For my capstone project, I teamed with Nick, a 5th Grade teacher in a Connecticut public school. Although Nick was adamant about infusing his teaching with technology, he didn't know if he had the resources, knowledge, and confidence to do so. Together, we would revamp his existing 5th grade Astronomy unit with meaningful technology integrations to improve teaching efficiency, student comprehension, and student engagement. The project would provide me with real experience as a third-party Ed Tech consultant in a public K-12 environment, which in terms of available resources and student body, is very different than the higher-ed conditions I am accustomed to. It would also provide Nick and his students real methods and practical solutions to get more out of their teaching and learning.
To get started, Nick and I needed a place to build our foundation- to lay out and begin systematically combining what we each 'brought to the table.' I needed to learn the content and materials he'd been teaching, while he needed an idea of what go-to tech tools are available nowadays. We decided on building a full-fledged online unit using the free-to-use CourseSites learning management system (LMS). After I created the course and enrolled Nick as a co-instructor, he populated it with a skeleton of his astronomy unit and file-uploads of his existing teaching materials. Armed with readings, assignments, instruction sets, and presentations, I would begin work on revamping each astronomy lesson with some key concepts in mind...
Each time I redesigned or replaced a piece of Nick's lesson planning, I made sure to teach him how to do it. By the time we were halfway through the unit, Nick was able to replicate my tech methods and implement suggestions to genuinely improve his old lessons. In the end, our CourseSites unit of just ten lessons became an impressively well-rounded and organized site for OER materials and engaging student activities. While 5th graders don't typically take fully online courses, the site remains useful as hub of ideas and teaching methods that Nick is free to refer to and pass along to his colleagues.
Although Nick's 5th graders won't be enrolling in the online-only unit we put together, he is already implementing and will continue to implement a variety of the different tech methods and tools we discussed and/or used during our time working together. Listed below are some examples of the tech methods and tools we used to overcome a variety of challenges. (Note: For any tool requiring Email verification, we used a "class set" of Gmail accounts in order to adhere to the school's 'no student-Email' policy. Students never dealt with these accounts and were instead given logins for the specific tools.)
Challenge: Curating OER
Luckily, 5th grade science content is not very complex, and is therefore it is easy enough to find well-written, accurate information on the Internet. In our case, all it took was an introduction of the concept of OER to Nick to get us started. We were able to pull together an impressive collection of videos, websites, and readings that are publicly available and free to share. In adopting this method, Nick has eliminated a dependency on the expensive textbooks often employed by schools. Although we decided to build our lessons from the ground-up this time around, I also made Nick aware of OER Commons. Quality OER databases are few and far between right now, and OER Commons not only fits the bill, but also has a search function specifically built for K-12. It's a great resource for teachers looking for full material sets, lessons, presentations, and activities- for subject content and otherwise. A great example of a non-subject OER-friendly website that Nick is looking to use is NetSmartz. Hosted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, NetSmartz is a customizable online workshop packed with materials for teachers, students, and parents to learn about Internet safety, netiquette, and digital citizenship. Informational videos, articles, and activities are available for all age groups.
Challenge: Recreating Worksheets
Nick's traditional Astronomy Unit included many handouts that required students to fill in blanks before returning them to their teacher. Among the handouts were: a pre-assessment for students' prior knowledge, a Know/Want to Know/Learned (KWL) Chart, and a simple pop quiz. Teachers looking to get these types of handouts online for their students to access outside of the classroom typically end up uploading a Microsoft Word or PDF version for them to download. Potential compatibility issues aside, students shouldn't be expected to download a file, print it out, fill it out, then scan it back in to finally attach it to an Email to their teacher. To avoid this cumbersome process in our online unit, Nick and I used several tools to recreate his worksheets and provide them to students using nothing more than simple weblinks that are accessible to student from anywhere. For the pre-assessment, we put together a Google Form. Not only did it liven the worksheet up for students, but Nick can easily view all his students' results on an automatically-organized spreadsheet- no need to flip through 40+ papers anymore! For the KWL Chart, we created a Google Doc as a template. Using their Google Classroom accounts, Nick's students were able to make their own copies of the template, populate it with a partner, and then comment on the work of other groups. Finally, we recreated pop quizzes as self-assessment activities using EDpuzzle- a free tool that allows teachers to add all types of questions and comments to both web videos and their own uploads. As students watch videos, it automatically pauses and asks them for input. When the video is complete, their responses are logged for teachers to analyze, grade, and comment on. Then, students can return to watch the video in full as they review their past responses and teacher feedback. It's a great tool for content review.
Challenge: 'Always-Accessible' Presentations
Nick found his traditional PowerPoint presentations to be problematic. Although he was satisfied with their content, he wasn't comfortable with the fact that while in class, students can't help but prioritize note-taking over actual on-the-spot content comprehension. Uploading presentations to his Google Classroom for students' later viewing was a possibility, but inevitable file-format issues made the process a bit cumbersome. Not to mention, simple file conversions did nothing in terms of responsive design- if presentations were initially designed for large classroom presentation screens, they're not going to display on students' phones and tablets very well later on. We found two solutions for Nick. First, SlideShare allowed him to easily convert PowerPoint Presentations and PDF files to web-based, easy-to-open slideshows that students could access outside of class without any file format issues whatsoever. Secondly, Nick plans to re-create his presentations in responsive design-ready presentation tools like Microsoft Sway and Adobe Spark Page. This means that the content he prepares will re-format itself to properly display on the smaller screens his students are often limited to outside of the classroom.
Challenge: Differentiating for Varied Learning Styles
Nick saw our tech-infused unit redesign as an opportunity to appeal to all traditional learning styles: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. I expanded on that idea by acknowledging additional sub-styles: Aural, Verbal, Logical, Social, and Solitary. However, this didn't mean designing eight variations of each lesson. The key is to take student preference into account, rather than attempting to appeal to rely on their subconscious learning styles. Working with students in a tech-infused learning environment truly lends itself to making the most of student choice. While planning student assignments and projects, Nick altered past plans and instructions to offer students a great deal of choice. Changes included providing several types of source content (readings, videos, etc.), varied independent/partner/group setups, and leaving submission mediums wide open to students, with suggestions and 'how-to' guides, of course. The end result will be a nice, varied collection of student work that Nick can share to the class and parents via his Google Classroom: written and spoken poems, interactive digital stories, narrated slideshows, interview 'podcasts,' video documentaries, etc.
Challenge: Differentiating for High & Low-Ability Students
Each of Nick's classes include about four higher-ability students and four lower-ability students with IEP needs. For the higher-ability students, Nick's concern was the self-pacing nature of learning through technology. Traditionally, when students work through their tasks quicker than their peers, they are "rewarded" with additional work. For our tech-infused unit, we used a simple, proven method for offering these students more content while avoiding the pitfall of the 'more capable = more busy work' mentality: games. Implementing classroom games without technology is typically done class-wide. (Isolating students finished with the core lesson in a physical space to play a game will only distract or even anger others.) However, online educational games are already isolated to individual computer screens. It's easy enough for Nick to allow his higher-ability students to move on to independent, quiet educational games on their Chromebooks while everyone else continues to work.
I'm glad I teamed-up with Nick for this project. I believe that adapting my expertise in online teaching methods to his 5th grade lessons is going to make a much bigger, positive difference for his students than I would have made for myself working on an independent project. It also gave me some experience in what it would be like to consult for primary schools. As I grew tired of the K-12 job market and eventually gave up, I lost my passion for teaching. I admire teachers like Nick who persevere through the strains of the system for the sake of the students. The way he enthusiastically approached our project as an opportunity to improve himself and his students' learning was refreshing. He's walking away from our collaboration armed with all kinds of ideas, methods, and tools to benefit his students' learning. Even more, he is excited to use this experience to further his school's currently developing technology initiatives.