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Online instruction: what questions need to be asked?

It's been decided that our district curriculum council will be making recommendations about the approach our district takes to online learning.

I'm not the most enthusiastic supporter of online classes. I've been both the perpetrator and victim of such experiences at the post-secondary level and because of our district's size, I've never seen the kind of need some of our smaller neighboring districts have for such classes.

So. yes, our district is a bit slow on the uptake compared to some places, but I am hoping we do this right. And doing it right means identifying the "why" of online before getting to the "how." I do NOT want this to become a model for the "ready, fire, aim" approach I chide others of using.

Some pretty serious questions need to be asked and answered before a plan takes shape. It's not just "Should we set up a Moodle server?" Here are some things we need to discuss and on which we need to reach some kind of consensus before we get to the "how":

What problems does online instruction solve or what opportunities does it create?
Schools have adopted online instruction opportunities for a variety of reasons:

  • To enrich and make more effective regular classes
  • To provide a wider range of course offerings to students - those that cannot be provide in-house
  • To provide learning opportunities for students who cannot attend regular classes
  • To meet the needs of students who do not do well in face-to-face instructional settings
  • To provide credit recovery
  • To provide student experience with online learning environments to prepare them for the workforce and higher ed

What is our reason for providing online instruction and does it fit into our district-wide strategic plan?

How do we define online learning?
Online learning is a mean of delivering instruction using technology tools that complement face-to-face instruction or reduce/eliminate the need for face-to-face instruction. The instruction can be Internet-based or delivered via video networks (ITV). Instruction can be synchronous or asynchronous.

  • Hybrid classes (blended classes) - face-to-face classes that use online learning tools to supplement instruction
  • Fully online classes provided by the district (Do we offer these to students other than our own?)
  • Fully online classes purchased by the district

What does research say about the effectiveness of online learning?
It is neither more or less effective than face-to-face instruction. See: U.S. Department of Education Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning

What resources are currently available to our teachers that can facilitate online learning?
Mankato Schools currently provides a number of tools that can engage students in online learning opportunities, primarily in support of face-to-face instruction. All teachers have access to:

  • GoogleApps for Education
    • e-mail, shared calendars, mailing lists, contact information
    • shared documents - word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, surveys
    • mult-content website creation
  • rSchoolToday website/content management system
    • blogs
    • contact information
    • directories
    • discussion forums
    • document library
    • e-forms
    • FAQs
    • feedback form
    • galleries
    • homework dropbox
    • links
    • mulit-content webpages
    • podcasting
    • policies library
    • RSS newsfeeds
    • surveys
    • tables
    • wikis
  • Open network access to other tools. (the district does not block access to any education tools available including wikis, blogs, photo/video sharing sites. bookmarking sites, multi-media content creation tools, etc.

What does Moodle offer, is it needed, and how might it best be deployed? What support structure, technical and training, does it require? Among course management tools, would others better support our goals?

Moodle is an open-source learning management system designed to create fully online classes or to augment face-to-face classes (often called hybrid or blended classes).

  • class schedule
  • assignment drop box
  • participant profiles
  • wikis
  • forums
  • interactive glossary
  • monitored discussions
  • quizzes - graded instantaneously, providing feedback
  • peer feedback and self assessment
  • real time chat with other students enrolled in the same course
  • network resources with other teachers
  • tracks when a student has viewed a document, how long they spent in a forum and when they uploaded or posted an assignment
  • embed videos
  • post resources
  • Integrated with Google Apps for Education

It is available through our regional telecommunications organization, SOCRATES. SOCRATES requires eight hours of training on Moodle usage to be considered proficient. The Wikipedia article on Moodle.

What skills do teachers need to successfully teach online and how might they acquire them?
Is there a commitment by our staff development department to offer online teaching/learning skill training? Is the district willing to require some competency on the part of all instructors?

Should there be a set of minimum expectations for an online presence for all teachers? If so what? What might be eliminated to make room for these expectations? See Mandatory Web Presence Recommendations created in 2003 and updated Fall 2010.

How do we evaluate the effectiveness of online learning efforts?

Does the teacher contract address online learning - or does it need to?
Past investigations into online learning via ITV have led to concern regarding teacher compensation for such classes.

What critical questions are going unasked and unanswered?

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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for a great summary of thinking about online learning. My district is going through a similar process this year.

Two additional areas that we've been thinking about are:

I. Constituentencies Effected by Online Learning

Each of the following groups have different reasons for wanting online learning,
1. Students
2. Parents
3. Teachers
4. School District

We found that asking the why and what questions through the lens of each of these groups was very important.

II. Funding and Teacher Compensation

Two fundemental questions for us were, "How does school funding allow for the use of online learning?" and "Can a regular classroom teacher concurrently teach an online course?"

We found that in Arizona there are many odds and ends that need to be worked out with online learning to maximize your state funding. While not the most inspiring of topics a mistake here could cost a district as much as 15% of their student funding in Arizona.

As for teachers adding online courses to their plate, we are struggling with the idea that a teacher with a full course load can handle the addition of online courses. One of the key benefits of online learning is anytime, anywhere learning/teaching. How can teacher truly be their anytime if they work all day long? There is a distinct conflict of interest.

Also, across the profession it appears that online teachers typically are compensated less than their building bound associates. The freedom of teaching from home or anywhere else has a tangible value to many that instruct online.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Chlup

You've already answered a number of the questions that plague online learning! There is a silver lining though to using online classes. Specifically, it enables another form of learning for students! A choice, an alternative. Online learning does not benefit all students however, and if chosen by a committee or group, it must be chosen for the right reasons.

The learning styles vary of course, but I have found that reading/writing preference learners are the best suited to the online environment. These students are generally bored with the rather slow pace of regular classroom lectures/learning and accelerate readily in an online environment. Perhaps the question that should be asked is which specific students would benefit from online learning? My guess is that it's the same students who readily adapt to iTV classes and distance learning. It may only be a small subset of the student population as a whole. One thing is for sure, online learning is NOT the end-all decision for everyone. The number of emails and phone calls that I receive from students who do not adapt to online learning is massive.

Which brings me to another point... it should be required if online learning is adopted that teachers have a means of contact beyond email (cough... Google Voice... cough...). Students WILL call if given the opportunity, which brings about a whole other privacy/security issue (think teacher/student relationship).

There are more questions than answers to online learning. Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT, etc... each has their own pros/cons that must be weighed based upon the student need. I use video and chat support to hold "office hours" on a regular basis. It's a method to reach students who are more auditory and visual learners. Unfortunately that leaves out the tactile learners who learn by physically doing. :-/

One thing that I can suggest is a plan/guideline for online teachers. A list of expectations (how often to post, must respond to emails within 24 hours, etc...) is needed to form a virtual environment to work within.

Your post brings about so many questions in my mind, that I admit it seems almost vague. So many more questions stem directly from the idea that I'm dizzied thinking about it. I too am both a "perpetrator and a victim" of online learning and I can attest to the pros/cons from both points of view. Maybe all that's needed is a change of perspective? Instead of perpetrator and victim it should be referred to as facilitator and respondent. :-)

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames Keltgen

Hi Andy,

Important issues. Thanks for adding them to the list!


Hi Jim,

Great to hear from you and I appreciate your "voice of experience."

One of the things I found most difficult about teaching online when I did it for MSU was that every student expected me to be his/her individual tutor. Good, I guess, but it was a huge time suck.

Thanks again for your comment and I hope things are going good for you,


November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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