In my recent post, “My Teacher is on the Television” there are implications of students interacting with a screen rather than an educator. It is this very conception that I have attempted to address in my classroom this semester. The question all distance educators (not just video conference educators) must ask is, “Are these students a part of my class, or are they simply observers?” In essence I am questioning to what extent learners can be engaged in an online or mixed learning environment.
Engagement is one of the most recognizable ideas associated with 21st Century education. So much so, that this has become an integral goal of Rocky View Schools and has integrated into a part of Rocky View Schools’ mission statement. When we consider student engagement, we are talking about students interacting with their environment, their peers, their teacher and curricular content. These students actively part of the learning process and further, engaged learners are able to go beyond content on their own accord to create an enriched understanding of subject matter. Given this description of a rich diverse educational setting, it would make sense that each and every educator continually seeks to develop, foster and increase student engagement regardless of their method of delivery, area of curricular study or personal teaching style. In my approach to my unique student and educator setting, I am no different.
When I began to consider the implications of distance education to the many facets and eccentricities of teaching and learning, I had to consider how learning took shape for my specific students. As I attempted to define what a “distance education student” is, it became impossible to isolate a students education to the classroom or to a specific time or place. When I came to this conclusion, I was able to move beyond my delusions of grandeur about “Scotty beaming students into a classroom desk” or “R2D2 projecting an interactive 3D hologram of a teacher into a classroom in a galaxy far, far away.” So, if student engagement implies more than the hour to hour and a half of being fed content in a building, I must foster this engagement aside of “beaming” myself into a students room in the evening. My requirement was to create engagement for my students, not contingent on time or place.
These conclusions led me to research what other online educators have been creating and integrating in order to foster this engagement in their students. It was not until recently that I came upon a blog developed by a superintendent from Virginia through following his “Tweets” on Twitter . In his blog, Eric Williams discusses the musings of Tom Vander Ark and their collective support and experimentation of the “Blended Model for Learning”. This blended model suggests, “that we should not be satisfied with students’ effective use of digital tools in traditional brick and mortar settings” (Vander Ark), but rather students should all spend a portion of the learning time in the online environment. It was in response to reading Mr. William’s blog that I had to consider what possibilities and implications this could hold for engagement in my unique classroom setting.
Throughout this semester I have elected to integrate this blended model into my instruction. Although I do have some learners who are required to participate in the online setting the majority of the time, I wanted to create engagement and interaction between all of my students by having my classroom and video conference students join these asynchronous distance learners through the online environment on a daily basis. To accomplish this I have been utilizing the tool of Moodle with my students. Social media has become a staple in our day and time and it seems that time and distance is being bridged on a daily basis in favor of communication and participation. Some prime examples of this connectivity in practice are in the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook. So my thoughts were, why not attempt to blend the majority of my students learning into a similar environment to allow their communication to transcend distance and time.
In my attempt to create this atmosphere I have required all of my students in the class to utilize the Moodle and its forum tool to post questions, respond to questions and to study. This blended learning environment created interaction between all students in the course regardless of whether they are in class, via videoconference or podcast learners. I am now experiencing that my students have a sense of togetherness, commonness and overall engagement through their peer interaction around curricular content. If you would like to learn more about the intricacies of Moodle please visit the Moodle home page and also make sure to reference some of the expert blogs on the RVS blog by Nancy Lake regarding Moodle and its application to the classroom.
I can hardly say that the use of Moodle for engagement in a distance-learning classroom has revolutionized how I view learning in a traditional classroom. However there are undisputable benefits from integrating blended learning, and the engagement that results from students interacting with their peers, their curriculum and a unique social environment. Students begin to take their learning beyond the classroom walls. But more influentially, students utilize and discover new tools and forms of communication in order to satisfy curricular outcomes, this creates a need for students to get deep into content and ultimately creates a greater understanding of curricular content for these learners.