Authentic, Student-Centered Learning

Throughout this course, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the phrase “student-centered”. We want our online courses to be student centered. We want students to act as teachers, to facilitate their own learning, to participate rather than be a passive learner. But until recently, I was not sure what that would look like in my own classroom. Our most recent discussion, as well as information learned at two conferences in the past two weeks, has led me to a deeper understanding of student-centered learning.


Much of our recent discussion focused on students as creators. We discussed the value of project based learning, examples and non-examples of student-centered learning, and specifically how to create more meaningful science activities that enable students to construct knowledge. While I was exploring these ideas in class, I was also attending two conferences that increased my understanding of practical ways to put students in control of their own learning.


First, at the Games in Education conference in Albany, NY, I learned a new way for students to take more responsibility for their goal setting and task mastery. Each day at the beginning of class, students would review their work for the unit and identify how many of the objectives they had mastered so far. Then, students would set a goal for what they would accomplish during that class period. At the end of class, students reflected on what they achieved that day. I want to incorporate this into my daily classroom routine, adding in a component where students reflect on what they should complete that night to be ready for the next day. By working with students on these skills, they will not only feel more in control but actually be aware of their learning and progress, and work to identify steps to achieve their goals. This will fit into a partially self-paced learning system, where students will have choice as they work through a variety of activities designed for them.


I then went to the School of Rock conference in Lewes, DE. Here, I spent a week delving into the Next Generation Science Standards and working with scientists and researchers on improving how we teach labs and the process of science. We discussed having a meaningful hook and how to get students asking questions to drive their learning. I learned many new ways to engage my students in authentic lab experiences, rather than recipe-style labs. For example, I learned a new approach to the standard DNA extraction lab. Rather than give students a step by step process, present them with various supplies and challenge them to extract the most DNA from the sample. As they work, students will have to document their successes and failures in detail so they can ultimately present their work. I specifically connected with a new conception of the 20140814_150849scientific method presented by Berkeley, a flow chart rather than the old linear method. This new method highlights the fact that real science does not follow a set recipe or path, but instead is a continuous and flexible process. We worked with this flowchart in conjunction with our lab activities, tracking our progress around the steps. In the picture, you can see how we used pictures ourselves working to highlight the steps in the process.

I plan to start my year, as I often do, with a unit on Ecosystems, specifically focusing on our local watershed. Normally, this unit ends with a discussion of the health of our local ecosystem and what we can do to improve it. Instead, this year I will start my students with this problem, giving a hook to drive their learning. Students will be able to develop more complex questions to research and investigate as they dig deeper into the topic, just as real scientists do. I also plan to have them step back after a few weeks and chart their own learning path through the flow chart, using pictures similar to what we did at the conference. I hope to not only create a more authentic and student-driven environment with this approach, but to give my students more time to reflect and observe their learning.

I have also learned the value in reflecting on my own practices. I plan to continue blogging as I work to incorporate what I have learned into my class this year. Hopefully you will see some of my successes, failures, and adaptations as I work out the kinks in my increasingly student-focused classroom.



Online to Face-to-face

Throughout this course, I have learned how to design activities that are directed toward my students, phrased with explicit directions, and engaging for everyone in the course. I know I learned this as I review the progress and changes from my initial drafts and ideas to my current product. I spent a lot of time observing in my own classes as a student to identify what I liked and didn’t like, and tried to apply it to my own course. I also spent time looking at my peers courses and the exemplars and adapting what I liked to fit my work. All of this revision made my course far stronger, and helped me work through a process that was new to me. As Alex told us in the beginning of the course, good courses take more than 100 hours to create. Stone and Perumean-Chaney acknowledge that this intensive design process is what leads to better learning outcomes for students. Likewise, they highlight the fact that online teachers often develop courses in conjunction with consultants or colleagues, having time to get formative feedback before the course is seen by students.

Everything I learned about pre-planning and revision will greatly benefit my face-to-face teaching this fall. Stone  shares an excellent quote that I really connected with: “If instructors gave as much thought to the construction of their on-campus courses as they do their online courses, all education would be better”. I spent so much time revising and replanning my online course this summer, and it forced me to really look at objectives, skills, directions, and my goals for my students before even beginning to work with them. This is a very different approach to how I have taught in the past, planning a few weeks ahead. My school always emphasized a backward design, and I have studied this is other curriculum design classes. In addition, I always had to turn in unit plans with activities, goals, and assessments during the summer before the year began. However, this was all loose and flexible planning. In contrast, I am currently working on plotting out my entire first unit, hopefully to be done before the students arrive. I then plan to plot and post one unit at a time for my students to see. This will work well in my classroom, since our units are more self-contained (it’s a survey science course). I hope that my learning about online teaching really does have positive impacts on my face-to-face teaching.



Do they want to hear me?

Like many, I tend to teach based on what I like and how I like to learn. I like to learn through videos and experiments. I enjoy written discussions and written feedback. Thus, I aimed to give this to my students. However, based on Alex’s emphasis on the use of audio to engage online learners in her YouTube post, it seems that I should be including some audio components into my course. But how to do this?


Initially, I had planned to include a VoiceThread introduction, similar to what we completed in this course. However, upon reflection, I worried that having to create another account and learn another tool at the beginning of the course would overwhelm my middle school students. I, as an adult graduate student, was completely overwhelmed by all the new tools at the beginning of this course. I had the tools to cope and push through, but my students are newer to online learning. Thus, I opted for a written and picture based introduction in a simple threaded discussion – a format that I wanted the students to learn and use in other areas of the course anyway. But I realize that I have no other audio components in which the students hear MY voice.


I therefore opted for the audio feedback option for student projects. I felt this work was detailed and deserved more feedback than a number and circles on a rubric, so it was a great opportunity to turn written feedback into audio feedback. I plan to upload individual podcasts for each student along with their rubrics and number grade when they get the feedback. I hope that this helps students to feel more connected with me and the course. The research certainly says it will! According to Ice, Swan, Kupczynski, and Richardson, research has shown that other students find audio feedback more effective than written feedback. In addition, audio feedback increases social and teaching presence, and increases the perception that the instructor cares about the students. King, McGugan, and Bunyan further explain that one minute of audio feedback includes an average of 100 words. Thus, audio feedback can easily improve the quantity of feedback as well as the quality.



Is an online course ever done?

As I reviewed my own course this week, using the many checklists, I realized how much I wanted to change. Some of the changes were purely aesthetic, while others were absolutely necessary in order for students to effectively navigate my course. I have a long list now of changes I need to make before next week’s deadline. I was very grateful to have these checklists, because many of these things would not have occurred to me otherwise. As explained in this article, using a checklist helps to ensure that nothing is forgotten in the final product. In addition, as explained here, using a checklist helps me see that I am making progress. As I make more revisions, I am able to answer more questions positively, knowing I have a better course. At first, I wondered why the checklist was not given while I was developing the course. Couldn’t I have saved time by doing all this before?


As I reflected on this question, I realized my work would need to be reviewed again whether or not I had used the checklists first. We are not perfect. We make mistakes. The checklist helped me find some simple mistakes, such as inconsistencies between pages, that I would not have found otherwise. I found these because I reviewed after. I then wonder when the review process would end? How long does one continue to review and improve their online course? Do we stop after it goes live, or continue to work with it? Alex’s Breeze presentations have explained that every is more satisfied with the learning experience if the course is complete on the first day. Does this mean no more reviewing, editing, or changing after the first day? What do others think?



Who am I?

I am excited about the many new resources and theories I am learning about as I design my course.


In the discussions this week, there was significant reference to gaming theories of education. I have taken two classes related to this, one that was specifically about games in education and one that was gamified. Both of these were enjoyable experiences, and seeing some of the resources appear in the discussions makes me question whether I should gamify my course, allowing students to strive for experience points rather than just “points”. However, I don’t want too much extra going on that becomes distracting, and I am also unsure how I would set up a system to keep track of experience points and levels that would not require overwhelming amounts of extra teacher work. In the class I took, we kept track of our own points, but I am unsure if this would be effective with middle school students.


I am also excited to further explore MERLOT and OER for resources for my actual teaching. These collections are huge and still growing. I know there is so much out there I can use, I just have to find it!


I am also a procrastinator. I have long been a procrastinator, and know that I face this difficulty. Every week I try to set timelines, due dates, and calendars for myself so that I do not procrastinate my work. I have tried this since I was young. I am often not successful. I worry my students may find themselves in similar situations. My course is also broken into two week modules, with large chunks of work due on the last day. For procrastinators, like myself, this could be problematic. Students may find themselves overwhelmed with more work than can reasonably be completed in a day. Students may also see  the workload as too much and simply give up. I am unsure how to remedy this situation. I can hope that my students have strong support at home to encourage them to keep up with the assignments and stick to the schedules that are created. I mention this in my introduction letter to parents and guardians. What else have you tried to help the procrastinating student?



Community in my face-to-face classroom

As I reflected on class community in an online course during this module, I began to reevaluate how I work to create a class community with my own students. I must admit that I do not often go out of my way to purposefully create community. I do create collaborative activities for students. I do model appropriate interactions and expect respect towards the students and ideas in the classroom. However, I have not put much thought into how to build a community that truly works together. Sometimes it happens naturally, but definitely not in all classes. Each year, some of my sections will be well bonded and supportive while others simply are not. It was always clear that the more a class worked together, the happier and more productive they all were. However, until now, I had never put much thought into what I personally could do to influence the supportive and bonded climate in my classroom. I am working to consider how I can and need to combine technological communication and face-to-face interaction to really build up this class community for the following year. Any suggestions for how you all work to build community are always appreciated! 🙂 I enjoyed reading through some of what you are already doing in the threaded discussion. I also hope to take a lot of what I learn about community in an online class, such as sharing personal information, providing opportunities for peer support, and allowing students to suggest and make changes to the class, and apply it in my face-to-face classroom.


It is true that working on an online course really changes who you are as a face-to-face teacher!



As my course becomes more clear

I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My course is starting to fall into a place that I am happy and comfortable with. I also was able to “let go” and draft a narrative description that allowed my personality to shine through in writing. This has been one of my biggest struggles, as I am typically formal in my written work and more personable verbally. As I have worked through drafting an online course, I consistently have hit against this same roadblock. I hope I continue to be able to relax and liven up my written work as I move toward drafting directions for my learning activities. Since my written self is the main instructor my students will be interacting with throughout the course, it is important that I do not seem overwhelmingly professional and proper. I do not want them to be nervous about having questions, reaching out for support, or interacting in any way. I included the picture on the right because it reflects how I feel about my writing style. It seems that it still takes multiple drafts to get to a point that I can let go of the formal tone. My first few drafts, like the blue arrows, collide with the wall of boring teacher talk. My final draft let’s my inner excitement finally jump in and overcome the obstacle.


As I worked on crafting my draft learning modules, I realized that a lot of the work was simply taking the course profile from before and rearranging or adding detail. I hope that this is the correct approach to the assignment. I am glad that I put in the effort earlier, as it made later work much easier. The learning activities for my students seem to fall into a consistent pattern. By this I mean that each module has some content presentation (readings, videos, simulations, or at home activities), followed by a discussion, mini-project, and blog posts. I hope that this consistent structure will help my younger students to understand what is expected of them during each module. According to the Breeze presentation, 60% percent of students are taking an online course for the first or second time. Thus, again, it is clear that redundant and clear directions are a key to student success and student satisfaction with the learning process. I aim to list my learning activities in the order students should complete them. This will ensure there is little doubt of what to do next. I also will have deadlines posted in multiple places within the Moodle site. As an online student myself, I have learned that nothing is more frustrating than having to search multiple pages just to find one due date! I am glad that my own students will be able to benefit from my personal experiences in online courses.



Exciting changes, and what is holding me back

As I continue working on my online course, I feel myself getting excited about trying new things. However, I am also finding that I want to try almost EVERYTHING that I read about or see in a video clip. When I read about a method or technique, I immediately think “I want to do that in my course” and start to look for ways in which I can tie it in. But it does not seem realistic to actually include ALL of the different techniques I am seeing others use into my own course. It would be very confusing to students to have so many different techniques and activities – structure and consistency is so important for student success. Thus, the process then becomes one of trimming down and identifying what methods I think would be most effective.


One method I definitely know I want to keep is having students bring resources into the course to share with their peers. Pelz advocates this as a way to keep an online course learner-centered, and I agree. In many of my best online courses, and in the courses I learned the most, I was required to find, share, and refer to outside sources in addition to what the instructor presented to us. This forced me to craft more thoughtful responses and to see a wider range of responses from my peers. I want to create a similar experience for my students.


My big hindrance is still the “but how would my kids do that” question that remains in my head. While I know that my middle school students are very capable, there is a bit of me that is unsure about adapting methods shown to work with undergraduate students down to a 12 year old level. It is also difficult to find research about online learning at this grade level – most of it focuses on higher education. While I have ideas about how to adapt and apply activities, such as sharing found resources, in ways that younger students can handle, I also have the fear that it might not work. I think this risk taking factor is important in making the jump to online teaching. As we have discussed, moving online is a big change in the way we teach. As mentioned in the Breeze presentation, it also can change the way we teach face to face. It has forced me to rethink what I do by considering what I COULD and CAN do with my students. While I am ready to push forward and take these risks, I feel I may continue battling that negative and hesitant voice. I wonder if others are having these thoughts as they rework their teaching for an online environment.



My mistakes as an online student – And how they will help me be a better online instructor

This was, needless to say, a rough module for me as a student. This was due, primarily, to outside factors that were competing for my attention. At the beginning of the module, it was the end of the school year. I was busy with year end field trips that required my presence outside of the normal school day. I had 100 report card comments to write. I had final projects to grade before I could even begin comments. Trying to balance this with the continuing demands of this class was difficult. I am thankful I am only taking one course.


Fast forward to this past weekend, when I am, thankfully, done with school, but spent my time in Philadelphia cheering on one of my students in the National Finals of the You Be The Chemist competition. The event and the experience was amazing, for both myself and my student, but I did not get back until Tuesday night. While I was able to get some work done, I did not foresee the hotel not having a good Internet connection, so work I was accomplishing was through a combination of looking up directions on my phone and typing things into my computer offline to copy and paste later. Needless to say, I was not as productive as I would normally be. As Alex says, we should not assume our students will have consistent access to the Internet!


This left me wondering how this would relate to my own online students. One obvious answer is that I cannot assume my students will have impeccable Internet access. Another is that I have to be mindful that my students have responsibilities outside of my course. But more importantly, I thought about time management. This is a skill I have seen many of my middle school students struggle with, and a skill I struggle with myself. Had I managed my time better, I would not have had so much work left going into the long weekend of the conference. If I had not watched so many episodes of Orange is the New Black and Modern Family, I would have gotten my report card comments finished faster. But I, like many students, struggle to break larger, long term assignments into smaller, workable chunks. Since students have a lot more control over pace in an online course, it is going to be critical that they are able to look at a module and break the work into chunks they can reasonably complete.


I found a great resource from The McGraw Center at Princeton. When approaching a large assignment, one should first list out every small action item or task that is part of it. When applying this to a module, I (or my student) should list out each step they need to take, from reading the readings to writing posts, to reflecting. Then, I make a schedule for when each small task should be done. This is helpful because it prevents me from wasting time trying to remember what I might need to do or repeatedly looking back to the same directions. Setting due dates, while keeping other pressures in mind, also helps ensure that I (or my student) is able to avoid the last minute rush at the end of a module. I hope to incorporate this into my class. I want to model this process for my students and share my personal stories to help them see the point of planning ahead. While I have not seen this type of information in the model courses, or in other courses I have taken, I think it would be a valuable addition to a first module or a course information document.



Getting started with my documents

I am just beginning to realize how much goes into the course information documents that I receive at the beginning of every online class. As I look through the sample French course, it becomes clear that I have to make a lot of choices about how I want to set up my course and what my expectations are, and all of this needs to happen before I actually start. I was grateful to be able to see examples, and hope to model my course expectations after what I saw. Several things I really liked about the course documents in the French course were the simple, clear layout, and the button that allowed the user to click previous and next without going back to the list of pages. By keeping each “topic” on a separate page, I was not overwhelmed as I looked at all of the information. In addition, much of the information was succinct and even bullet-point. As explained by Scorza, this formatting helps ensure that students do not grow confused or overwhelmed. I think this is especially important at the beginning of a course, when, as Alex says in her Breeze presentation, students may be at the beginning of their very first online class. We would not want to overwhelm a first timer!


So, as I set off to redesign my course profile, which will hopefully lead to some great course information documents, I want to remember to keep my writings detailed and clear, but brief. I also want to make sure I include the full range of information students will want and need to know to succeed. I can use the models provided to help me do this. The models will also help me gauge what order the information is typically presented in. In most courses I have seen or taken, information about the professor and contact comes near the beginning and information about evaluation and grades comes at the end.


I am wondering if I would need to change or adapt anything because of the younger age of my target students. The French documents were accessed by some high school students, but mine are even younger than that.