Thursday, February 23, 2012

11 keys for online/blended learning

I talked to someone in passing last week who asked me about the blended learning I've done this year with Oelwein.  They asked, "when should a teacher start becoming a blended learning or online instructor?" It's critical that we ask this as we look at Iowa's need to accelerate online opportunities for all kids in a way that doesn't outsource all Iowa dollars.  In particular, many smaller districts might find value in sharing a world languages teacher, or a science educator, or a special mathematics course with another adjacent school.

A week later, I still find that to be a really intriguing question, but my gut tells me it's not a matter of time as a teacher, it's a matter of skill sets.   Think of this as a competency-based education check for teachers; if you don't have the skills, you're not ready for online facilitation.

Skills I've found to be critical this year include:
  1. Flexibility:   This is my #1 caveat for an online instructor.   You must Must MUST be flexible.   Technologies will fail.   Documents will get lost.  Kids will get ill.  A family relative will pass on.  And if you don't adjust, work with the kids, and restart them when they shut down, you will lose a lot of kids.  My own children have benefited from ILO instructors who reset activities, reworked unit deadlines, and substituted alternative assessments.   The caveat from RTI (student learning is the constant, but time and pathway are variables) is particularly valuable here.   Online learning is about helping kids to learn the topic at hand, NOT about helping kids to learn about deadlines imposed by you without their input.   Please, teach them about the need for thinking, for understanding and constructing meaning, and leave the punch-clock to someone else.
  2. A belief that all kids can learn:   I really, really believe, as several sets of national standards have proclaimed, that we all have an ability to learn if the conditions are right.   This is not about telling kids that 'online classes are for smart kids' or 'online only works for honors,', because the reality is much more simple.   You have a toolbox as a teacher and that number one tool inside of it is relationship.   If you establish that relationship with kids, you will find a way to help them learn the material in a way that is meaningful to them.
  3. A sense of humor:  Really, this goes hand-in-hand with relationships.  I make mistakes.   So do kids.  And when you have a hiccuping bandwidth, this can result in garbled posts, or failures in uploads, or a txt message to a wrong number.   A good giggle in moments like these has made things better.
  4. A 24/7 mentality:  It is NOT ok to turn off contact with your kids on the weekends.  And they need more than one way to reach you.   Kids can contact me on twitter, via Google, Skype, a message on Facebook, email, or you can one of the many online apps or services that allow kids to text to an online number that you set up.  If you don't want to talk on Adobe Connect, set up McDonald's study dates, since they have free wifi.  Plan times that are convenient for the student into your overall course time and structure.  Ask them with a Doodle calendar Why?  Because it's about their learnings.
  5. A smart phone:  This digital Swiss army knife allows me to view my various email accounts, check my messages on the various platforms at lunch (valuable if you have a social media block at a building), check the weather (in case I need to cancel for a snow day), and even check my blog or Moodle to see what my students need in the online realm.. I really feel like I need to quote Princess Vespa from Spaceballs here, "It's my industrial strength hairdryer  Android and I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT IT."  It is the communication tool I need.
  6. An understanding of what's important:   Here, I am talking about your content standards and your pedagogy, not a textbook.   If you, as a teacher, aren't sure what's important for your kids to learn, it's likely that you need to wait a while before becoming an online instructor.  Everyone has their own journey, but the principles of Understanding by Design, (Wiggins and McTighe) and the work of Rick Stiggins helped me figuring out how standards and assessment went hand-in-hand.  My online classroom is student-centered, using elements gleaned from constructivism and learning cycles, project-based learning, and the tome "How People Learn."    I have a background in content, but more importantly, I am a teacher who helps kids construct meaning in content.  Big difference.
  7. Models:  If you are not able to hang the topic at hand on a model, the students will struggle.  The good news: there are teaching models available in every content area, from the 5E learning cycle to the six-way paragraph to an excel spreadsheet to the research process.  There are analogies.  There are simple representations.   The model, which many people teach as the afterthought, is a critical shift for student engagement and concrete representation for online students..  Students can construct their own models, and you can provide them with examples to engage their critical thinking.  Students can connect their own models to prior knowledge and new learnings.
  8. Student reflection and formative assessment:  It is especially critical in the online arena to find out what your students do and do not know.   I use threaded discussions, group discussions, linoits, note checks, and Google forms as a way to gather information in a non-threatening way for formative assessments and to see where the common misconceptions are located. Page Keeley is a wonderful resource for setting this material up.
    1. A willingness to learn and struggle with technology:   This is more than a teacher who likes to learn the latest version of a presentation package.   To know if this teacher will be effective, look to see if the technology is being used as an end product, or if a project is present that appropriately uses the technology as a tool.  Does the teacher offer multiple ways of completing an assignment, and does s/he encourage the use of web authoring tools?  In addition to teaching kids, the teacher who is an online instructor must have basic troubleshooting skills.   Students may need to learn about uploading documents, attaching files, or placing things in a Dropbox.   Teachers will need to construct quizzes, and unit outlines.  If you want your teacher to use Moodle or another LMS, have your teacher demonstrate their mastery through an online class or through self-study.
    1. A passion for learning:  Teachers who are good online instructors are people who want to have a conversation with others and be lifelong learners.  They learn from collaboration, from their own PLN, and from their students.  They share out their ideas with others, but they also ask others for feedback.   The online arena is not meant to be a place for an egocentric content master.   It's meant to be a place where learners can engage materials and questions in new and different they can learn, in the end, without us.
    1. A mentor:  I'm grateful to the people who have mentored me and helped me grow as a teacher, but in the past year, I am especially grateful for the support of the people who have helped me when I needed to bounce ideas and figure out what was working.  Find a mentor for your teacher, and both the mentor and the teacher will benefit.

If you look back on this post and you say,  "Wow, this means I need experienced, talented, totally committed teachers to become part of the blended learning process," you have gotten the point.   Good real world teachers make good online instructors because they have transferable skills and a love for learning with and teaching others.   We get out of online education what we put into it, so we should be building coursework that we would like to deliver in-person to all our students as well as in the online arena.

While Iowa has a 98% graduation rate, the world is changing, and Iowa is behind the curve in the number of online or blended offerings it has available for all students.  Iowa Learning Online has lead the way, but there is much still to be done.  Blending, as in the #iacopi project, benefits current learners as well as currently disenfranchised students.  Growing our own online offerings needs to happen in Iowa, and a sustainable approach can help teachers grow as professionals as well as helping our students.

I would love to hear your thoughts or questions on this approach.  Contact me at @marciarpowell on twitter or comment below.


  1. Terrific list! As a blended teacher myself, I find that many students want and need interaction during evenings and weekends. This is an entirely different approach to the idea of a "classroom".

  2. Wonderful and very accurate musings of blended and online learning. I might also suggest that teachers interested in becoming and online instructor look at the OLLIE Courses as a way to begin your journey.

  3. I often tell my online students that I am more available to them than their face-to-face teachers in their school buildings. How unfortunate that that is true when we have all kinds of ways to connect without interfering, interrupting, or taking a lot of time. Often, the question texted/emailed/forumed/SKYPED from students only takes seconds to answer. The students don't want to monopolize your time. They just want to get "unstuck" and move on with their work. I am happy to help them do so.

  4. This a well thought out list that accurately reflects the attributes and skills required to be an effective online instructor. It's a road that many educators are choosing to take and I hope that they follow your recipe. It will serve them well on the journey.