Crisis Response – Preparing to Teach Online

I’ve been thinking a lot about possible responses to the school closures as a result of COVID-19. Although my expertise is in training K-12 online teachers, I don’t think that expertise is what is needed at this juncture. That will come later, after the dust settles. Teaching online is a paradigmatic shift in thinking that requires reflection, self-evaluation and a rethinking about the teachers role in the classroom. We cannot possibly expect this type of shift during a major crisis that has brought prevailing governments around the world to their knees. Instead, what we need are strategic plans for management of the crisis in a way that provides the least amount of trauma and disruption for our learners. We must also relieve some of the stress on teachers as they transition to a new set of expectations.

The Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State shared a list of important things to remember in this time of transition (which was posted to Facebook by Amy Young, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, Chair of the Department of Communication, Pacific Lutheran University). It was thoughtful and realistic, but focused on higher education. Building off of her insight, looking at advice from other sources, and taking into account my own experience in K-12 online teaching and learning, I’ve devised a list that K-12 teachers should remember (not comprehensive by any means)… 

  1. Don’t panic. Prioritize instead. What do students really need to know for the short term. Keep the important stuff and toss the rest.

  2. Don’t expect perfection. We are in crisis mode and need responses that are practical and meet the needs of learners in the most efficient way possible. Structure and rhythm are going to be most important in maintaining stability.

  3. Bring parents into the fold as soon as possible. They will be your eyes and ears on the ground during the transition.

  4. Use the tools you and your students are most familiar with. You may have a school or district created class site in Blackboard, but are you comfortable using it? If you are more comfortable using Google docs for lesson delivery, then use that. But leave yourself open to bringing in elements of all tools that make your job more efficient, such as the assignment submission and grading features in Blackboard.

  5. Be prepared to provide students with both digital and printable instructions. They need to build confidence in learning online just as you do with teaching online. Blending the traditional with the new is one way to ease the transition.

  6. Watch out for cognitive overload. Introducing both a new platform for instruction and new content at the same time can be overwhelming for learners. Try to ease into the new delivery method with review materials or content that is already known.

  7. Do not worry about making decisions about whether your class should be asynchronous or synchronous. Do what feels right for now. If it is easiest to carry on your class lectures the same as you would in your face-to-face class, then do that. But record them as you go so that students can retrieve them when needed. Eventually, you will have the time to reflect and evaluate – this is not that time. 

  8. If you do record lessons, limit them to small chunks. Students zone out after 5 minutes – and less if they are younger.

  9. Know how your students are accessing the class materials. This is critical because students without equipment and/or low or no bandwidth need the highest levels of support in how and when they access materials.

  10. Try to be cognizant of individual needs, and not think in terms of groups or classes. This applies primarily to students with disabilities or special needs, but can prove useful for most students. Create materials in multiple formats. Text is the least restrictive and can be accessed on multiple devices and platforms with limited bandwidth and data usage. However, it might not be appropriate for all learners. Providing two options, images and text for example, is better.

  11. Become knowledgeable of the assistive features on your computer – the more you know about your computing environment, the easier it will be for you to guide students and parents in locating assistive technologies if needed.

  12. Use online discussion boards judiciously. Be careful not to rely on low level thinking and prompts that result in yes/no types of responses. This is probably the area that takes the greatest amount of practice for teachers new to online. Try to think about the types of questions used in a physical classroom that generate higher order thinking and are interesting to students.

  13. DO NOT resort to “post one, respond to two”  instructions for discussion boards. Seeing the same instructions consistently is mind-numbing for learners. You need purpose to online discussions just as you do in face-to-face counterparts. Try, the best you can, to be creative. Look for online resources on how to conduct online discussions. Or try out some video response tools such as Voicethread and Flipgrid to better imitate face-to-face classroom discussions.

  14. Be kind and compassionate. Students are going through the same trauma as you. Perhaps more so. Which means we should probably worry less about grades and more about meeting student needs at this time.

  15. Use the extensive experience and resources of your state supplemental online program (if you are lucky enough to have one). 

Remember to breathe and not forget the joy and purpose that teaching brings to your life and to those that you support. We will get back to normal, albeit a new normal, but normal none-the-less. And, if we are lucky, we will learn something new in the process. Perhaps how to reach that one child that was unreachable before, or how to better structure our class time so that each learner is given the attention they need, right when they need it. Technology is not a panacea, but it can help bridge gaps that we didn’t even know we had. Here are some resources that may help in the process of establishing the new normal….


Sit up and take notice?

Predictions about the demise of the university (both figurative and literal) are not uncommon. These two articles, released a month apart, are particularly captivating….

The Slow Death of the University (Terry Eagleton, April 2015)

The Death of American Universities (Noam Chomsky, March 2015)

BlendKit2015 Week 1

I decided to participate in a Canvas Network MOOC this semester. I’ve tried a couple of MOOCs in the past with not very much success. Usually the topic interested me, but not enough, with my busy schedule, to keep me engaged in the activities, discussions, assignments and readings. In this case, the topic is of extreme interest to me, so maybe it will hold my interest. I have a couple of reasons why I think this particular experience may be more successful:

1. The topic is Becoming a Blended Learning Designer. Although I have a lot of experience with fully online instruction, I’m hoping this course will provide new insight for me into blended learning.

2. The course is affiliated with the University of Central Florida, an institution with a high level of authority and expertise in this field.

3. The course is being conducted in Canvas. I have a lot of experience in LMSs (Moodle, Blackboard, Brain Honey, BUZZ, Haiku, Schoology, Edu2.0) – this is one LMS that I don’t have experience using so I’m interested in seeing what Canvas has to offer.

I have to admit that I have already started the course late. It began on Monday and it is now Wednesday. The facilitators have let me know, through the first recorded webinar, that this is ok. In fact, they addressed the needs of the asynchronous participants and latecomers explicitly – letting us know that they understand their audience, who bring with them a variety of learning needs and expectations. Even though I was late to the party, I have been able to jump in and get started with very little effort. Our first assignment was to read an article and post a reaction to it.

Much of the information in the article Understanding Blended Learning was already familiar to me. I am an experienced fully online instructor in a graduate program and my field happens to be teaching K-12 teachers to teach online. I also provide professional development and consulting to schools in both online and blended teaching. Where I have struggled in the past is in helping teachers make the transition to blended learning for their own professional growth. Teachers who want to teach online, typically are motivated to do so either by employment potential or because they are enrolled in a program with that focus. However, the movement to mainstream blended learning has propelled many teachers, some of whom are very resistant, to accept a new classroom structure that is foreign to them and for which they have little interest or investment in changing.

My past attempts to model a blended approach have been less than successful. In particular, I found it very challenging to engage teachers in the online component of the training. In all cases the tendency has been to revert to waiting for face-to-face time for any meaningful learning. So for me, I was most interested in the two case studies at the end of the reading. What I liked about the first case study was the practical and applicable broad conceptualizations of practice. The second case study was especially relevant to my situation since it involved teaching teachers about teaching online. But, as I stated before, I find that teachers enrolled for college credit are often more motivated than in-service teachers. I guess my question is how can I engage practicing teachers in a blended learning experience when they are resistant to change and when they have little experience with the potential for blended learning? Or more philosophically, how do you change a mindset? It is the practical aspects of implementation, at the teacher level, that are most critical and can have the greatest impact on the success of any blended initiative and I often think it is much easier to attack the problem by moving fully online before transitioning to blended. Is it only when learners are immersed in a fully online learning experience, that they begin to see the transformative power of technology for learning and to erase all of those old cultural standards and norms of school that have been ingrained into our psyche? I am very anxious to more fully explore my own perceptions about this topic.

On Innovation in teaching

I was directed to the video When a Lesson Goes Wrong while attending an Edweek webinar on Helping at Risk Students Develop Literacy Skills – an excellent webinar btw, but beyond the scope of this post. The video is of high school English teacher, Sarah Brown Wessling, attempting to instruct her students in literary analysis with the inclusion of outside resources – a lesson developed to meet the requirements of the new Common Core standards. It’s fascinating to watch both the total failure of the first attempt and the quick, on-your-feet thinking, that leads to greater success in the second lesson. But that’s not the only fascinating thing about this “day in the life” of a teacher. The entire experience  speaks volumes about how challenging it can be to be innovative in our attempts to transform  teaching practice. Her blog post, Making Mistakes: The Best Way to Grow,  illustrates rather acutely, the thought process behind her willingness to take the challenge and her acceptance of failure as part of the learning process – all while being filmed for an episode of the Teaching Channel! It’s an excellent lesson for all of us if we ever hope to “see what’s really going on, without filters and without judgment or self-loathing of the less-than-perfect moments; rather, using them as catalysts to collaborate or take an intellectual-risk.” I learned so much from watching her experience and I heartily applaud her efforts.


Kindred Spirits

When I originally applied for the Fulbright, I had asked to be hosted with the Department of Didactics and Media in Education at Nicolaus Copernicus University, because in our past experience working together we had recognized that we had many common interests. My goal and my hope has always been the establishment of a lasting collaboration and partnership in whatever form that might take. However, working at a distance proved challenging,  Part of the challenge was due to language, but part was also a lack of understanding about our relative government and university systems. To this end, I have spent quite a bit of time learning about the Polish university system, policies, practices, trends in pre-service teacher training and about educational technology in particular.

That’s me observing Technologie Informacyjne Konversatorium course in General Pedagogy at UMK.

My friends and colleagues here have been very generous with their time and in providing opportunities for me to visit classrooms. Undergraduate Pedagogy students at Nicolaus Copernicus all take a general curriculum which prepares them to teach. Included in that curriculum is a course in Information Technology, which is an introductory course similar to the course we offer at Boise State for our pre-service teachers.

The course covers the basic MS Office suite of tools in an educational context.  It is technically classified as a “Konwersatorium” course which means that the course combines both a lecture/discussion and practical hands-on experience. Similar to a lab/lecture course in the U.S.

Dr. Malgorzata Skibinska demonstrating how to alter an image in MS Word.

Dr. Marlgorzata Skibinska teaches the Information Technology course for pre-service teachers and I have visited her class a couple of times. When I visited, the students were beginning a new project to gain experience in using the tools and features in MS Word. In the photo on the left, she is instructing students to create a tutorial in Word on how to make a Christmas ornament of their choice. The instructions must be original and of course there are specific requirements about the features required to create the document in Word. Students actually build the ornaments and these are then sold and the money is donated to a local children’s charity.

Students in the Technologie Informacyjne course (Aleksandra and Blanka with Dr. Dorota Siemieniecka).

I have also had the opportunity to observe several courses in the new University Centre for Modern Teaching Technologies. I observed a course on Computer Diagnostics and Pedagogical Therapy taught by Dr. Dorota Siemieneicka and watched students give presentations on various digital diagnostic tools for learners with disabilities. Another course on Interactive Digital Media taught by Dr. Agnieszka Sieminska-Losko, was taught to third year students on using Flash technologies to design and create multimedia diagnostic tools. The majority of content for this course was housed in Moodle.

In a tour of the Center by the director, Maciej Pańka, I learned that it is one of the most technologically advanced centers in Poland. In addition to supporting faculty in the use of technology for teaching and learning, the Center houses a state of the art video recording studio and NCU TV. (They will actually be recording one of my upcoming lectures.)

Tutorial in Moodle for students in Interactive Digital Media course.

Classroom in the Centre for Modern Teaching Technologies.

I have always believed that we were more alike than different and my experiences thus far have proven this to be true. I have found kindred spirits in the Department of Didactics and Media in Education and the new Centre for Modern Teaching Technologies here at Nicolaus Copernicus University. The goal now is to capitalize on these similarities and our willingness to find a fit for our mutual interests. Where it will lead is anybody’s guess but I’m happy to say that we have plans to collaborate on a text exploring the evolution of educational technology in the U.S. and in Poland which we hope will provide a solid foundation to move forward with other plans. These include discussion around a faculty/student exchange, a blended/online course exchange, and perhaps a dual degree program is in our future.

Getting past the culture shock :-)

I continue to settle into my life in Poland – my flat is organized with all the creature comforts I might ever need, I’ve figured out how to get around, the work is going well, I’ve gone mushroom picking in the forest outside Torun with my colleague Dorota and her friends, I know what shops to go to for bread, milk, meat, pickles and donuts and I’ve located several eateries where I can figure out most items on the menu. What has been most surprising to me is the daily challenge of living in a foreign country – something I have been completely ignorant of in the past. (To all our visiting scholars and international students – please forgive me for my lack of awareness as you were struggling with these same challenges). It’s this struggle that has been the most difficult for me and has at times caused me to question my decision to move here for five months. I’ve done some reading up and learned this is a pretty common reaction – and most importantly – that this too shall pass. So here is what I have been doing to cure my culture shock…

Being myself…. I spent the first several weeks worrying that I might appear too “American.” I felt that people were staring or looking at me funny if I smiled too much or appeared to be overly enthusiastic, which – if you know me – is pretty normal for me. I have learned this is MY reaction to not feeling completely comfortable in a new environment. Now I just go about my business as I normally would. And guess what?? I’ve been asked many times for directions or assistance – I’m not sure which because I’m always asked in Polish which I don’t understand. Nevertheless, it’s a true testament that I do fit in!!

The honey isle in the Real hypermarket.

Going out of my way…. I have found the most amazing things while jogging or speed walking around the city to no particular destination. On one trip, I happily discovered Real hypermarket – a store very similar to a Walmart in the states. The first time I entered it was as if the heavens opened up and the light shone down upon me – hallelujah! Now my only problem is learning to shop without a car – and it’s two bus stops from my flat. I limit my purchases to what I can fit in my little rolling shopping bag. I also found a Brico Depot (similar to a Home Depot) which completely solved my dilemma of where in the heck to buy a light bulb.

Meeting new people…. Thanks to the only Fulbright ETA on my campus (Alex), I learned of a Symposium on Human Rights that was being conducted on campus and entirely in English. It’s not really my field so I could have let it pass by, but the topic was interesting AND it was in English, so I decided to attend. What a great decision that was. I got invited to an after hours reception, met the most amazing people, and I have the inklings of an idea for a similar type of exchange with the department I am associated with here. Now I am on the lookout for any other opportunities that increase my exposure to other faculty and events on campus. Thanks again Alex!!

Networking…. The student Fulbrighters definitely have their act together. From the very beginning, they communicated and networked through a Facebook account. This is an absolute lifeline for me – it keeps me connected to all the Fulbrighters in Poland – most of them students, but I don’t mind if they don’t mind. At any one time I can log on, and see who’s doing what, who’s going where, and what activities are being planned. As I write this, an event is scheduled in Krakow for Halloween weekend. And guess what?? I’m going to be there!