Good instruction, whether in a cinderblock classroom or virtual learning space, must include content, discussion, and assessment. In order for the content to impact student lives, teachers must use a variety of strategies such as determining and using students’ background knowledge, making connections to their interests and lives, providing prompt and individualized feedback, and giving them opportunities to apply the content and create. In addition, many teachers are upgrading their physical classrooms with technology that strengthens their instruction. Virtual instructors, on the other hand, can use the tools their Learning Management System provides. Most LMSs include the same tools, and I will use Haiku Learning’s LMS to explore these tools and share some thoughts on how the teacher can use them to encourage higher order thinking and deeper comprehension.
Discussion about instructional tools should start with their purposes: to convey content, to facilitate discussion, and to assess student knowledge. When building content in Haiku, the user adds content in blocks within the page, and Figure 1 displays the various choices. Of course students can, and should, read content through text or websites, but the LMS tools also allow students to learn from embedded video, audio, or images. While recorded lectures may be a good place to start, they should quickly be supplemented with tutorials, examples, or applications of the content. Khan Academy mostly uses video to work math problems and provide examples with explanations, but http://www.graphingstories.com/ confounds expectations by connecting word problems to a concrete events. Also, the audio tool should not be neglected. Teachers can incorporate interviews with experts, news stories, or podcasts. Video did not kill the radio star, and podcasts and radio shows are making a comeback in some circles as streaming apps and podcasts make sound more readily available.
Haiku’s next tab shows the calendar, and teachers can use this to help students stay on track and manage their time. Another tool used by most LMSs is a syllabus. Haiku does not offer a specific field for a syllabus, but a teacher can easily add a syllabus page linked to the class calendar. Although a syllabus tool does not directly affect the instruction of content, using a syllabus will help students become better managers of their time.
The last tab shows ways to get feedback and assess student learning. Haiku offers a discussion panel on any page, and the teacher can choose to have class discussions, group discussions, or personal discussions through this tool. While learning content, students can post personal connections that access and build on their background knowledge of the topic (Figure 4). They might also use a discussion board to post a picture of a scientific concept in real life or a photo of their own work.
Additionally, many LMSs offer an IM chat option, web conferencing, and email. Good discussions among students and between students and teachers help develop problem-solving skills and critical-thinking skills by giving students a chance to ask and answer deeper questions. Discussions also provide feedback to encourage them, validate their ideas, or correct misconceptions they may have. It is important to facilitate ways for students to interact with each other, and synchronous discussions via chat help them to have a conversation. Haiku also offers a “Wikiproject” tool that allows the class, student groups, or individual students to collaborate on projects that requires them to apply their knowledge and create something new. A collaborative project combines two characteristics of good teaching: discussion and assessment.
Formative assessments are those given at the beginning of and throughout a unit, and they let a teacher know which concepts students understand and which are more difficult. They are key when facilitating instruction, and most LMSs offer a variety of ways to gauge students’ understanding as they progress through the content.
Assignment pages, quizzes, tests, and dropboxes are all tools LMSs provide. Beyond those, polls, webforms, and mini-sites give the teacher a chance to assess students informally. A poll could be used to evaluate student interest or comprehension, or even to help determine a future class topic. The webform tool could be used to link to a Google form that students complete, and the teacher could use student responses either as a quiz or as a way of gathering data about the assignment. A mini-site might be an embedded Java or Flash plug-in that prompts students to study before taking an assessment.
Finally, LMSs often provide tools for students to create blogs or portfolios. Students can use these for reflection and also to showcase their work.
The tools LMSs provide are numerous, and it is unrealistic to expect every teacher to use every tool within one class. Some tools might be a poor match for the content. The best strategy is to explore a few tools, then begin to play with how students use them. Tools work best when they support a deeper understanding of the content and not a broader background of all the available options.