I’m currently taking an online course from the Online School for Girls (OSG) entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I’ll talk more about the experience when I complete the course in two weeks, but I do want to talk today about one of the challenges of online course design that I have encountered.

Online Learning

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Posting content to an online course doesn’t seem very different than posting that same content in Blackboard for my face-to-face (F2F) classes. The greater challenge is what to do online to replace the 200 minutes of class time that will no longer exist, at least as we know it in the traditional sense.

If I am to keep a high school student’s attention for 200 minutes over the course of a week without any F2F contact, then I will have to provide individual and collaborative lessons that are high on the engagement meter. What do I mean by engagement? I love Carol Ann Tomlinson‘s explanation from her 1999 book, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum:

Engagement happens when a lesson captures students’ imaginations,
 snares their curiosity, ignites their opinions, or taps into their souls.
Engagement is the magnet that attracts learners’ meandering attention
and holds it so that enduring learning can occur. Understanding means
more than recalling. It means the learner has “wrapped around” an important
idea, has incorporated it accurately into his or her inventory of how things
work. The learner owns the idea (p. 38). 

After pondering the passage, I think of either highly collaborative activities that require students to work with their peers, engage in problem solving, and resolve differences in point of view, or individual activities that emphasize good communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship, and a good deal of imagination (Wow! These are among Tony Wagner’s seven skills students need for their future). I’ve addressed a few of these in the F2F classroom, but that was my option, or so I thought. In the online classroom, I must develop these skills if I wish to truly engage my students.

The last sentence in Tomlinson’s quote, however, is the most telling. How do we, as teachers, help guide our students to ownership of ideas? This is not a legal question about intellectual property, but a pedagogical question about the role of the teacher. When you design an online course, many of the traditional structures of teaching and learning are collapsed because the classroom is no longer fixed in time and space. Therefore, I cannot be a “sage on the stage,” and must morph into a “guide by the side.” Isn’t it interesting that those elements that are essential to online courses are also critical to student engagement and mastery of skills for the future? If one accepts the premise of the question, then one would also want to transform or at least modify the traditional F2F classroom in the same manner, even though it may not be a requirement.

That may be why current research from the U.S. Department of Education (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning) concludes the following (with qualifications): Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction (p.xv). Thus, my conclusion is that every teacher learn to teach an online course; not because many of those teachers will likely teach an online course in the K12 world or because K12 education will become primarily online in delivery, but because it will help to instruct us in making our traditional or blended curriculum more engaging for our students. That is the primary reason I need to take the online course I am taking very seriously. It will make me a better teacher regardless of the delivery model.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the experience of taking an online course and how integrating some online or blended courses into the curricula of bricks and mortar schools can create a more acceptable cost model for the school.

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