The three-week module walks students through a technology integration planning process, leading to a complete draft of the major project in the class – a technology-enhanced instructional plan. We’ve had in-class experience building towards instructional planning, but this is a module that contains all the content and scaffolds that will help the students through the process. This was an alpha effort (i.e., not even a beta test) for a project that I’m working on with my colleague, Judi Harris. We’re planning a more sophisticated version to release as an open educational resource (OER) that any teacher preparation program would be free to use and customize for use in their courses. It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least.
Why move this content online?
We didn’t take on this project just for the sake of putting content online. I had found in teaching this class over the years that the in-class version of the project didn’t work as well as I’d like. Students moved at dramatically different paces, they didn’t have easy access to their field supervisors for formative feedback, and they didn’t have time to let their ideas percolate. In other words, it felt constrained by the face-to-face, time-bound nature of a course.
The online version of the course affords students to ability to work at their own pace, consult not only their field supervisor but also their other professors, students from other sections of the course, and sometimes even their former teachers as they go through the planning process. This experience is also more authentic, given that this is how most teachers plan in practice. It was for these reasons that we decided to design a fully online experience. Along the way, I’ve learned three lessons about creating a robust, rigorous online learning experience for my students.
- Designing a self-sufficient learning experience is hard
This may be obvious to you wise readers, but I really underestimated the time and effort it would take to create a multi-stage learning process that my students could work through without me. It surprised me how often I would clarify a question in class, provide an additional example, or adjust something for greater clarity. In a sense, my class session plans could be outlines that I fill in during the session itself. When you’re designing a self-paced asynchronous course, you have to anticipate challenges and build all the supports from the outset. Everything – examples, alternatives, help sheets, and resources all have to be baked in. I’m sure I’ve left some things out (which I’ll discover on the module evaluation form), but I certainly spent hours trying to be as prepared as I could.
- It’s challenging to make online content interesting
As Judi and I brainstormed and storyboarded the modules, we tried hard to mix up the content and provide as much interaction and variety as we could. Unfortunately, with our learning management system we were a little limited in what we could do. We essentially relied on a few short videos and screencast recordings of slide presentations in terms of presenting information. We built in a number of opportunities for students to analyze materials supported by graphic organizers and thinking tools that students would work with during the course. I feel fairly certain that the materials we provided are substantive, complete, and rigorous enough to help students design a good project. What I’m less sure about, though, is the degree to which students will find them interesting and appealing for different learning styles and preferences. We build the modules with UDL principles firmly in mind, but it was much more challenging than I’d bargained for.
- It’s lonelier teaching online
Recently, I wrote about building connections with students in our courses. This is much more challenging in an asynchronous online environment, and I’m certain that I could have built more personality into the modules. This module spans two sections of the course, only one of which I teach. I’ve found that it’s more challenging to interact with and build any sort of rapport with the students from the other section of the course. And because I don’t feel particularly connected with these students, it’s a far lonelier process for me.
My impressions so far
The students are now a little more than halfway through the modules at this point. While I don’t know for sure, the students seem to be moving through pretty well. They seem to be “getting” the material in a more complete way than in the face-to-face version I’ve used in the past. I know for sure that the quality of the discussion in the online forums is more substantive and inclusive than what I was able to generate in class. Of course, we’ll have to see how the final projects turn out, but I think they’ll create high quality work. With that said, I’m seeing (and documenting) several lessons that I’ll discuss with Judi as we revise the content for the beta test in the spring.
If you’re considering taking on a similar project and are up for a challenge, I’d encourage you to take the plunge. It’s a stimulating creative challenge to design an engaging and intellectually challenging online learning experience. Select a relatively focused concept or skill that you’re very comfortable with and that won’t be too overwhelming for your students. Be sure to partner or consult with colleagues who have some experience in this kind of work. Ask a more advanced student in your program to work through a prototype of the module and provide feedback, and be sure to take notes on what you learn. As I’ve written recently, it can be really energizing to take a risk in your teaching. Creating online learning modules may be an interesting challenge for you.
What have you learned teaching online?
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