Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Saving Courses: Bringing eLearning to Life

Last spring, my school made the decision to not offer the grade 12 college-stream physics course for the 2014-2015 school year, due to lack of enrolment. We are a smaller school, and it is not unheard of that a handful of courses get cancelled every year.

It is becoming increasingly harder to offer a full spectrum of senior courses because of our shrinking size, particularly grade 12 courses. Many students already have to take the Calculus and Vectors course online or by correspondence, and many other grade 12 courses are only offered every other year. 

So I decided to try something new. I offered to run a university/college split senior physics class. The total number of students would still be below provincial class limits (30), and while my principal gave me one of those "you're crazy" looks when I suggested it, she allowed me to try.

While split classes are not new, at the secondary level, it is usually done when two courses have very similar curricula. The expectations and success criteria for each course can be adjusted, but in general, all students still learn the same content.

With Physics, however, the grade 12 college-stream class is an introduction to Physics, more akin to the grade 11 Physics class. The grade 12 university-stream class is the continuation of that grade 11 course. As a result, the two courses I offered to combine are nearly impossible to teach simultaneously (hence the "you're crazy" look from my principal!).

Banner for the SPH4U course

Enter blended learning

I decided to rely entirely on the Ministry of Education's resources, already provided in the provincial eLearning system. My students are, essentially, working as though they were eLearning students, but with one big exception: we are all working in the same room together.

With the content and assessment provided, students can work through the material at mostly their own pace, and I am free to move throughout the classroom, helping students from either course who need it. Students are also encouraged to work together if they like, to help master the material.

Logistically, from a teaching point of view, this is an ideal solution: the students get the course they need, and I am relieved from doing two sets of prep for the same period. There were, however, some issues that I didn't anticipate:

Given a choice, students would rather do simulated labs rather than real "hands-on" labs. I assumed students would be glad to get off the computer and interact with each other when given the chance, but instead they would often just run through the simulations and plunk the numbers into a data table without thinking. This class ended up being much less social than I anticipated. Some teachers might welcome a less social class, but things were too often too quiet. I would have liked to have seen more "buzz" in the classroom.

The assessment and evaluation is tricky. Not only am I dealing with two sets of curricula/assignments, but also some work being done digitally and some on paper. On top of that, the digital work was divided up between the dropbox, the discussion board and the quiz tool. I found it very hard to stay on top of it all. Having the students keep track of what they had handed in on a digital tracking board helped us better keep track of who-handed-what in, but I often fell WAY behind in my marking.

Discussion boards are rarely used. Since the students see and talk with each other in class, one of the main purposes of the discussion boards (to connect the students with each other and the teacher) is unnecessary. We occasionally used the boards instead as "bulletin boards," where the students could post examples of their work. 

Students are reluctant to do any work outside of the classroom. Even with access to the eLearning content 24/7, most students only signed in during class time, and several fell quite behind throughout the semester because they would not do any work at home. I don't know if there's a different mental approach to "paper" work vs. digital work, but the students' reluctance to work at home surprised me. As a result, timing of the course got thrown way off.

Banner for the SPH4C course

Plans for Next Year

I've been given the go-ahead to continue with this split class again next year, once again saving at least one of the senior physics courses from being cut. Based on my experiences this year, I'll be changing things up a bit.

I will replace many of the simulated labs with actual labs in an effort to get the students more involved physically, as well as stimulate more creativity and critical thinking (particularly when it comes to taking error into consideration).

I miss the very hands-on nature of the college-level course from previous years (launching rockets, building machines involving hydraulic systems, ripping apart electronics). I'm hoping to return to this style of class through the use of rich assessment tasks embedded in the eLearning curriculum.  

At the end of this semester, I started to use a Google Form to track student progress through informal conversations in class, and this is definitely something I'll be continuing next year. I found this to be an effective way for me to stay on top of where each student was in the course, as well as provide a record of a conversation for assessment. It also provided a source of motivation to the students because they knew that I was keeping on top of them and their progress. 

In order to allow students to assess themselves more easily throughout the unit (easing my formal marking load), I'd like to have more solution sets available at the end of quizzes, and answers on any computational problems ready in advance. I'm still torn on how best to track digital vs. handwritten work, but this will allow me to reduce the number of items being handed in overall.

Being able to offer a wide variety of courses - and offer the most pathways to the students - is only going to get harder over time as our school continues to shrink. By taking advantage of students' access to technology, I'm hoping to continue to make improvements in how multiple courses can be offered during one period of class time. I would love to hear other suggestions on how to best approach split courses!

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