Monday, February 4, 2013

What Happens Here, Matters: Creating Online Opportunities for Learners

Our guest blogger today is Joanna Ray, eLearning Coordinator with Center Grove Community School Corporation. Prior to her current role, Joanna served as the Director of Online Development for the IU School of Education at IUPUI where she also coordinated the online Master's in Education with a Focus on Technology program. Joanna has taught online courses since 2005, and now works closely with secondary educators at Center Grove to develop high-quality online learning opportunities through a new initiative, Center Grove Global Campus.

"Because believing that the dots will connect down the road
will give you the confidence to follow your heart
even when it leads you off the well worth path;
and that will make all the difference." 
- Steve Jobs, 2005

As online learning continues to grow at exponential rates in K-12 environments, teachers need to develop the capacity to offer well-designed, motivational instruction in online and blended environments. With staggering statistics and huge growth demands in online learning, it's essential that educators are informed and active players in today's changing landscape. It's a valuable and crucial time to be in the field of education, and we owe it to our students to demonstrate the true potential of online learning.

I'm not talking about the isolating, self-paced environments where students mindlessly click through a myriad of meaningless text and lectures, then complete the electronic worksheet. We know that students are just a Google search away from cheating on those fill-in-the-blank quizzes. Moving outdated practices to a digital format is hardly laudable, and will create a mediocre opportunity at best.

I'm talking about creating minds by developing online content that promotes active learning and meaningful engagement through real-world applicability. I'm talking about an online course where projects come to life with real audiences, and where students feel like they are learning something of value. Consider an online community where every student contributes and has a voice that feels valued. Learning no longer happens neatly between bells. Students are provided with flexibility and the ability to take ownership for how and when they learn. Dare to dream with me! What would you love to see in an online environment? It can happen, but we won't get there if we use don't take ownership of our contributions to online and blended learning. If we're truly doing "online" in such a way that aligns with research-proven methodologies, there's no way the teacher's role can be diminished.

Online learning sure is rife with controversy, and some would argue it's a warranted debate. The "innovation" of online learning has also brought with it areas of neglect in respect to research-proven methods. However, this innovation has also urged us to make advances in our practice, explore new research opportunities, and challenge us to evolve as we reach learners in new ways. The technologies that support online learning and collaboration are getting increasingly more sophisticated, making it easier to find quality resources and promote active learning.

Educators in the 21st century need to be able to seamlessly transition between online, blended, and face-to-face environments. When we do this, we become increasingly knowledgeable of ways to teach and learn with modern technologies, and not to mention, we become highly marketable. The debate between online and face-to-face learning has, in my opinion, created a false dichotomy. I'd argue that acceptance of both experiences can ultimately drive our pedagogy to new heights. At Center Grove High School, we are launching an online initiative called Center Grove Global Campus. As our teachers began to develop online courses, we had an unexpected finding: Creating online curriculm ultimately benefited classroom teaching, too. Rethinking our curriculum for online and blended learning forces us to take a long, hard look at what we offer and how we offer it. So how does one get started?

Developing an online curriculum basically means going back to the drawing board with your curriculum. You can't just shift your content as is to an online environment. You have to DESIGN it with online/blended delivery in mind. I'm sorry. This is the hard part. Prepare to spend hours upon hours. You'll drink lots of caffeine and eat a lot of snacks. Much of the curricular work is front-loaded in online design. Once the class begins, you'll be more focused on building relationships with your students and providing feedback. It's a different kind of busy.

For blended learning, there's no prescribed method that's universally defined or accepted. So I tend to use this rule of thumb: How I can make the BEST use of my class time? (Hint: Small groups, lively discussions, active participation). Then consider what you can ask students to do on their own time to reinforce or introduce concepts.

Phase 1 | Build a Vision
Although it may be tempting to "jump in and start swimming," you'll make much better use of your time if you know where you're headed. Start with BIG PICTURE planning. Do some daydreaming of your ideal environment, then start researching. You'll probably end up with more questions than you started with, which is actually a good sign. I encourage you to find a colleague or a group of committed educators with a similar goal. I actually recruited 21 teachers along with me on this journey, and together we built a collective vision.

Give yourself some time to better understand instructional design principles, too. You're going to need to know what "chunking" is, design experiences that promote active learning, and build your toolbox of ideas. There are many great resources available in my Symbaloo at the bottom.

Phase 2 | Work Backwards 
I encourage you to start with the end in mind, then determine how you'll scaffold that information throughout each of your units and modules. I often ask myself, "what's the most important thing students need to know when they complete my course?" I'll shift that into my driving question, and then construct the units and modules. Lay the groundwork with backwards planning, then fill in the pieces with thoughtful design.

Within each module, you'll need to consider the logistics, too.
  • What is the purpose of this lesson? 
  • How long will students be given to complete this module/unit? 
  • What should students be able to do upon completing this module? 
  • What tools do you want to use to provide instruction? 
  • How will I check for understanding? 
Phase 3 | Feedback 
If you have access to your students right now, use them as your guide. Design a module or two, then try it out. Conduct surveys, and provide a safe outlet for students to share their insights. The beauty of children is that often their "filters" don't work. So they will give you brutally honest feedback. Use that feedback to adjust accordingly.

Understand that online and blended learning may be new to your students, too. They may dislike it for the wrong reasons (i.e. they can't passively sit and zone out for a 90-min block). Help students understand your rationale by being transparent in your methods.

Phase 4 | Trust in the Process
Sometimes we take several steps backwards before we actually advance forward. Sometimes we are paralyzed by all the unknowns. Give yourself about 3 minutes to freak out, then tell yourself to continue ONWARD. The tools will constantly change, but some things should constantly remain at the forefront of design: Relationships matter, engagement matters, and a constant reminder that "what happens here, matters" is ever-present. Keep your vision, and keep working towards your goals. Best of luck to you!

If you'd like to learn more about my work with Center Grove Global Campus, please contact me at Joanna Ray, I'm also on Twitter @joanna_ray11.

The Challenge

Where are you in the process of incorporating online learning into your classroom? Find some partners in your school and start the process. Be sure to utilize some of the resources included in Joanna's Symbaloo. If you are already in (or through) this process and you are incorporating some online learning in your classroom, share some words of wisdom with other readers.


  1. Joanna,

    This blog post is so well-written! I love the examples you gave and how you talked about every step of the process. If I were a classroom teacher, I would definitely be motivated to get started!

    I am lucky to have had you as a grad advisor/professor and now to work with you. You are doing amazing, innovative things!

  2. Joanna,
    This post just reminds me how lucky I am to be a Center Grove teacher and to have you lead us through this time. I've never been more motivated and excited about teaching than I have been this year! The opportunities and experiences are endless for our students and you've shown us how providing online course work allows us to tap into so much more! I can't wait until our courses go live this summer and we start impacting student lives in a whole new way!
    This isn't an easy process and it certainly takes more time than seems humanly possible; but it is worth the journey!

  3. I'm so very excited to read this post. The courses your team are creating will be the "next generation" of online learning. Thanks for sharing this and I feel lucky to go through this journey with you!

  4. Joanna,

    I want to echo many of the comments already posted. Thanks for the thoughtful and honest unpacking of the online course creation challenge and thanks for the wealth of resources shared.