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

Sustainability for Students

For the past few years I’ve had a chance to work on a variety of projects around Sustainability and Education. In 2016 I initiated a conversation with Chatham University, South Fayette, and Fort Cherry School Districts around Sustainable Issues. This led to the Seeds of Change conference that will occur this year on March 4, 2019 at the Eden Hall campus of Chatham. I have also worked on a variety of Sustainability Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with schools from the Parkway West Consortium of Schools. We’ve looked at food, gardening, water management, and energy issues. I’m just beginning to develop Sustainable Energy projects around solar and other sustainable energies with a local Pittsburgh company, AYA Instruments, and the Community Day School of Pittsburgh.

Sustainability projects are also growing worldwide. Birdbrain Technologies, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company,  found its way to the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Each year Salesforce.com sponsors an activity around sustainability and recycling. Here’s a blurb from the Birdbrain Chirps that outlines what happened. (Make sure you check out the video at the end of the article.)

Leaders of over 100 governments and more than 1,000 global businesses came together at this annual meeting to create an agenda to improve the state of the world. And with programming and robotics as a vehicle, students were able to have a seat at the table.

Educator Su Adams from the United Kingdom helped lead students in Salesforce’s Davos Code 2019 event, where they were prompted to create a window display to show how they plan to keep plastics out of the ocean. This display was showcased for leaders to see throughout the course of the forum.

“The learning opportunities reached much further than programming alone can achieve, as students were tasked with turning process-based sentences into a visual representation for their collective diorama,” Adams says.

Prior to the event students began collecting plastics in Davos, which were repurposed into new creations at Davos Code 2019. Students used their own shredder and moulder machines to create their building blocks. With the help of the Hummingbird Robotics Kit, models were brought to life to illustrate their messages about plastic reuse.

This project had a monumental effect outside of the World Economic Forum. “Previously, very little plastic was recycled in the local community,” says Adams. “Following a campaign which spanned just 6 months, students affected change at a local government level when the municipality of Davos provided bins for recycling in their local environment. The diorama provided the perfect medium for celebrating the achievements of their campaign.”

By demonstrating better uses for plastic through their robotics diorama, a sustainable impact was made in the community for generations to come.

Adams summarizes, “There were highs and lows, frustrations and jubilance. Everyone experienced the payback that investment of time, effort, and teamwork provide.”

LEARN MORE by watching this video