Taking @educonphilly into my Virtual Classroom

educonphilly2.8Two previous posts discussed my experiences at EduCon 2.8: Narrating Privacy without Fear and Listening to Voices. The entire weekend itself was valuable, but it would be a waste to merely attend, write about it, and then close my notebook, never to revisit or apply what we discussed. The next two posts take my experience a step further. From the microcosm of my own virtual classroom to the macrocosm of today’s virtual schools.

Regarding my own classroom, it begins with empathy, listening, and empowering voices.

The magnet school the Science Leadership Academy hosted EduCon 2.8, and most of the attendees were teachers from face-to-face schools. I was the only virtual teacher there, as far as I know. When I go to events like these, it’s not unusual to be the only online teacher, and many teachers are curious about my presence, since many of the topics seem to address specific needs of face-to-face schools. Yet, SLA and the Georgia Virtual School share a few characteristics: students enrollment is optional, orientation is needed, and there is an emphasis on technology and digital citizenship. Another reason why I enjoyed the conference is that the questions asked, like “How do you create high expectations with high support?” or “What does a culture of care look like?”, can all be followed with “… online?” a la fortune cookie.

“What does empathy look like in an online school?”

“What does it mean to acknowledge silent voices in an online school?”

“What can I do to empower student voices, and make them aware of platforms and megaphones they can use to amplify their experiences?”

Empathy Starts with Listening

Online teachers must help students “see” the instructor and create a strong teacher presence to show students that a teacher is around and engaged. Prompt communication and assignment feedback, changing news announcements, and interaction on the discussion board are ways to close the distance between the online teacher and students. Going one step further, teachers can elicit student feedback through surveys, offer choices on projects, and host synchronous class sessions. With the Georgia Virtual School these are not best practices, they are the practices. This is the bar.

student survey 8.27 news announcementWhat’s beyond?

Surveys help students feel they have a voice, but teachers must post the results of those surveys to show students that their voice has been heard. Then, following that, there must be a visible action plan.

Yet, not all students will take optional surveys. A teacher may sit all day brainstorming why students might not choose to share their opinions (didn’t see it, opted out, too busy, technology broke, etc.). This is a wasted effort. To reach more students, online teachers must discover the channels of communication students use and use them for those individual students. Direct communication with parents, local school facilitators, and students will help, but there might also be a series of trials and errors, when the teacher tries many channels and discover which ones work.

Finally, teachers must respond to show they are listening. What does it mean to listen to students in an online course? Just what it means to listen in a face to face school. Check in with students frequently asking about their hobbies and interests. Refer back to concerns, questions, and celebrations students have shared.

Here are some specific methods I’m using to reach students any way I can:

educon empathy 2

Modeling Online Presence for Silent Voices

The #educolor track at EduCon focused on empowering minority voices and how teachers can help nurture, develop, and give space for students’ voices in the classroom. And before I go too far, let me acknowledge that students aren’t waiting for teachers and schools to give them power or a platform; they are taking it and making authorities aware of the power they already, by birth and right, own. Student demonstrations and the use of social media to spread instances of discrimination illustrate this.

However, most of the movement occurs in higher education and less so in K-12 schools. At Sunday’s discussion on The Privileged Voices of Education 3.0, there were two non-SLA students visiting from a progressive New York school that partnered with IBM to help give students internships. When one of these students was asked how much of a voice he had regarding his own education, he asked for some time to think. The question seemed to blindside him, which goes to show just how infrequently K-12 education asks and waits for students’ thoughts and feedback regarding their own learning.

In face-to face-schools, teachers can use their physical presence and classroom space to give students time and say regarding their learning, and students know how to imbue their work and experience with personality. In online schools, students may not know how to personalize their work. How they express themselves, and to what extent they do, depends on their access to available technology and their skills using technology. Beyond these, students must also see examples of expression within the learning management system.

One personal struggle is making top-down content more flexible and open-ended. This semester, the other 8th grade E/LA teacher and I have revised every discussion board topic to make them more engaging. We provide videos to activate prior knowledge, offer resources to use in their posts, and ask students to create presentations to share.educon empathy 4 The results have been spectacular. Original posts are more authentic, and students’ replies go beyond, “Great post!” However, the content still contains the old topics, so at first, students were confused about which set of questions to answer.

educon empathy 3

After EduCon, I realized there is a need to also provide the same opportunities for individual assignments and during synchronous sessions. I have more control over the synchronous sessions, but much less regarding the specific assignments. I can, and have been, showing student examples of assignments, so students who are less aware of how to use the computer as a tool for expression can see examples. Regarding the actual assignment, there is only so much tinkering I am allowed to do, and what I do, must also match the other 8th grade course. Fortunately, the other teacher shares my desire to make assignments more meaningful for students.

Currently, we are reworking a problematic essay topic to make the assignment a meaningful experience. In our classes, students read The Giver, and the second unit deals with memories, specifically the value and preservation of memories and how memories help form our identities. In line with this theme, we are designing an interview project where students will interview a grandparent or other family member about their experiences. I’ll return to this project in a later post.

Platforms and Megaphones

“What can I do to empower student voices, and make them aware of platforms and megaphones they can use to amplify their experiences?”

This is by far the most difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding student privacy laws such as COPPA and FERPA, top-down curriculum, and the external restraints on students’ time and effort. Within my own course, I acknowledge individual efforts in emails and news announcements, and in the discussion board, I pin exemplary posts. But this is not enough to meet future students’ needs. In order to go further, K-12 online education must undergo some redesigning.

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One Response to Taking @educonphilly into my Virtual Classroom

  1. Pingback: Redesigning the Virtual Classroom: Applying @educonphilly | Kinetic ED

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