Teaching Online in a Time of the Coronavirus

With all of the world moving to an online style of teaching and instruction, I’m worried how well our educators are designing their learning lessons. Recently I read an excellent article in the March 2020 ASCD Education Update, Six Teacher Moves for Deeper Learning.

For this article I’ve invited some of my educational colleagues to share how they’re redesigning learning to take advantage of the online platform that is their only choice right now for instruction. I think the key for any good instructional design is to have a framework that provides guidelines. I’ll take ideas from my colleagues and wrap them around the core principles that Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath outline in their article focusing on Deeper Learning.

Empower students as learners.

According to Martinez and McGrath, “Given the social and economic world they will be entering, today’s students need much less passive rule following and rote memorization, and much more guidance and support in becoming self-directed learners. A common practice that all the schools focus on is helping students take responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. They do this through both their culture and pedagogy.”

What does that look like in an online world where students are home due to the Coronavirus? Melissa Unger, a K-2 STEAM teacher for the South Fayette School District, near Pittsburgh, and Elementary Tech Integrator, Anne Blake, have developed a series of Design Challenges using ordinary materials. The projects can be done with parents, care-givers, or even by the kids by themselves. How many kids turn to YouTube to learn something new? Melissa has tapped into a tool that most young learners already use on their phones, tablets, or computers.

Contextualize knowledge.

Martinez and McGrath follow the tradition of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. We need to start by asking what are the Driving or Essential Questions. We need to think about how the learning is part of an interconnected fabric. We need our students to not just focus on facts, but the key ideas, relationships, and skills.

For instance, David Dulberger, an educator in the Frederick, Maryland County School District, is reaching out to his colleagues to share ways to improve the way they conduct formative assessment to document the key ideas, relationships or skills that students are learning . David has seen the success of using time-lapse video with students. David started letting students make time-lapse videos during indoor recess with a dry erase board. This eventually led to a realization that problem solving on a dry erase board + time-lapse video could equate to a great formative assessment. Why would this work during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Today almost all students have access to a phone where they can shoot and edit their own videos. The teachers just need to give the students a good example, like David has done.

What exactly is a silent solve video?

According to David, “A silent solve video requires students to demonstrate their thinking without any recorded narration. Students are welcome to talk out loud while making a video but the sound will not be captured when using time lapse. Jen Knox has started to use silent solve videos with her students. See an example by clicking here: Skyy’s Video”

Connect to Real World Experiences

When our students are in social isolation, how do we make them see the real world connection? Jill Tabis, a high school business education teacher and former colleague of mine at the Fox Chapel Area School District, reached out to people around her to do just that. I heard the call and used the opportunity to develop a video around Building an Entrepreneurial Mindset using my experience as an educational technology broker for the past nine years. Jill’s class will have a chance to pose questions for me and then I’ll follow up with a Zoom session to talk about their questions.

Inspire students by customizing learning experiences.

With all students at home, what can a teacher do to make each learning experience personal to the individual student? This doesn’t mean using an adaptive piece of software. It means thinking about projects that tap into personal interests or passions.

For instance, Melissa Unger challenges her online students to come up with their own solutions to the paper airplane flying challenge. Each student can test out new ideas, go online and research other options. This is one of the advantages of working in an online world.

Use tech to purposefully enhance rather than automate learning.

I’ve been a strong supporter of using technology to make students into creative producers. In my work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), I helped to develop a paper on this topic three years ago. In the article Sylvia Martinez shared her insights, “What’s different now is the affordable, accessible and fun technology that fosters rigorous learning, Martinez says. “Today’s computational technology adds something that’s never before been available, which is putting computational power into students’ hands—programming through making devices that collect data, process data and interact with the world,” she says. “Physical computing—the interaction between the digital and the physical world—raises the bar. You aren’t able to say, ‘Oh, just making anything is good enough.’”

Birdbrain Technologies is one of the physical computing tools that Sylvia Martinez recommends. (And as a disclaimer – it’s one of my clients.) With teachers no longer in schools to tap into the Hummingbird Kit or Finch, Birdbrain is offering fun projects, live classes, and online courses to inspire deep and joyful learning for students, parents, and educators.  (Most of the workshops require a Hummingbird Kit, but there are some sessions that just use scrap materials.)

Teacher as “Learning Strategist”

Martinez and McGrath finish their set of principles by stating, “For teaching to enable powerful learning experiences like the ones described above, the teacher has to fluidly shift among a range of roles, including learning designer, facilitator, networker, and advisor who coaches, counsels, mentors, and tutors depending on what is most needed to promote student learning.”

What does this look like for the educators I’ve included in this article? Each educator had to look their target audience and create appropriate learning materials for the age of the audience, whether the materials were for a student or teachers. Short hands-on YouTube Design Challenges are perfect for young children, but not necessarily for a high school class. A 12 minute mini-lecture is not the best tool for young children, but when it brings a real world connection to high school students, it works well. Silent Solve videos are great tools for educators to use to discover that their students are really learning at home.

Connecting Learning to Real World Problem Solving

For the past ten years Mimo Ito and the Connected Learning Research Network have looked at how young people learn. They realized that there were three overlapping spheres – interests, opportunities, and relationships. At the center of these three spheres is “Connected Learning.” I discovered this powerful look at student learning through my work with the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh. I used some of the principles to develop a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center of Pittsburgh. Recently Mimo Ito and Connected Learning Research team published an updated report on their findings – Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship.

According to Mimi Ito there are three outcomes that demonstrate when Connected Learning occurs:

  • The project sponsors or legitimizes the interests of diverse youth;
  • The learners are engaged in shared practices, e.g. solving real world problems;
  • Learning is connected across settings through brokering and coordination.

Let’s look at each one of these outcomes through the lens of a series of Design Challenges that students in the Parkway West Consortium of Schools participated during the 2019-20 school year.

Learning based on Interests

When I first approach the schools in the Parkway West Consortium, I give them choices. Each of the choices is based on a real-world problem that the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has identified as a problem where they want high school students to provide fresh insights. The schools receive their first or second choice. Each school approaches this in a slightly different way. One school might look at a course that has a fit. Another school might consider an after-school club or activity group. Another school might open the Design Challenge to any students to who have an interest. In each case students participate based on their interests. For instance: South Fayette High School decided to participate in the “Gems of the Hill District” Design Challenge. They outlined the responsibilities and let students from three classes choose to participate. It was not a required activity. It was based on students’ interest in the Design Challenge.

Engaging in Shared Practices

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

One of the keys for successful connected learning is focusing on real world problems. The EIC each year looks at problems where students might provide valuable ideas. For example: several years ago the EIC developed a Design Challenge around new LEED certification directions to take the building. Even though, the EIC had a platinum status, the management team realized that there were more sustainable opportunities. One of the teams, from Montour High School, focused on the need for more living plants within the building. The student consulting team developed a prototype for a green wall for Innovation Hall, one of the spaces at the EIC.

During the summer of 2019 the EIC management team decided to build on the original idea that Montour had developed and implemented at their high school. This time the high school student consultants from Montour, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center were asked to develop a prototype for a “Mobile Green Wall.”

Learning is Connected Across Settings

The “Mobile Green Wall” provides great examples how the students had to collaborate and work as three teams to solve a real-world problem. The Chartiers Valley team worked on the schematics for the prototype using CAD-based software. The team from Montour focused on the plants and the environmental needs that would be part of the design. The student consultants from Parkway West constructed a metal scale model that incorporated Chartiers Valley’s design incorporating Montour’s recommendations. The student consulting teams had to broker and coordinate their ideas. Quite honestly, there was a time when it didn’t look like the pieces were going to fit together. However, the students persevered and ended up with a prototype that will be used by the Energy Innovation Center in the future.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

XR in K-12

While we value real-world experiences and problems for students we sometimes realize that we need to create a world in order for students to have greater success, test out ideas in a more safe environment, or explore worlds that they cannot see, hear, or process without technology. Today the worlds of virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 degree experiences, and simulations are grouped together as “Extended Reality” (XR). How are K-12 schools offering experiences for students to explore and create using XR? 

Voyage Project with Cornell Middle School

In 2018 students from the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) began to work with the Cornell Middle School, located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, on a STEM project. The educators at Cornell wanted to create an immersive experience for their students. According to the project website, “Voyage is a multiuser mobile virtual reality (VR) experience for Google Daydream that allows students to go on virtual field trips in which they immersively explore a deciduous forest biome. The experience is designed to be undertaken in a middle-school classroom and facilitated by a teacher using a tablet computer. Through this project, we explored different interaction techniques used to promote collaboration among students as well as between the students and the teacher.”

Susan Donnell, the science teacher from Cornell, explained the importance for this type of experience for her students who don’t have an opportunity to experience a wide variety of places. “It’s invaluable to take them some place. Even it’s virtual reality.”

According to Chris Hupp, the Director of Technology for the Cornell School District, “The project did give us a glimpse into the future. Some challenges include the number of students able to participate at the same time as well as the teacher trying to monitor students in a virtual space and physical space at the same time. The team developed an app on an iPad so the teacher didn’t need to put a headset on to see what the students were doing. “

Virtual Tour of Sewickley Academy campus

Student creating animation – Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Erin Whitaker, middle school Technology Coordinator and Teacher, for Sewickley Academy, an independent school located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, wanted to provide a collaborative learning experience for middle school students. She searched for a tool that would allow for a collaborative experience where students would be able to combine 360 degree photos, programming, animation, and research to create an animation. She discovered CoSpacesEDU, a software tool that provides all the tools for teams of students to produce a virtual or augmented reality product.

Erin divided the project into phases. Each student selected a part of the campus to research. The students created 360 degree photos for their campus section. Finally, the students had to include an animated guide to talk about the campus area. All of the individual projects were saved as one large file into CoSpacesEDU and then combined to generate a school-wide tour. For the final phase the students will share their tours with a real audience at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day at the end of the trimester.