03/21/2011 | ROMEO MARQUIS
“Online” means many things to many people, including e-mail, blogs, wikis, chat, texting, Edline, School Fusion, Blackboard, Moodle, WiFi, netbooks, tablets and more. Do any of these really impact student achievement? Based on my experience the answer is yes — but not for the technology itself, rather for what it enables us as educators to achieve. At The Learning Curve, we start every professional development experience with this essential question: “What can we achieve online that we cannot achieve as well or as fully in a more traditional environment?”
Some teachers respond with, “I want to make sure my students can access content anytime anywhere.” While 24/7 access to content is certainly a requirement, it is not sufficient. An online presence must be more than a repository of content. Content must be supported by interactive engagement based on critical thinking and problem solving skills. These skills often require time and reflection beyond class schedules and school walls. We must reform (re-form) ways in which teachers interact with all students, not only the usually vocal ones who jump into social networking sites while others are satisfied to remain passive.
The best way to facilitate and manage effective critical thinking within a course is to begin with a comprehensive online learning management system. I like Moodle because it’s flexible, easy to use and is free (open source), although hosting and support are essential. Within Moodle, a structured and user friendly tool, teachers can develop instructional units based on advanced skill development. This is a huge advantage of online discussion forums with multiple threads. Sometimes an online homework assignment based on critical thinking can continue for days as students collaborate with each other and with their teacher, achieving depth that is not typically possible in a traditional classroom. This type of content engagement reflects 21st century assignments that students encounter in higher education and in many occupations and professions.
We’ve all heard the expression, “Knowledge is power.” Would you go to a surgeon who has passed lots of quizzes and tests but has never had an opportunity to apply that knowledge? What good is it for students to memorize chemical symbols and formulas if they don’t have any idea what happens inside a test tube and how their findings can be applied and communicated to others? Applied knowledge is power.
An excellent example of instructional leadership in content engagement is the chemistry teacher who insists that her students spend more time in the laboratory. She requires her students to analyze their data in three-person teams online after school hours. As her students become more comfortable with this type of reflective and collaborative homework, they begin to search the Web for findings relevant to their own work. The teacher, of course, has a crucial role in this process. She monitors each lab team, recognizing that some can flourish on their own while she intervenes with others who need attention.
A well developed discussion forum can also enable teachers to provide guest “speakers” on occasion, something that is not always possible in traditional classrooms. A few years ago I was in Seoul, South Korea working with teachers in an American school. The topic of Maine’s laptop initiative came up, so I suggested that everyone in the class post their questions in a forum and I would invite an expert from the Maine initiative to join us. The discussion would continue for a few days or until all questions were answered. I did not tell them that the “expert” would be my seventh grade granddaughter whose class was part of that initiative. What an exciting and in-depth discussion that was, thanks to the availability of online technology. This same type of assignment could include a guest scientist, a poet, an elected official, a business leader, or anyone else who could contribute to an educational experience beyond a static textbook. I know of a middle school class in the USA that maintained an ongoing forum with a middle school class in the Netherlands. This went on for weeks as the rest of the curriculum was addressed in regular class time.
Yet another example of online creativity is the orchestra director whose students record their auditions and upload them into Moodle’s Assignment tool. He listens to these and provides written feedback to each student. Once his feedback has been added, the student automatically receives an e-mail informing him of the availability of the director’s feedback. The Moodle Assignment feature can be set by the teacher to allow resubmission if he so chooses. There simply is not the time in the limited school day for all this to happen in a face-to-face setting. This same approach can be applied to English papers, history assignments, math problems, and on and on and on.
Peer review can also be a powerful online activity requiring critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills. Students can prepare PowerPoint presentations, oral reports, even brief videos to illustrate concepts and skills. They can upload them into a forum for group discussion and critique.
Within such a context, teachers can assess student achievement in “real world” ways. This also restructures (re-forms) ways in which teachers manage how they function. Working their way through discussion forums, teachers can get a very good picture of students’ effectiveness in analyzing information and in solving problems, especially when the assignment includes collaboration in an online setting — definitely a 21st century skill. Teachers can even print transcripts for further analysis. Students can also print transcripts as study notes.
After considering these creative examples, it’s easy to see that online tools matter — but not so much for the tools themselves as for what they enable us to do. Sure, we need to know Moodle and the associated online tools are always available to our teachers, students, and administrators. And yes, we need to know the cost fits in our budget. And most importantly, we need assurance that personal information is protected at all times. But let the IT vendors handle that. For example, IMG Software integrates Moodle with iPass. EMC Corporation is a company on the leading edge with its Education Cloud platform.
For us educators it’s not really about technology at all. It is about education reform (re-form). It is about student achievement that is beyond our addiction to much of today’s standardized testing. We must help students learn how to think — that’s first. Online tools like Moodle, in the hands of a skillful teacher focused on 21st century skills, can help us make a difference. All the technology in the world will not help students unless we become much more serious about re-forming teaching and learning. Fortunately, teachers themselves are leading the way.
At The Learning Curve Consortium, we focus on professional development enabling teachers to build 21st century learning experiences in Moodle. We help educators focus on content engagement. Our partners, IMG Software and EMC Corporation, take care of ensuring the online technology is there when and how we need it. Together we are preparing a cloud computing solution that will further support teachers’ efforts by integrating Moodle, Student Information Systems and student productivity tools in a comprehensive and secure online learning solution. This allows educators to create dynamic interactive courses and content for their students, and facilitates collaboration, resource access, instruction, assignments, grades and much more.
Within this environment, teachers and students will be able to interact in ways that truly reflect 21st century collaboration and enhanced learning.