Thursday, August 30, 2012

Online Learning - Is Mandating A Wise Choice?

I have been reading lately about several school districts who are mandating that students take some online courses as a requirement for graduation. This article by Michelle R. Davis, Districts Require E-Courses for Graduationtalks about a district mandating that students take one online course before they graduate. Another article by Michelle R. Davis, State and District Measures Require Students to Take Virtual Classes, explores some more districts and states who are requiring online learning for graduation.  The reasons vary but include the desire to get students familiar with online learning that they may experience in a college or work situations, or to cut costs, as online learning is seen as a cheaper alternative, or to provide more options for students.  All great reasons.

The arguments against mandating online learning also vary. I will just list a few here. Access to computers and Internet is an obvious problem, requiring schools or other locations to provide access to computers if students don't have access at home. Getting qualified teachers who know how to teach in an online environment (it is NOT the same as a face-to-face environment) should be another concern, though I worry that is not often taken into consideration. Scalability of courses for a large number of students and designing or finding appropriate online courses are also possible arguments against mandating online learning as part of a graduation requirement.  All things that I hope have been thought about and planned for BEFORE these mandates go into effect, because if not, the failure potential is quite high. This is a nice article by Michael Horn that sums up some of these concerns about mandating online learning: Is Mandating Online Learning Good Policy? 

While I agree with all the concerns about online learning mentioned and have others as well, I am a huge proponent of online learning for students. As a student myself, I could not have completed the last several years of my doctoral program without the online learning opportunities my professors provided and created just for me, since I moved away from the actual location of William & Mary in Virginia to Texas. Online learning is what I have focused on as part of my doctoral studies, and it is a daily part of my work, and it is something I have developed at the 6-12 level as well, so I am a big believer in the power of online learning and the opportunities it provides. However, that said, my concern about the mandating of online learning for students in order to graduate is that online learning IS NOT FOR EVERYONE!

Online learning is a different way of learning. Online learning requires a great deal of independent learning, which requires focus and commitment to meet deadlines, do the online course requirements, and often times work alone. This is not something everyone can do and not something everyone enjoys. Online learning requires an ability to read and communicate in different ways. There are online discussions, the reading of others posts and responding appropriately to these, reading articles online, following links to other types of resources and learning from those, and pulling all these different components together to create a unified learning experience. Not everyone can learn this way and not everyone is able to communicate effectively through writing. Self-motivation and self-discipline are also keys to online success, so students who don't have these are going to really struggle. It requires being more responsible for your own learning and if a student is easily frustrated, online learning may make that worse. There are more reasons, but online learning requires a certain learning style, and mandating online learning for all students in order to graduate could be setting many up for failure.

I think a better approach is to provide online learning as a choice for students, not as a mandate. I read an article by Beau Yarbrough called School Districts Offer Online Alternatives to Traditional Classroom Instruction, that provides a nice example of how online learning can be an option for those who are interested,. Choice means more probability of a successful outcome then when the option is forced upon you. I would love all students to embrace online learning, much as I would love all teachers to embrace online learning, but realistically, I know that is not possible. Online learning is not for everyone and I hope that there are options and alternatives, in those places where online learning is now a mandate, for those students who struggle in an online environment, not due to the content of the course, but due to the nature of the online learning environment itself.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Challenge to Start This School Year Different

It's that time of year when I really miss teaching - the start of the new school year where everything is fresh, exciting and new. There is so much hope for what lies ahead.  I remember going in with all these great ideas and new things I was going to try and being filled with the thought that I was really going to be better this year and my students were going to have amazing experiences that would just spark their learning.

I miss that.

Some years it really did pan out the way I hoped. Most years, there were ups and downs. But - every year was a new challenge and every year I tried to do things differently.  Granted, I was usually teaching the same subjects, but that didn't mean I had to do the same thing, did it? I certainly didn't believe so. Sure, I may have used some of the same projects or activities, but I had different students, I had learned some new things over the summer, and I didn't want to be bored repeating what I had done before.

The same old thing. Doesn't that just sound boring?

I know you teachers out there know some folks, if not yourself, who basically open up their file drawer and pull out the lesson plans from last year and just start all over again. Another year, just a repeat from last year. (Which I think explains some of the teacher burnout we might see or the stagnant student achievement). I personally, even in my current position, which is supporting teachers technology integration, don't do the same thing every year or even every day. Change is great and makes life more exciting, so why not embrace that in the classroom?

Here's my challenge to teachers. Try to change at least one thing you do in your classroom this year, change one thing about your instructional strategies, and change one thing in the resources you use.  So - three things.  Clearly, changing more is great, but very few people like change, so starting small is better. And these are not changes that might be hoisted upon you from the district or standards - those are often out of your control.  The change I am talking about is a conscious effort to change yourself and your practice to create an engaging environment and help your students learn.

1) Changing one thing in your classroom.  This might mean the way you arrange your desks, how you decide on and enforce the classroom rules, or where you put your desk. For example, if you are a by the row kind of teacher, try arranging the room in small groups instead. Classroom environment goes a long way in creating a place that is exciting to learn in.

2) Changing on thing about your instructional strategies. This might mean changing from lectures to inquiry once a week. It might mean focusing on improving your questioning skills so you are asking rather than telling.  It might mean incorporating small group or pair collaboration. It might mean increasing your wait time. There are little things you can do that will make the learning in your classroom more engaging and provide an avenue for students to have a voice in their own learning.

3) Changing one thing about the resources you use. This can mean many things - for instance, trying to use hands-on manipulatives or using a visual demonstration of a concept rather than reading a definition.  What I would really like to encourage is adding some type of technology into your resource choices, whether this means starting a class blog, or using some videos to spark learning or questions (great idea to launch lessons), or using the computers with some relevant software for what you teach. Introduce something that is going to spark the students interest (so not just a replacement for a drill-and-kill worksheet) and get them thinking in new and interesting ways. You want them involved in their learning, not passive receivers of information.

Not a lot to ask - change 3 things about yourself and what you do.  I believe it will give you new hope and excitement about the coming school year. And it will definitely benefit your students - who wouldn't want to come to an open, inviting classroom where thoughts matter and learning is about exploring and engagement? School should be fun - for you and your students. Not the same old boring thing AGAIN.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Online Learning - Potential for Reaching Thousands

I found this very interesting TED talk this morning by Daphne Koller from Stanford University. She speaks about the power of online learning to reach thousands of people who otherwise do not have access to education opportunities, as well as the capabilities of the online learning environment. Coursera is the social entrepreneurship company she helped develop that works with the universities to sponsor the courses she is referencing.

Koller gives a great argument for using technology to not only reach more students, but provide personalized curriculum and feedback and expand the creativity and thinking of students via the online environment. Online learning can bring active learning and formative assessment and ignite student creativity and learning rather than just giving them information.  Her approach is that universities should be providing this content free so that anyone can change their lives, expand their minds, and make the world a better place. While listening to her, I saw a direct connection to online professional development, which is something I am currently interested in and focused on in my work and doctoral research. A way to reach a much wider audience, provide the opportunity to learn, practice, and get personal feedback.

As a believer in the power of technology and online learning, I have to say I agreed with all her points, though I question how all of this can be done for free, another component she stressed.  Free courses and access would definitely bring more students to the courses, as evidenced in her talk, but doesn't someone have to pay the people who are instructing the courses and developing the courses?  There is a lot of production that goes into these courses, especially with the interactivity, assessments, and videos, so I guess that's where I just question the feasibility.  As someone who designs and creates online professional development courses, I know I can't provide what I do for free because let's face it, I have to eat and pay my bills and it takes a great deal of time and effort to develop online courses. I absolutely agree online learning and courses are where we should be focusing to provide learning opportunities for all, not just those who are able to afford an education.  But, I do need to figure out how free is going to be paid for - because nothing is truly free, is it?

I've provided the video of Koller's talk below.  She makes some excellent points and has numbers and examples to show the power of the technology. I'd be interested to hear your views on how this type of online learning can in fact be offered free. My guess is there are grants involved. It would be nice to consider ways, without a big corporation or grants, to provide these types of opportunities free.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An Educational Journey

I found out on Wednesday that the math company I work for, Key Curriculum, had been acquired by McGraw-Hill Education. In the span of less than an hour I went from Key employee to McGraw-Hill employee.  Needless to say, it's been quite a week!

In the world of math education and publishing, this acquisition is a big deal. Key Curriculum has long been seen as a maverick in math education, representing inquiry math with their Discovering Mathematics textbook series (now a part of Kendall Hunt Publishing), Integrated Math Program and of course, amazing dynamic mathematics software, Sketchpad, TinkerPlots and Fathom. Employees and authors of Key are known for their authenticity, with those working directly with textbooks, software and training being former classroom math teachers.

However, this acquisition appears, to some, to represent Key selling out to "the man" or the big bad corporate world, as if somehow the quality and authentic mathematical content and teaching practices that Key represents will now be gone. I received several responses to my personal announcement to the consultants and moderators that work for me asking  if I was really okay with the change, or if I was already towing the company line and had to say this is a good move for Key.

I am not towing the company line.  Heck, I don't even know what the company line is yet!

I truly believe this acquisition is going to be a great thing for Key Curriculum (we will keep the brand name), the software and products we take with us, the people who are going forward with McGraw-Hill, as well as  math education and education in general. Sounds lofty, I know. Perhaps the the best way to explain my feelings about the future with McGraw-Hill is to take you on my personal educational journey.

I started teaching middle school mathematics in 1989. Despite a first year where I was a floating teacher (i.e. no classroom), teaching large classes with the 'toughest' population (typical for new teachers), and getting both sexually harassed by one student and hit by another, I stuck with it because I was determined to be a great teacher. I wanted students to LOVE math because I did. When the chance came along to join a special middle school math masters program under the direction of Dr. John Van DeWalle  and Dr. Ena Gross, focused on inquiry math teaching and student-centered learning, I signed on right away. My teaching changed dramatically during the three years I was in the program, focusing on using collaboration, hands-on manipulatives,and  real-world applications. It is here where I first discovered Key books and resources and began using these in all my classes. With the push of John and Ena, I also began sharing things I was doing at local math conferences, then state math conferences and eventually, the national math conferences.

Let's admit it - I became addicted to creating new and interesting ways to teach math and even more addicted to sharing what I was learning with others - in my school, in my district, and around the country. Why wouldn't EVERYONE want to teach math in an inquiry, hands-on way where students were engaged? My mission led me on a typical path in education leadership - I became a math department chair and a district professional development presenter, even as I moved to different school districts and cities. I saw each step up as a way to expose more teachers to great mathematics resources and teaching strategies and as a result, inspire more students to love math. I eventually ended up as a district math specialist, supporting over 200 secondary math teachers through modeling, coaching and providing professional development.

In this 17 year journey, I was constantly looking for new ideas and resources to bring to my teaching, which is how I of course discovered all things Key Curriculum.  The Discovering Mathematics Series for Algebra and Geometry became my bible, Sketchpad became my daily technology tool and I did whatever I could to use these and other hands-on resources with my students in all the middle schools and high schools I taught and supervised.  Let's face it - it was a love affair with Key.

During my time as a district leader, I started a doctorate program in education technology. I am fascinated by the ability of technology to enhance and expand students understanding, not just in mathematics, but in any subject.  As always, my goals were to reach even MORE teachers and, in turn, more students. These goals were always on my mind, so when two years into my district leadership and doctorate work I was given the opportunity to join Key Curriculum as their professional development coordinator, I jumped at the chance. Work with the products I love, spread the joy of these products to teachers around the country, and work with amazing educators? You bet!!

(I have to admit, as a certified Key groupie (math teachers will totally relate to this), meeting the folks at Key was a little like meeting the Rolling Stones or Coldplay.  Rockstars!)

My time with Key has been an amazing journey.  Being on the other side of the publishing world, the provider vs. the receiver, was an eye opening experience. It's a tough business out there, and competing against much larger companies with a lot more money and resources was really hard. Convincing a textbook committee that Discovering Mathematics was the best choice for their students in a 20 minute presentation against much larger companies with many more resources is something I had to do on a regular basis and it was like going into battle every time.  Really tough. But, I, and all of Key's employees, believed in our products, which is what spurred me on every time. But, last year, when we sold our textbooks to Kendall Hunt publishing, and our company became a much smaller (around 42 employees) company focused on our dynamic mathematics software, I have to admit, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

The books were going to a company with the resources to bring them to a wider audience, so good for the books and good for Key. As someone in education technology, I realize the future is going digital and so Key's move to focus just on our technology was music to my ears.  And it's been a fun year - a crazy year, with changing our name, getting a new website up and going, and working with a smaller staff where everyone was doing the job of about five people, but a fun year.

I love technology. I love the possibilities that technology brings to education. In my doctorate program, I have focused on how to help teachers of any subject integrate all kinds of technology (social media, podcasts, software, etc.) into their teaching. The goal is to help them engage students in learning and expand learning opportunities. Having a year to really focus on Key's amazing software and share the joy of learning mathematics with expansive tools has been a blast. But - Key is small.  And while we have great ideas about what we want to do to improve our technology, create new technology (like our iPad app, Sketchpad Explorer), enhance STEM education, and provide quality support and professional development to teachers through online courses, free resources, and webinars, we are limited.

We are 42 people. Eventually, you reach a point where you need help to keep your vision and goals moving forward. This is that point. The acquisition of Key by McGraw-Hill Education is, in my opinion, a partnership and helping hand. In my research of my new company, I find they are just like Key, with many former teachers who work towards trying to get great teaching resources and teaching strategies out there so students can learn more and learn better. Granted, they are much, much bigger than Key. After meeting several of the folks I will be working with, I am hopeful because I sense in them and in the company overall, the same goals that have guided me for 22 years of education: the desire to make teaching better so students love learning.

So, I am ready to start the next adventure in my career. To my friends, colleagues, fellow math teachers, education leaders, and other Key groupies who question whether this is a good move, I say yes. I do truly think the McGraw-Hill/Key venture is a great thing. Key's entire existence has been based on creating engaging mathematics curriculum and resources for students to learn math and support teachers. My entire career has been about learning ways to improve teaching and student learning and share those with educators. I think with a much bigger company and a lot more people working towards those same goals, there will be more opportunities to make the impact we've been striving for all these many years. How can that be a bad thing?

Am I sad?  Absolutely - my Key family is splitting up.  But many of my friends and colleagues are joining in this next phase, so that's some comfort. Am I worried? Maybe a little. Am I scared? Heck yes!  My future has suddenly become a little shaky and unclear. But, I am hopeful.  I am excited. And I am ready to face the challenge. This is change, and change is hard, but if we don't try to change, how can we expect anything to be different or better? I for one am striving for better and this is the next step in that process. Onward.....