this space, student assignments are delivered via a private blog and responses are generally posts to a separate publicly-accessible blog with an eye to writing articles with broad appeal and interest. The external blog has a rotating team of editors that vet each post, correct where necessary, and ask for revisions before they are marked final and made public. In addition to writing their own postings, students are encouraged to comment on other posts. Students also participate in a weekly synchronous webinar, an archive of which is posted for those students who cannot attend; students who watch this archive must post a reaction to the internal class blog to continue that week’s discussion.

I’m not happy with any of these scenarios, but I’ll be honest and admit that the last one is mine. I will say that it’s my favorite of the three because I teach tenth graders and I need to be able to see them once a week, even if it is only virtually — and it’s an amazing experience to have students realize that they can actually participate in class from wherever they are, a model of how they’ll see more of their education later in life. We have great discussions that allow for students to use video or text to be an active participant. In my ideal world, we’d have an in-person meeting, too, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for next year. I know that I need to have a better organizational system because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have two separate blogs, one for assignments, calendar, and webinar links and another for assignments, but part of the objective was to create a news magazine of sorts and measure the reach of articles with and without social media by tracking page views and comments.

The first two, however, are classes that I’m taking as a student, and I find them both incredibly frustrating. Neither has much by way of teacher feedback and it feels as though one unit flows into the other without much pause to consider what was covered. In the first example in particular, I know that I’m taking the course with an expert in the field and yet I don’t have very much direct example of that. It’s personally costing me too much money to feel like I’m just following along a prescribed set of readings that probably get reused from year to year without much restructuring, without the continuing voice of the expert to guide or even correct my thinking. While I like the flow of the second course, it’s a very specific training on how to teach a specific course — and since the course is new to me, I’d appreciate being able to talk to fellow teachers face-to-face as we bounce ideas off each other. That could be because there is very little incentive to engage online because there is only the suggestion, but no requirement, to do so from the teacher. The class boards become a place to post required responses only.

Teaching online is a great experience, but it’s not exactly the same as teaching in person. If anything, you need to be more mindful of what you can do to reach every student because you don’t have the luxury of seeing them in person every day. But you also have the ability to make changes to the delivery of your course because of all the different technologies available. 

If you’re teaching an online course, you have to be mindful of what your audience needs and what spaces are going to be most effective. But it took the two classes that I’m taking as a student to remember that close attention needs to be paid to feedback — I’m in teacher training classes that don’t give me the feedback that I need as a student or do much to enforce the notion of the teacher as the content area expert. I can’t imagine that anyone would recommend teachers interact (or not) with their students in this way, but that’s exactly what is being implied in these two cases. It’s too expensive — monetarily, in terms of time commitment, and even for modeling a good online course for others — to mess this up.

It helps to think like a student. I know I’ll be ready for next year.


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