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Rule of Thumb #2: Build in Time for Reflection

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. - John Dewey

Dewey was a believer in the power of reflection to inform the learning process.  And yet, while Dewey imagined and spoke to the power of individual and group reflection in the learning process, he likely never imagined how reflection might be able to be hyper-charged in today’s classroom.

I won’t forget the day that I first truly understood the power of online learning spaces for reflection.  I was visiting the Harpeth Hall School in November 2009 with the teacher of the OSG Genetics course.  The teacher was speaking to an administrator at Harpeth Hall about the progress of the Harpeth students in her online course.  She went on at length about the particularly strong class contributions of one of her students.  The Harpeth Hall administrator had a confused look on her face, and finally inquired whether the teacher was actually speaking about this particular student.  ”Yes, of course, she is a real leader in our classroom,” said the teacher. “She never, ever speaks up in classrooms on campus,” replied the administrator.

Time and time again this same scene has played itself out in conversations with campus administrators.  When you ask students why this is, they inevitably answer that “it is not that I didn’t have anything to say in class, it is that I needed time to think about my answer and formulate it.”  They needed time to reflect.

When pressed on this, students also speak to the individual differences in their reflection.  Some talk about the desire to get online first thing in the morning when they are fresh to reflect upon a course experience.  Others say that inspiration hits them as they are working on or playing on their school’s sports team.  And, others say that they are at their best later at night.  This all makes sense, too.  As adults, we know that we are at our best at different times of day (for me… it is after a long run or late at night). And yet, we often ask our students to be at their best on our schedules for them (calculus meets from 8am-9am in the morning).  So, an additional advantage to building asynchronous reflection points (journals, blogs, discussion boards, etc.) into courses is that students can choose to interact when they are at their freshest, not when adults tell them that they should be.

Most importantly, this time for reflection has helped students understand, develop, and project their voice in the classroom, in a way that is difficult to do (if not impossible) in a face-to-face setting. Thus, by building in time for reflection in an online setting to web-facilitated, online, or blended courses, the teacher is helping to fulfill a core promise of independent schools: to cultivate and develop each student and her/his voice in the learning process.

Starting Point

This is a fairly easy standard for a school or a teacher to start to implement, assuming that they have some system in place for asynchronous discussions, blogs, or journals.  Journals or blogs are great spaces for individual reflections.  Discussion boards (and to a lesser extent blogs) are a great place for group reflections.

Some helpful hints for teachers engaging students in asynchronous online discussions or journals for the first time (or who are new to this type of instruction). This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but instead just a starting point:

  • Start slow… Insert an asynchronous discussion or required journal entry once every few weeks, don’t jump into one discussion/entry a night.
  • Don’t just try it once and give up if you don’t see the outcomes that you want.  You are going to have to try this a number of times in order to find success and to find how particular discussions work with your group’s dynamic and individuals in your classes.
  • Moderating an online discussion has some similarities to moderating a classroom discussion: the teacher’s role is to help guide the discussion and ask questions of students, not to be omnipresent; some students will tend to dominate the discussion, and the teacher will have to appropriately guide the students; some students will be relatively silent, and the teacher will have to encourage them.
  • Hold the class accountable to the online discussion, and hold individuals accountable for journals.  Give the online discussion as much value as an in-person discussion.  And, at least for the first few online discussions, do not repeat the discussion in the face-to-face classroom format (doing so sends the signal to students that they have an option of where and how to participate, and at the start, you’ll want to help them value the online).
  • Consider your prompts.  Just as you would in a classroom setting, consider what you want students to reflect upon (in groups or individually).
  • Set ground rules.  You may tweak the rules you set as you go along, but start out with a clear set of expectations.  For example, you probably are going to want to give guidelines to students on how often they should post, how they interact with others in discussion boards, and how long their posts should be.

Rule of Thumb #1: Standard + 2

This is the first part of a seven-part series on “starting standards” or “rules of thumb” that schools can use as a starting place for faculty when developing online, blended, or web-facilitated courses.

Teachers or administrators at independent schools agree that the focus of any learning environment should be on learning not on the means to learning.  Technology is but one of a number of means to learning – though arguably today’s most powerful means.

So, how do you make sure that the focus of a classroom is on learning, rather than technology, while still encouraging faculty to engage in new pedagogical practice?  At the Online School for Girls, we’ve employed a strategy that we call the “Standard +2”.  

The Standard

The “Standard” for us is a set of technology-enabled tools that we expect all of our teachers to use and that we train all of our students to use as the school year begins.  For us, this is our Learning Management System (LMS) and Voicethread.  This includes all of the different components of our LMS – grading management, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, assessments, etc.  Faculty are trained on the systems as they create their courses, through mentoring by the Director and Associate Director of Academics, and through online courses that they take for professional development.

Why a “Standard”?  If there is no standard then students will be learning a number of different systems of organization and operation, rather than using the system for learning.  That is, if one an English teacher is using Google Sites to organize a class and a science teacher is using Moodle, then the student is spending some time learning Google Sites and Moodle, rather than spending that time learning English and science.  Moreover, from a school perspective, the online space should be reflective of your “brand,” just as your physical classrooms are – there should be some consistency.

For a school, this means that there must be some agreement among faculty – at least on the divisional level – as to what the “Standard” is.  For a school at a starting point, this might mean just a LMS, or working up to full use of an LMS as a starting point.  For a school more advanced, this might mean adding new technologies onto the “Standard” year-over-year (for example, I’d be surprised if we didn’t add Google Apps to our “Standard” in the next year or so).  Over time, a school will want to increase what the “Standard” is so that teachers can use an expanded toolkit of resources for the purpose of engaging students in higher order learning without the need to train in technology.

+2

“+ 2” is expectation that every faculty member will add two and no more than two additional technologies to their class.  So, a music teacher might add NoteFlight and Google Docs.  And, a history teacher might add Bubbl.us and EdPuzzle.

Why “+2”?  We’ve found that “+2” makes reticent faculty a little anxious (“I have to add two technologies to an already robust suite of tools?!?”) and technophiles cringe (“I can only add two technologies to my class?!?”).  And, that’s all good.  The reluctant faculty member needs to be pushed to explore more and think more deeply about the impact that technologies can have on student learning.  And, the technophiles need to think more carefully about the technologies that they use: do they really enhance student learning?  Either way, the focus is where it should be: student learning.  Moreover, there is a good cross-pollenization that can occur by limits and limit-pushing.  The technophiles will want technologies that they know about go to good use, and can be encouraged to share their knowledge with faculty members who need to explore more.

One key to our “+2” rule is that this is “+2” from the student perspective, not the faculty perspective.  A faculty member may offer students a number of different technology tools for a student to complete a project or assignment.  For example, a faculty member may ask students to present information to the class using any one of a number of presentation tools (PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.).  So, from a student’s perspective, the student is not being asked to learn or use more than a couple of technologies, but there is choice among them.  The key with this is that the teacher must be able to provide some level of baseline support for students, though, in the technologies that give as options.

Any “+2”?  No.  Here is the other key… The “+2” must work with the “Standard” at some level.  We want students to be able to easily click through to resources and programs, and we don’t want to add extra usernames and passwords or clicks for students (at least as much as we can avoid it).  We want the access to be as seamless and easy as possible so that there are no barriers to learning – and the focus can be on the learning.

Individual schools will have their own constraints on the “+2” technologies.  For us, as an online school drawing from students with different computers, operating systems, and computing capabilities, this means that everything we use must be web-accessible.  Nothing can be driven by hardware on a computer.  For schools with BYOD programs, this is also a necessity.  In addition, we are a school that is very conscious of not adding extra costs to our program, so we strongly encourage faculty to use open and free resources and will highly scrutinize paid resources.

Constraints on the “+2” mean that there must be someone at a school empowered to say no.  Yes, it is wonderful for faculty to explore and engage with how technology can enhance student learning.  Yes, we should encourage and celebrate it!  But, we should not do so at the expense of student learning.  And, if a program or application doesn’t work seamlessly with other systems, the technology may impede student learning rather than support student learning.  To often at schools, technology departments are asked to support programs and applications because they are “best in class” or “what the faculty member knows best,” regardless of their interoperability with standard systems.  This causes problems and takes the focus away from student learning.  For schools, the person empowered to “say no” needs to have a good baseline understanding of both the technology at the school and the academics of the institution (and pedagogical approach).  At the Online School for Girls, this is the Director of Academics.

Implementing “Standard +2”

Implementing “Standard +2” across a school or division is not “easy,” but it is not “difficult” either.  It takes building faculty consensus and buy-in, and it takes an understanding among all that the status quo will change.

I strongly suggest that the work done to create and implement a “Standard +2” should be faculty and administratively driven with many voices and perspectives engaged.  An academic leader (division director, Academic Dean, etc.) and a technology leader (Director of Technology, academic technologist, etc.) must be on any implementation team.

The “Standard” can take many forms and be very different school-by-school depending on the starting point for use of technology in classrooms and the school’s culture.  However, there are a couple of guiding principles that must be met and agreed to by any group working on this initiative:

  • Student learning must be at the focus of the work;
  • A shared vision that technology can be a powerful means for enhancing student learning and a set of tools that every teacher should be able to employ at expanded levels year-over-year;
  • Setting the “Standard” and corresponding expectations will not be led or dictated by the most reluctant faculty nor the most technology-savvy faculty;
  • The “Standard” will be constantly re-evaluated (at least annually), with the goal of adding to the “Standard,” as appropriate, regularly.

Starting Point

For a starting point, I suggest a school asking a series of questions:

How can we work toward a “Standard” set of technologies that is used across our school or division? 

  • What is our “starting point” in regards to faculty and student use of technology in the classroom?
  • Do we need to invest in a Learning Management System?
  • What training will we need for our “Standard”?
  • What are the minimum levels of expected use of the “Standard”?  What do those minimum expectations look like?
  • How do we increase expectations for use of existing systems?
  • What is our process for adding additional technologies onto our “Standard”?
  • How will the implementation of the “Standard” impact student learning?  How will we measure this?

7 Rules of Thumb - Starting “Standards” for Blended/Online Learning

Where do we start?  How do we start?

Online and blended learning seems complicated.  Even “robust use of technology” in a classroom (or web-facilitated learning, if you will) is complicated.

Teachers and administrators at independent schools want a lot to develop organically.  And yet, they also want the entire school to head in a complimentary direction.  (School leaders don’t want to tell a teacher to re-do the course that they have created in a new platform or with vastly different guidelines, if they can avoid it… and teachers certainly don’t want that either).  So, how do you inspire innovation and creativity from faculty while making sure that their brilliance is not working counter to school culture, pedagogy, educational goals, technology support availability, or infrastructure?

Over the summer, I am going to  give some suggestions for a starting place. This won’t be an exhaustive series of everything that a school needs to do to have exceptional online, blended, or highly web-facilitated courses. But, it will offer practical guidance for getting started.  And, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, getting started is something every school needs to do.

Up first, week of June 23 - Rule #1: “Standard + 2”

Are there advantages to teaching language online?  Absolutely… hear what they are.

Do We Have to Go It Alone?

Wired posted a provocative headline earlier this month: Colleges Need to Act Like Startups — Or Risk Becoming Obsolete.

The authors note three factors key to success of start-up organizations — three factors that the modern university can draw upon: density, shared resources, and nurturing communities.

On shared resources, the authors note:

Many successful education and innovation initiatives minimize expenses by pooling resources: faculty, research personnel, administrative services, coaching, labs, prototyping facilities, and more. Meanwhile, universities have become too bloated to properly allocate their own resources… And they don’t pool resources regionally or nationally (with other colleges) to enforce tuition differentials. If universities are to stay relevant here, they need to recognize their competition isn’t just other universities anymore. - Wired Magazine, March 5, 2014

Certainly, universities have been doing this more and more, especially within the online space, though perhaps at not a fast-enough rate as they need to (and yet certainly at a faster rate than the independent school community).

As universities move into the online space collaboratively, they seem to do so for three distinct, though not unrelated, reasons: to enhance teaching and learning on campus, to expand program and opportunity, and to mitigate costs of teaching and learning (either from a cost neutral or expense reduction perspective).

Enhance Teaching and Learning on Campus

Many elite universities have been seeing online learning as way to understand how in-classroom education can get better.  This may come as a surprise to some, but even the folks at Harvard and Dartmouth do not think that they know “the best” way to teach.

We view our commitment to offer a small set of open online courses as part of a systematic and strategic effort to utilize technology to enrich our traditional model of teaching and learning.

Specifically, we see joining the edX consortium as an opportunity to build competencies, skills, experience and the infrastructure necessary to create and improve digital materials that faculty can utilize in their teaching with our enrolled students. This digital toolset for teaching may include recorded lectures and presentations, assessments, and exercises. Gaining experience with developing teaching materials for open online learning will enable all of our faculty to access this infrastructure and expertise for all of their courses.

Participating in teaching at scale can also help in-person learning if we are able to utilize the data generated in open online courses. We need to understand what sort of teaching methods effectively support student learning. These data can be analyzed and then acted upon in changing how we create learning materials and how we introduce formative and summative assessment. The idea is to move towards an evidence-based approach for teaching practices. - Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2014

These comments are an echo of those made earlier this school year (and posted on this blog) by Rob Lue at Harvard.

In the independent school community, we see good examples of this, as well.  St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis has encouraged faculty members to engage in online education by teaching (five St. Mary’s teachers teach for the Online School for Girls in student or professional development courses), and taking online courses (more than thirty faculty members have taken online OSG professional development courses).  The results?  Faculty incorporate online learning techniques into the courses, and students engage in online and blended course work regularly (more than thirty students at St. Mary’s are taking online courses with the Online School for Girls this year).  In addition, faculty are encouraged to experiment and tinker in classrooms and share successes and failures. Leadership at the school has created a culture of innovation — and has used online education to spur innovation in the classroom.

Expand Program and Opportunity

The ability to expand program and opportunity for students is perhaps the most readily apparent benefit to schools, and the easiest entry into online education consortium for all constituent groups on a campus — faculty and administrators typically are not threatened when they see online education purely as a program enhancement, and students and families welcome the increased opportunities.

This week, when the Council of Independent Colleges announced a new consortium for online course work, many school leaders noted that it allowed their institution to “go bigger” without “going big”:

“It helps us go bigger by not going big,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar College. “We want to teach more than we can. We know that the strength [of small colleges] is the very personalized kind of learning — the high level of learning, the intensity of the relationships. We know there’s that strength, but operating at that scale that we’re deeply committed to, it does sometimes limit some of the topics, some of the courses that we might be able to offer.” - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014

And, other presidents noted that consortium building was not without challenges — in particular, the need to think about education differently — but accomplished more easily when working with like-minded schools:

“Collaboration is hard,” said R. Richard Ray Jr., provost of Hope College in Holland, Mich. “Everybody wants to collaborate, everybody can see the value in collaboration, but when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of having to do it, it often means changing what you’re doing in the present to do something different in the future.”

Yet Hope will apply both to the CIC and to Teagle, Ray said. The college has yet to come up with specific plans, but Ray said he looked forward to taking advantage of small colleges’ “natural affinities” and “shared DNA” to help one another. - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014

The opportunities and the challenges are reflective of experience in the independent school community.  Change to current educational practice is eased when affinity schools collaborate — as we have seen at the Online School for Girls.  And, there is strength added to institutions by thinking and acting “bigger” (collectively).

What has been interesting about collective work on curriculum is that one fear — how will our institution be different if we are working on classes together? — has not materialized in practice, in large part because each institution has used the consortium differently.  That is, whereas the collective power has allowed the group of institutions to be “bigger” than any one, the differentiation in how a school has used the consortium has allowed for an individual identity to shine, and resources on each campus to be used more effectively.

For example, The Hockaday School has used the consortium to get “bigger” in computer science offerings (among other areas).  The Archer School for Girls has enhanced AP course offerings and transitioned some AP courses to the online space. St. Andrew’s Priory has used the consortium to allow students to be off-campus more frequently to explore internships and engage with the city of Honolulu. The list goes on… In each case, the consortium allowed the school to enhance offerings and to concentrate on what it can do well (its unique advantages) on its own campus.

Mitigate Costs for Teaching and Learning

Not unrelated to the ability to expand program and opportunity is the trend at the higher education level to do so while mitigate costs for teaching and learning.  The new Council of Independent Colleges consortium has this in mind from the start, as Eugene Tobin from the Mellon Foundation (a primary grantor for the initiative) notes:

We believe this is the moment to explore whether liberal arts colleges can effectively use online learning to enhance their core missions… In order to do so, we need to learn more about the kinds of developmental programs that will encourage faculty members (beyond early adopters) to embrace the potential of new digital pedagogies in their teaching and scholarship and whether the use of new approaches improve student learning outcomes without increasing costs. - Inside Higher Education, March 19, 2014

This point is important: colleges are looking not to simply replace what happens on-campus by working in consortium, but to enhance while thinking about cost structures differently.

For the independent school community, this understanding is key.  Like colleges, independent schools cannot offer all things to all families, and yet with tuitions reaching $50,000 for boarding schools and $35,000 for day schools in major metropolitan areas, parents and students believe that our schools should be able to offer everything to everyone (in part because better funded public schools or charter schools seem to).  And yet, the typical independent school already sees 65-75% of expenses in faculty/staff salaries and benefits.  So, the ability to build new program for a few students is limited unless one can do so not just one’s own campus, but across a consortium.  In order for a school to build program for specialized needs at the same (or a reduced) cost as current operation, the school has to build program off of a variable cost model (student enrollment in course) rather than a fixed cost model (faculty teaching section), and shift expenditures accordingly.

We have seen independent schools do just that.  Instead of offering Multivariable Calculus, or AP Computer Science, or AP Chinese to two or three or four students on campus at a cost of a faculty section, they are now offering the courses online via the consortium.  This change has reduced costs for particular, specific courses, which has, in turn, allowed the school to find cost savings (if needed), or be able to expand program more broadly through other online (variable cost) offerings at no net increased cost.

This shift to a model that involves variable cost for instruction is one that requires engagement across a school administration and transparency with and for faculty. Heads of School need to understand the model, generally, and often need to encourage the academic and operations teams at the school to work together towards solutions that work well for a particular institution.  

Regardless of positioning within the school, there is a requirement to think about teaching and learning from a new perspective.  Operations leaders (primarily the business officer) must think about costs of teaching and learning not tied directly to faculty/staff employee costs, and thus must shift budget models in both the short and long term to reflect this. Academic leaders must become comfortable with the idea that all academic program does not need to originate and be delivered on their own campus, and they must think about long range staffing/hiring models that incorporate more variable instructional costs.  Perhaps, most importantly, the operations side of the school must work hand-in-hand with the educational size of the school in ways that they have not done before. The business officer needs to work toward an understanding the school’s academic strengths, mission/uniqueness, and pedagogical approach.  And, the academic leaders must work toward a greater understanding of the business operations of a school.  As a result, both should be at the table (with a strong voice) when course sectioning, curricular offerings, and programs are decided. 

Shared Resources

There are now models out there — specific schools and consortia — who are engaging in constructive ways to work together.  And yet, there could be more, as many within and outside of the independent school community have noted (and David Cutler recently blogged about).

It seems time for schools to ask a simple question whenever they plan to embark on a new initiative or re-think an existing one: do we have to go it alone?

New Gallup Poll Shows American Views of Online Education

Gallup has just released it first poll done on American attitudes toward online education: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165425/online-education-rated-best-value-options.aspx.  And, while some of the results may be in line with expectations for those of us in the field, others are surprising.

Overall, Gallup found that online education rated higher when compared to bricks-and-mortar schools for value and a broad range of learning options/opportunities.  And, the survey found that that online education rated lower for respondents in “quality of instruction” and individualization of instruction.

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To me, the interesting thing is that even in the fields where the general public perceives online education (overall) as a lower quality option, large percentages of Americans viewed online education more positively — 11-23%, depending on the question — and even larger numbers viewed them to “be the same” — 31-42%.

Both of these are higher than I was expecting.  To have pluralities of Americans say, for each question asked, that online education is better or the same seems to be a radical shift of perceptions, and might signal greater acceptance and growth with a “mainstream” audience.

My hope is that Gallup continues this survey on an annual basis so that we can see how attitudes truly shift.

OSG Journalism teacher Tracy Anne Sena is featured in this video. Tracy shares her experiences as a new teacher to the online space and what she has learned in the first month of school.

OSG Teacher Spotlight - Carrie Steakley (by onlineschoolforgirls)

Time to Tinker

Last year, my colleague Lorri Palko and I developed a six-month long blended professional development experience designed to help schools create comprehensive plans for online and blended learning.  Thirty-five schools in four regions participated in the program last year.  This year, we will work with more than one hundred schools in ten regions around the country.

The program is structured with six months worth of online course work and two in-person workshops.  During the first in-person workshop, I am often asked what I think is most essential for independent schools to do in this field.  Every time, I answer: start tinkering.

I know that this advice flies against the traditional operation of independent schools — we want to study and contemplate change.  And, this inclination comes from a good place — we want to make sure that we are offering the “best” education possible to our students and for our families.

Today, with our understanding of brain development evolving and with the options for pedagogical change through technological advancements increasing, “best” is a moving target.  

Schools that have been experimenting, trying things out, and tinkering are finding out that the benefits of doing so are not always the ones that are sought from the outset — they are finding unexpected positive outcomes.

In the August 2013 Scientific American, Rob Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, chronicled his journey with online education.  Lue was one of Harvard’s early pioneers in online education — creating an online course for the first time more than a decade ago.  Then, Lue, a molecular biologist and HIV/AIDS expert, saw online education as a way “to combat the many misconceptions surrounding AIDS in the public mind.”  That goal could be accomplished, but Lue found online education could do more:

Online classes are not just about sharing educational materials via the Internet; they are also about developing new ways of teaching based on those materials for both on-campus and online audiences.

Lue argues that success in developing new teaching methods is a direct result of tinkering and experimenting in the field:

Underlying all these exciting efforts is the awareness that experimentation is key and that we do not yet know how to best harness the enormous positive potential of the online revolution for on-campus learning… Indeed, institutions of higher education must engage with this process of exploration if we are to develop effective new models that broaden access to high-quality educational content while sustaining and indeed growing the in-person structures that support the joint enterprise of research, scholarship and teaching.

In our work with independent schools, we have found that some of the early “tinkerers” in online learning (schools that started tinkering two, three, or four years ago) are finding that their approaches to curriculum and teaching are changing (increasingly at a fast rate).  These tend to be the schools that experimented with flipped learning three years ago, that have developed some of their own online courses, and that have “blended” class time with online course work (to the point where some “seat time” is eliminated).  Over the next number of years, as independent school faculty tinker and experiment, and as we learn from practitioners like Lue, our teaching practices will change and new ideas will emerge.  But, however they change and however they emerge, it seems that the schools that have been experimenting and tinkering will be able to adopt and adapt quickly, while those who wait for one “best” practice to emerge before ever engaging, may be waiting, and waiting, and waiting…

Brendan Burns is in the “Teacher’s Spotlight” this month.  Hear his thoughts about engaging girls in online classrooms.