Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Revitalizing eLearning

This summer, I was involved in a provincial writing project aimed at giving principals the tools for becoming leaders of learning in online environments. In coming up with ideas for the resource, as well as what shape the resource would take, there was a LOT of discussion about eLearning as a whole.

But one of the more powerful discussions came from a question that was raised several times during our time together: How do we take eLearning classes from "second best" to THE class that students want to take?

Right now, in Ontario education, eLearning takes a backseat to in-class learning. Students only take an eLearning course if that particular course isn't available at their school (or if there is a conflict between two classes the students want). It never seems to be a course students are *excited* to take, or choose to take, over a traditional class. 

Why is this?

Students often love that they can go at their own pace through an eLearning course (even though sometimes this backfires). But many often find the content monotonous (all reading), and find there is little interaction between the student and the teacher, or with other students. eLearning is often perceived as being dry, unengaging, impersonal, and difficult, the latter because students often feel they are learning "on their own." 

Other than allowing students in small, remote communities access to courses that couldn't otherwise be offered at their school, seems like eLearning might be a bit of a dud.

But few would argue that teaching with technology isn't powerful! Think of all the things we can do with technology that we couldn't do in schools fifteen years ago:

  • Provide access to a large range of resources on all topics and all at levels - we are no longer constrained to a single resource in the form of a textbook!
  • Instantly connect with each other - in something as short as a tweet or as in-your-face as a Google Hangout, there are so many ways to instantly connect with others around the globe.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a large scale - see above!
  • Give timely (instant!) right/wrong feedback to any student at any time, both in and out of class time - whenever the student needs it.
  • Demonstrate more complex concepts that can't be done in class. For example, there is no way we could repeat Millikan's oil drop experiment in Physics class. However, with a simulation, the students can actually reproduce the experiment, get results, and perform the same analysis Millikan did when he discovered the charge on an electron.

What can I add to eLearning??

If all of the wondrous things above can be done in an online class, what is my role as an eLearning teacher?

  • Provide access to just the right topics at the right level for the student who needs them.
  • Give personal feedback - suggestions, challenges, ... sometimes, when completing longer math problems, my students just wonder where they went wrong - I can find the roadblock better than a computer can.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a small scale - I can problem-solve with groups in person and coach individuals toward working as a team.
  • Engage my students in hands-on demonstrations. We can do these in-class as a demo or a lab during blended learning, or I can suggest things to try at home and troubleshoot if things don't go exactly as planned.
  • Get to know my students, and allow them a voice in what they are learning. This might just be the most important thing of all.

A real teacher and an online environment - a perfect storm of personalized learning. So why can't we make eLearning an absolutely amazing experience?

I should add that I know some good, and I mean REALLY good, eLearning teachers, who do all of the above and even more. But how many of us don't take advantage of maximizing both our talents and the technology's abilities, to create an extraordinary online course?

What can we do to make learning online powerful, meaningful, and in-demand? How can we make it THE course(s) students WANT to take?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Five Most-Read Blog Posts of 2016

When I first started blogging, it was a way to jot down new initiatives (moving my classes toward a flipped model and incorporating Bring Your Own Device) as well as get feedback on things I was trying in the classroom. Blogging has been an invaluable tool in connecting with other teachers.

But I've come to realize how important a reflection piece blogging can be as well. I find it really interesting to see how my viewpoint has changed with experience and a change in job, see how I was able to overcome some challenges, and see that I still have a ways to go in wrapping my head around certain pedagogies.

I find it intriguing, too, what others have found interesting over the few years I've been blogging. Here are my most-read posts of 2014, and my most-read posts of 2015

On that note, here are my five most-read blog posts of 2016:

1) #OntarioClassMatch - launch of a new hashtag to help connect classes within Ontario.

2) Unleashing Creativity: All About the Bats - the creative component of the culminating project by my grade 9 science class. 

3) Thinking about Going Gradeless - something I would love to try once I'm back in the classroom.

4) Spiralling: Spinning Around in my Head - something else I would love to try once I'm back in the classroom. Can I spiral gradelessly?? :)

5) Clawing Back the Freedom - when the independence that comes with a flipped model just wasn't working for some of my students.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Manipulatives in Secondary Math

As a high school math teacher, in the classroom, I made very little use of concrete manipulatives such as cube links, square tiles, or the ever-dreaded Algebra Tiles.

I say ever-dreaded because while Algebra Tiles have long been touted as an amazing resource, it's never been obvious to me how to use them. 

If you haven't seen or used them, they are a collection of small squares that represent units, large squares that represent x^2, and rectangles (with a length that matches the large square, and a width that matches the small square) that represent "x." Students can use various combinations of the shapes to model equations and algebraic thinking, leading up to more formal mathematical processes.

Other than their most basic uses, they confuse me. I don't think like that (visually), and I certainly wasn't taught like that. 

I did well in math through high school because I like rules. I could memorize and apply the rules for solving a linear equation, or factoring a quadratic equation, or completing the square. Though I may not have understood the math at the time (I was just following rules, remember), with lots of practice I was eventually able to see why the rules worked, and could apply that line of thinking to solving even more complex problems. 

So I didn't make good use of manipulatives as a teacher partially because I never really learned how, either through experiencing it as a student, or by experimenting with them as an adult. 

I'm changing my mind...

But what I'm learning this year, is that not only are these concrete manipulatives a good option for differentiating our math instruction, they are a NECESSARY instructional tool. 

For our students presenting with learning disabilities, there are a number of reasons why using manipulatives regularly in the classroom is beneficial. Among others, these include:
  • For students demonstrating slower processing speeds, manipulatives force the pace of learning to better match that of the student
  • They provide a means for students with working memory needs to better keep track of what they are doing, by displaying the process on the table in front of them. 
  • They allow students to make use of perceptual reasoning skills to accommodate for needs in mathematical computation.

However, for ALL our students, manipulatives provide a depth of learning beyond what I was exposed to as a student. I was never taught how to think of algebraic processes outside of just rules for making numbers appear and disappear. I wonder how much more quickly I would have seen patterns and made connections if I could have visualized what the equations represented? 

There is a stigma associated with using manipulatives in high school - that they are only for the kids that "can't do math." But what if their use isn't seen as a "crutch," but strictly as another way of thinking/seeing the math (which is exactly what they are!). Students who feel they don't need manipulatives (like I once was) could actually be encouraged to think mathematically in a new way.

This is something I need to start doing more of.

This isn't an easy transition for me - building manipulatives into my arsenal of teaching tools is going to take a lot of learning (and playing?) before I'll be comfortable with them. But for now, I can at least envision what this might look like. When I go back to the classroom, I'll be aiming to:

  • Physically move the manipulatives INTO my classroom (out of storage) and have them in an easily-accessible spot for everyone to get to, not out of sight in an office or tucked away in a classroom closet.
  • Incorporate manipulatives purposefully into lessons - carefully choose which manipulative the students will be using and know why I'm choosing to use it. What process does it demonstrate? In what way will it help my students think/reason?
  • Make manipulatives integral to the lesson itself, not just have it as an add-on to what we're learning. 
  • Challenge the students to whom math comes easily to use the manipulatives, and get them thinking outside of the memorization box. I hope this might also reduce the stigma of using manipulatives.

But I still wonder...

  • How well do digital manipulatives benefit students (if at all)? Are apps worth investigating?
  • What resources are available for getting good, challenging-yet-accessible activities with manipulatives at the secondary school level?
  • How do students learn which manipulative to use when presented with a selection (or when they can choose what to use on standardized tests)?
  • How can I best incorporate manipulatives into flipped lessons?

I'd love to hear of good resources already in use out there for activities and materials that actively engage high school students in learning algebraic processes, and try my hand at some of them!