A few days ago, we found out that all of the schools here in Oregon will be off until the start of April. Many of the universities have asked professors to switch their courses from face-to-face to online. This is a move that school districts across the U.S. and throughout the world are making. Needless to say, these are unprecedented times.

As a K-12 teacher, I had extensive experience with blended and hybrid teaching. As a professor, I’ve helped professors pilot new online courses and transform their face-to-face courses to online courses. And yet, I was reticent about writing this article and creating the eBook and toolkit that accompany it.

Why?

Because I still have times when I mess up with online learning. I still have lessons that tank. I still have times when I haven’t developed as tight of an online community as I would have hoped. I am constantly learning and evolving as I move through new iterations in distance learning. And yet, I also see value in sharing what I’ve learned along the way. With that in mind, I thought I would offer my perspective and share my free resources.

The bad news? You can’t convert your course.

As an education professor, I had the opportunity to work as a Digital Fluency Mentor helping professors develop online, hybrid, and virtual courses. One of the most common questions people asked me was, “How do I convert my face-to-face course into an online course?”

The truth is, you can’t convert it. Learning isn’t like a file that converts between a .doc and a PDF and a Google Doc. We can’t simply substitute new tools and do the same exact activity. In other words, that rich, spontaneous, Socratic Seminar simply won’t work in a discussion board or through a video conferencing system. That amazing collaborative design challenge doesn’t transfer easily when students move out of the makerspace and into their own homes.

See, the problem with the idea of converting instruction is that you only see the limitations. You take a great in-person activity and then you try to do your best to substitute it with digital tools. But this will always lead to a deficit.

The Mindset Shift: From Converting to Transforming

But what if we chose a different approach? What if we asked, “How do I transform my course?” rather than “How do I convert it?”
With transformation, you think about the creative and connective capacity of technology to design learning experiences that would have been inconceivable before.

This idea is at the heart of the SAMR Model. With the SAMR model, the first two layers focus on using technology to enhance the learning process while the next two layers focus on transforming the learning. The first level, Substitution, uses technology as a direct substitution for the learning task with no significant change. So, a student who types an essay on the computer merely swaps a pencil for a keyboard. With Augmentation, the technology acts as a substitution with some augmentation. So, that paper essay moves to a Google Doc, where students can not only type and edit but also comment on one another’s work. With Modification, technology enables significant task redesign. So, that essay is now a blog post. Students engage in online research, work collaboratively on a shared document, and publishing to an authentic audience. It is no longer an essay for a teacher. Instead, it is an article crafted for the world. With Redefinition, the technology allows for tasks that were previously inconceivable. So, that same essay is now a multimedia package, with a blog post, a podcast, and a short video. The research, too, includes video conferences with experts.

Note that Redefinition isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes you simply need to substitute or modify a task with technology. At the same time, we also want to avoid the trap of handing students digital worksheets and essentially shifting toward packet work.

Equity Matters

The following are ideas we need to consider ahead of time:

If you’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance your school is moving quickly from face-to-face to online instruction. With COVID-19, there are many classrooms doing a quick shift toward online instruction. You are likely a K12 educator but you might be a professor at a university where your school has suddenly shifted classes online without any warning.

It’s easy to step into digital spaces and forget that they are not socially neutral. The systems that perpetuate injustice off-line exist online as well. With that in mind, I’d like to remind educators to remember the following:

  1. Not everyone has the same access to technology. Not every student has the same device or the same internet connection. Not every student has the same access to a quiet workspace at home. Please work with key stakeholders to address the issue of equity of access.
  2. Power dynamics exist online. Pay close attention to the role of gender and race in your online instruction. There’s a tendency for people to assume a false social neutrality online but you need to address power dynamics. Please consider finding experts in culturally responsive pedagogy and ask them for a critique of your online materials so that you can find areas where you need to improve.
  3. Be sure to provide linguistic support. Please remember that some of your students might not be native English speakers and they deserve access to sentence stems, visuals, front-loaded vocabulary and other accommodations that you provide in-person.
  4. Embrace a Universal Access and Universal Design mindset. Re-read the IEPs and 504 plans to provide necessary accommodations. Lean in to the special education teachers and disability support staff to think through how you will make your instruction universally accessible. For example, you will need to check that closed captioning is available on all videos and that transcripts are available for podcasts. You might need to provide additional assistive support technology. Often, librarians and instructional designers will have key information for you in these areas.

Seven Big Ideas as You Shift Toward Distance Learning

The following are a few ideas to consider as you shift toward online / distance learning.

Big Idea #1: Students should be creating original content.

In education, we often use consumer language to describe instruction. How do you deliver the lesson? Did the students get it? And there is some truth to this. We need to engage in direct instruction. We often model a particular skill that students then copy. Other times, we help students attain knowledge by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to lectures.

This is especially common in online courses, where the predominant model is to consume content and then discuss the information afterward.

However, at some point, we want students to engage in meaningful projects. We want them to be problem-solvers and makers and designers. In other words, we want students to develop a maker mindset.

This is why, ultimately, they need to engage in creative work online. But what does this actually look like?

  • Blogging: Thematic blogs are blogs based on a student’s interests, passions, and ideas. It could be a foodie blog, a sports blog, a fashion blog, a science blog, or a history blog. They choose the topic and the audience. It’s a great way for students to practice writing in different genres (persuasive, functional, informational/expository, narrative) with specific blog topics they choose. They can also add multimedia components, like slideshows, pictures, videos, and audio.
  • Podcasting: With podcasts, students create audio recordings that they then share with an authentic audience. They can work individually, with partners, or in small groups. It can be more scripted or more open. If you want, you can have students edit the podcasts and add music by using Garage Band or Audacity. But you can also do a simple recording with smartphones.
  • Videos: Video creation is a little more complicated. They are often more time-consuming and sometimes require additional skills. However, if students are at home, they might just be willing to spend the additional time creating a video. A simple option for video creation is the annotated slideshow. Here, students create a slideshow and then record the audio as they move through it. They can do this on PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides.

Not sure where to start? One idea is a Wonder Day:

You can also get the Wonder Day project as well as the blogging and podcasting resources when you download the eBook and toolkit at the bottom of this article.

Big Idea #2: Be sure to leverage the power of online collaboration.

We live in a world where there are countless online tools for communication and collaboration. We can send instant messages, edit on a shared Google Document, hop onto a video conference, and easily send files back and forth. And yet, when it comes to distance learning, teachers often craft tasks that are entirely independent and individual. To make the most out of online learning, we need to leverage digital tools for collaboration.

Synchronous:
Chats, including Gmail chat or Slack
Video chats, including any video conferencing software (Hangouts, Zoom, Skype)

Asynchronous:
Shared documents, such as Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, and Google Slides
Project management software, such Trello
Voice chats, including Voice Thread

Synchronous/Asynchronous Hybrids:
Walkie Talkie apps, such as Voxer

Note that you need to know ahead of time which tools are COPPA and CIPA compliant. You need to check in with your district about your local policies. However, you should find a few key areas where you can have students work collaboratively even if they aren’t in the same physical space.

For online collaboration, you might try a small mini-project, where students engage in shared research and then come together to make something new (think the previously mentioned Wonder Day). Other times, they might collaborate by working on independent projects and sharing their processes with others.

Big Idea #3: Empower your students to own their learning in an online environment.

We often talk about what it means to move from compliance to engagement. It’s the idea of creating an environment where students want to learn rather than have to learn.  But if we want students to be creative, self-directed learners we need to go beyond student engagement and into empowerment.  But this requires some paradigm shifts.

That’s right. We’re going to be talking shift.

Here’s what I mean: The empowered classroom is a shift from giving choices to inspiring possibilities It’s what happens when you move from making the subject interesting to tapping into student interests; when you go from saying “you must learn this” to asking “what do you want to learn?”   It’s a shift from taking assessments to assessing your own learning, it’s an iterative process full of mistakes that ultimately lead to success.   It’s a shift from the teacher asking all the questions to the students asking their own questions, where they chase the inquiry process and take learning off-road. It’s a shift from uncritical consuming to critical consuming and creating. Here, students move from critical consuming to inspiration to creativity, where they use the design process to launch their work to the world. It’s a shift from differentiating instruction to personalizing learning  And it’s a shift from rigid to adjustable systems so that students own the process. They can set their own pace, choose their own formats, and decide what resources they want to use to accomplish their goals.  It’s a shift in mindset from compliance to self-direction.  In other words, it’s a shift toward student ownership. When that happens, our students become the creative, critical thinkers who change the world.

This is a challenge in a physical classroom, with each student learning at a different pace. But that’s actually the hidden advantage of online learning. The physical distance actually makes it a little less chaotic as we embrace student ownership.

The following are a few areas where you can incorporate student ownership:

  • Students owning the assessment process
  • Students choosing the topics
  • Students selecting the scaffolds
  • Students choosing how they present their learning

I go in-depth into the process in the free eBook you can access at the bottom of this article. I also include the suite of assessments that you can use in online learning. Note that because you aren’t available to do in-person formative assessment, it is even more important that students engage in self-assessment and peer assessment.

Here’s a small sample of what it looks like to incorporate student choice in your online class:

Traditionally, choice menus allow students to choose how they will present what they are learning. It’s a great first step for students who aren’t used to having as much voice and choice in their learning. While choice menus are great, I thought I would share a variation on the choice menu that goes beyond choosing topics and toward student ownership of the learning targets and resources. Here’s what it looks like.

As a teacher, I would keep an ongoing online curation of resources for each unit that I taught. Any time I saw something fascinating or relevant, I would copy and paste the link into a document. Then, I would use that curated list of resources in the choice menus. When students chose podcasts, videos, etc., I would link the option to a one-page topic-neutral document with a list of best practices, tutorials with instructions, and rubrics for that particular option.

So, if students were learning about forces and motion in science, they might select a specific standard. Then they would watch a video or podcast and then click on the slideshow option where they could see reminders of best practices (remember to use visuals, use a solid contrast in colors, cite sources, etc.) and begin creating their product.

Notice that with this choice menu, students are deciding either the topics, concepts, or skills and then deciding on their own resources and strategies before ultimately deciding on their final product.

Big Idea #4: Provide opportunities for vintage and digital mashups.

When we think of online teaching, we tend to imagine a student sitting at a computer completing work. However, some of the best tools are low tech and lo-fi. Yes, we need students to use a laptop. But we also need students to use pencils and paper and cardboard. In other words, you need to take a vintage innovation approach.

Vintage innovation happens when we use old ideas and tools to transform the present. Think of it as a mash-up. It’s not a rejection of new tools or new ideas. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes the best way to move forward is to look backward. Like all innovation, vintage innovation is disruptive. But it’s disruptive by pulling us out of present tense and into something more timeless

Vintage Innovation is a both/and mindset. It’s the overlap of the “tried and true” and the “never tried.” It’s a mash-up of cutting edge tech and old school tools. It’s the overlap of timeless skills in new contexts. Vintage innovation is what happens when engineers use origami to design new spacecraft and robotics engineers are studying nature for innovative designs.

As you move toward online teaching, consider how you might embrace this mindset of a mash-up.

Big Idea #5: Be intentional with the design of your online classes.

User experience design theory (sometimes abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED) focuses on the user experience of a platform. This might include accessibility, usability, enjoyment, and the overall flow of the experience. UX design focuses on both on how we use digital tools and on how we inhabit digital spaces. It focuses on systems in a way that is deeply human. What does it feel like for people? What does it look like for them? What are their processes?

The best systems are the ones that feel invisible. You step into it and immediately know where to go and what to do. Don’t get me wrong. Confusion can be a great thing in a classroom if it is leading toward deeper learning. But confusion caused by poorly designed courses leads to disengagement and frustration. It cuts learning short and disrupts creative flow.

There are a few key elements of UX Design that we can incorporate into our online instruction:

One simple step is to do a UX Design audit. I’ve included a template in the toolkit and eBook that you can download at the bottom of this post. Use this form as a way to self-assess the design of your online course. Focus on using this diagnostic tool as a way to improve the overall design. It helps to picture your course through the lens of a student who is accessing it for the first time.

Big Idea #6: Take a “show and tell” approach.

We tend to assign homework that asks students to take schoolwork into their world. Often, students fail to turn in their work. But what if it’s shows and tell? Suddenly, kids can’t wait to bring in an item from their world and share it with the class.

Show and tell is essentially the opposite of homework. It’s a chance for students to bring their world into the school rather than school into their world. This approach honors student agency. When I taught eighth grade, I encouraged a “show and tell” approach to homework. Here, they could bring in experts, resources, videos, or audio from their own community as they worked on projects in class. It was always optional but many students choose to complete it, since it was a chance to bring their world into class.

As educators, we need to remember that home learning doesn’t have to require us to send schoolwork home. It’s about building a partnership between school and home and recognizing the ways that students might learn within their own environment.

We can take this same approach as we design distance learning experiences for our students. One small example is to ask students to share their interests and passions through a Geek Out Blog.

Big Idea #7: Be present and available as a teacher.

Distance learning doesn’t mean we have to be distant. As teachers, we can be intentional about creating a sense of presence with our students. Here are a few ideas that I’ve found helpful:

  • Video announcement: This starts with he first week, where you do an on boarding video of the course and explain how it will work. But after that, you can create a weekly or even daily short video with a preview of what students will do. Although pre-recorded, these short, unstructured videos create a sense of presence for you as a teacher.
  • Small group check-ins: Here, you can schedule small group meeting and use video conferencing to meet with groups and look at their progress.
  • Email check-ups: There are a few options here. First, you can send out a whole class email with expectations, deadlines, etc. But the second option is just a short email to each student asking how they’re doing. If you have 180 students in a class, rotate with 18 per day and make sure each student gets an individual email every other week. You can create an email template and personalize it.
  • Short text check-ins: With this option, you can ask students to use the chat function to send questions or comments as you go.
  • Surveys: Ask students to fill out a course survey each day where they share what their experiences have been in an online course.
  • Scheduled conferences: On the next page, you’ll see the 5 minute conference system. With a whole day of working from home, you can easily schedule these conferences with students and let them know you are there for them.

There are so many other ways to be present and I’m sure that you, as a teacher, have other ideas of strategies you can use to build relationships and be present with your students, even as you shift toward distance learning.

Ultimately, there is no one single way to do online teaching. It’s an experiment and it varies depending on your subject, your context, and your students. You’ll make tons of mistakes — and that’s okay. The beauty is in learning from those mistakes and iterating toward better and better instruction. Lean in to the experts in your own institution and be humble about what you don’t know. Ask students for their input along the way. And over time, you’ll develop some amazing distance learning units.

Below, you’ll find the a free eBook, along with a toolkit full of resources you can use as you shift toward online teaching. You’ll find lesson plans, writing prompts, entire projects, protocols, and guides.

John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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