At the College of William & Mary, the primary part of my teaching load is working with undergraduate and Masters students in our teacher preparation program to help them to effectively integrate technology in their teaching. One of the capstone projects in the course is to challenge them to design a technology-integrated learning experience that they can use in their student teaching next semester. I introduce them to a flexible planning approach that I developed with my colleague, Judi Harris, called the learning activity types (LAT) approach. For novice teachers like my students, this is an involved process that typically spans three class meetings. In the past, I’d facilitated this process in class, using a variety of whole group and small group activities. For the first time this year, we designed an online module to replace this in-class experience. In a series of posts, I want to explore this shift to a hybrid model that focuses on three primary areas: my experience as an instructor in this new mode of teaching, benefits for and limitations to the learning process for the students, and learning outcomes for the students. In this first post, I’ll briefly over the process and module and share my insights as the instructor.
I used Blendspace to host the online learning module which spanned three weeks. During this time, we did not meet face-to-face for any portion of the work. Students worked through the module asynchronously with periodic checkpoints and assignments that they were to complete either individually or in small groups that I had created for them. They shared their work along the way through a BlackBoard discussion forum, Google Hangouts, and a commenting feature in Blendspace. In the end, students completed their instructional plans and turned them in to me through group blogs, which are publicly available.
This was a new experience for me as an instructor. I’ve done a number of online experiences for students to complete in lieu of meeting for class. I’d never done a multi-week experience that spanned such a long time, however. Moreover, this module guided them in the process of creating the key assignment for the course. So, in both these ways, this was a bit of a risk for me.
It certainly took some adjusting my time and work during these three weeks. Of course, I completed the vast majority of the planning for the experience in advance. My primary role during the three weeks was to facilitate discussion, provide feedback, and occasionally crack the whip when students fell behind in the process. This meant that I spent a considerable amount of time online – and particularly in BlackBoard. I really value and enjoy the face-to-face interactions with students, so this was a shift. I always felt a little bit tethered to my computer as well – particularly during a few of the more challenging phases. So, while I wasn’t meeting with the students during the scheduled class time, I’ll bet that I spent more time responding to their posts than I would have in class.
While the time spent in BlackBoard was not my favorite, I quickly saw real benefits for doing this experience online. First, students from different sections of the course were able to work together. Perhaps more importantly, I think the increased accountability of students posting their work on the discussion board encouraged them to participate more fully in the work than if they’d done so in the form of small group discussion in class. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that students’ thinking was visible in this way allowed me to answer questions and correct misconceptions or misunderstandings early in the process. Consequently, from my vantage point, students understood and engaged in the planning process to a greater degree than students in prior years. In my mind these benefits far outweigh the bit of discomfort I experienced in facilitating the work online.
All in all, things went well. With the help of my students, I’ve identified a few areas that could be ironed out. There was some confusion about when certain steps were to be completed. In some cases, members of the groups worked at different rates, making the discussions together difficult. I incorporated a few too many tools (Blendspace, BlackBoard, Google Hangout, group blogs) – both for me to stay on top of and for the students to navigate. Fortunately, these are all manageable fixes that should be fairly easy to implement the next time around.
What’s not clear to me, yet, is exactly how the students worked through the process. In the next post, I’ll explore this aspect of the work. I’m cautiously optimistic about the results, but I’ll have to go to the data.