Sunday, May 27, 2012

Discuss This!

Discussions in classrooms are valuable activities that allow students to analyze, assess, provide opinion, and argue about topics. They allow the teacher to assess students' understanding of the curriculum. Why do we limit ourselves then to only having discussions in physical classrooms? Why not take it online?

Virtual/digital classrooms provide an excellent medium for hosting such discussions. Many of these digital classrooms provide the discussion forum tool that allow students to join and post their opinion on topics and questions posed by the teacher. There is great benefit to this. Students do not always have their thoughts organized enough in class to be able to speak about a topic. Many students require much more time to gather their opinions and ideas before speaking out to their peers. Many students would rather write down these thoughts on paper first before speaking out. A useful strategy is to host daily or regular discussion forum for students who can leave the classroom and then respond to the question online.

My experience with this strategy has been positive, as I have found students who don't usually respond in class, responding much more online. In classes I have taught in the past, I have posted questions to the students at the beginning of the class, and have revisited the question at the end of the class. However, I have found that the same students are the ones responding, and the voices of the majority are not heard. Whereas hosting an online discussion forum has brought many new voices and thus opinions into the discussion, and the results have been great! However, there are a few things to remember with this.

  1. Be regular. Schedule this strategy into your weekly plans. I wouldn't suggest doing this everyday, as setting the bar that high may mean ultimate failure; but twice or three times a week would keep your students connected to the routine. 
  2. Make it meaningful. Students typically do not do work just for the sake of it. You as the teacher have to use this strategy as an assessment. However, I would suggest that you look to assess students responses on a weekly basis rather than each and every discussion. Not every discussion requires a response from every student, but I would say that responding at least once a week in a meaningful way can, and should, contribute to the students' overall grade.
  3. Respond in kind. Having students respond to a question and each other is great, and students typically like to hear what their peers have to say. But you as well need to respond. Showing your students that you are paying attention to their opinions is easy to do in class, and necessary, and therefore online should be no different. Follow-up with your students and pose new questions. Critique their responses and approve their opinions. Showing any interest whatsoever will keep students coming back for more, and will lead to continued valuable discussions.
  4. Switch it up. Rather than always looking to illicit responses from students on questions posed, frequently change the task. Have students look for articles, websites, blogs, etc. connected to the topic and have them provide a response to these. Have them post their own questions and generate their own discussions. Have students take the discussion to Twitter rather than the usual discussion board. Whatever you do, don't remain stagnant. Just like we need to switch up our activities in the classroom, we need to also switch up our activities online, and discussions are no different.
  5. Have fun. The last thing you want to do is make the task mundane. Obviously not every discussion can be fun, and not every student will find it interesting, but you as the teacher can attempt to make things a little more enjoyable. Why not simply hold a discussion about a school event, popular culture, or the latest youtube sensation. It doesn't always have to be curriculum related, and you may find that the conversation does begin to connect to your course once the conversation gets going.
Discussion forums can be a great way of engaging your classroom. They don't have to be a chore however, and you don't have to host them every day. Setting up your online class website to host even a few can add a new dynamic to you classroom. And who knows, you might find a student you always thought was shy and reserved to be the most talkative and outgoing online. It's all about the medium.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Online Classroom Flip-Out!

As has been discussed previously, online or virtual classrooms, are excellent digital tools that allows you to do many things with your students. Maybe one of the best uses could be using it to ‘flip your classroom’. Getting into a discussion on the merits of such a teaching philosophy is a blog post in itself, so I will avoid such a debate. Instead this post will simply be about providing you with the details of how to do it using your online classroom.
However, before we begin, a brief overview of flipping the classroom is needed. Simply put, flipping the classroom, is based on the idea of having students learn a new concept out of the classroom, so that when students return to class the next day, that knowledge can be applied and greater critical thinking can take place. This attainment of knowledge can come from watching online videos, digital presentations, reading their textbook , news sources, or wherever the information is. The implications of this practice means that rather than spending 90% of class time learning a concept and using the remaining 10% applying it, ‘flipping the classroom’ allows the teacher to allot more time on ensuring students understanding and providing greater critical discussions around the topic.
I would hazard to guess that most teachers want to achieve such a result. Imagine walking into class everyday knowing that your students have learned the concept on their own, and are ready to engage in such activities? This is the Utopian model of teaching! However, it’s not easy; and in most cases it means a bit more ‘up-front’ work for teachers.  It means teachers will need to organize, and in some cases, prepare a variety of digital resources for your students.
Step 1: Whether it’s a Prezi, PowerPoint, YouTube video, website, blog, or whatever it may be, these resources will be the required material that students access in order to learn new concepts. Therefore, lots of online researching is required and teachers need to accumulate a tremendous amount of digital resources.
Step 2: The next part is getting your students to buy into the concept. This is also easier said than done. However, the fact that you are using a digital platform to present information, students will more readily accept such learning. Much of their time is spent online anyway, and in many cases students would prefer this format. However, not every student will ‘buy into’ your model and this is where formative assessment plays a large role.
Step 3: One of the tools many virtual classrooms provides you with is the ‘assessment’ or ‘survey’ function. These functions allow you to create a quiz, test, or exam using questions you determine and input into the virtual classroom. They allow you to create any question type from multiple choice, to short answer, and therefore you can create a quick 10 question type quiz based on a resource you have asked your students to look at online. This follow-up and formative assessment will ensure your students are doing the required readings, video watching, or whichever learning you decide.
So what if your virtual/online classroom doesn’t have this tool. Well you can revert back to pen and paper and have a daily quiz when your students return to class the next day. Either way, you are ensuring your students are learning the concepts and following-up with them if they are not.
Online classrooms provide you with plenty of opportunities to engage your students. Using these tools to 'flip your classroom' could be what your students are asking for!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Let's get Virtual!

Virtual or online classrooms are excellent tools that many educators are using now. For those still in the 'dark' about these environments, they offer many online tools that allow teachers to connect digitally with their students. They provide excellent extensions to the classroom that students appreciate as you are able to connect to 'their' world. Many schools offer online class websites such as 'MyClass' which provide a lot of useful features but often times are  limited in a number of important features; most noticeably that they only allow ‘one-way’ communication.  This type of communication only allows for teachers to distribute resources, links, and dates, and therefore limits student involvement. Other online class websites, such as ‘Angel’, allow students to communicate with each other, and most importantly, you the teacher; asking questions and finding answers to many issues that they might have forgotten about until after they left the classroom. This type of online classroom allows for teachers to post important dates, announcements, resources, and links, but also allows for assignment inboxes, blogs, wikis, surveys, discussion forums, quizzes, email, live chat, and marking and returning assignments all online. Over the next couple of weeks I will profile many of these online features that digital classrooms like 'Angel' provide, and explain the uses of these tools and how you can 'connect' more with your students!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tweet This!

Although many have an aversion to tweeting, the many uses of twitter can add an exciting dynamic to any classroom. It can be more than simply telling your followers what you ate for lunch, or where you went for Easter break. An experiment on the use of social media at the University of Leicester in the UK has shown that Twitter can act as a valuable communication tool, as it developed peer support among students, personal learning networks, and an increase in students arranged social meetings. Try using it to hold a class brainstorm session, analyze the math behind a viral tweet/hashtag, issue a poll to gauge opinion, or communicate with experts in their field. Check out for more ideas!