Promising Practices in Online (Remote) Learning

Online (remote) learning has several promising practices that schools can use to assure that students meet the same quality standards of traditional classes.  Below are five promising practices for adolescent learners.

  1. Quality (Rigor) — This means how well students understand what they are learning.  It is the depth of learning.  Rigor does not necessarily mean difficult or more work.  Sometimes my colleagues think that rigor means that they can academically flog students with extra work.  “Let’s give them 30 math problems,” rather than the five or six that will help students understand the content they need to know.  One way to ensure rigor and measure it is with the same unit assessments and end of course assessment that are used in the traditional course.
  2. Proctored examinations — A second way to assure course quality is with proctored exams.  Faculty members or other employees proctor the important assessments.  This may require the school to have a testing center or other place where students attend for help sessions.  The online program then assures that the student taking the course is the student taking the exam.  This is a quality check.
  3. Live Sessions — Using software like Wimba or Elluminate allows the instructor and the students to connect for live sessions for teachers to present and students to interact.  These sessions can be recorded for later viewing by students who could not connect live.  Additionally, a student can review the session again, at their own pace, stopping the recording, rewinding, and replaying as necessary.  Recently, while proctoring an exam, a student reported that the recording was valuable because in a traditional class, she would have stopped the teacher’s instruction to ask a question.  With a recording, she reported that she could replay the section until she was ready to move on, not interrupting the flow of the class or disrupting other students.
  4. Planned completion dates — Whether the student is working in a teacher-directed course or a self-paced course, the student needs a plan to complete the course, including frequent homework.  In a math course, students need frequent assignments and feedback to learn the mathematics’ spiral.  In my teacher directed-astronomy course, that has weekly requirements during the semester, I use a checklist.  It is a pdf that students can print and track their activity completion during the week.
  5. Student interactions with other students — Our end of course surveys indicate that students miss the regular interaction they have in traditional courses.  Online discussions, live sessions, wiki postings, and blog activities help with student interactivity.

Clearly, online practices for adolescents are different from the adult practices.  In an upcoming posting, I’ll write about more promising practices.

Chasing Results

The district technology leader must understand the business of education, apply technical knowledge, be aware and ready to implement emerging technologies, and be the district-level leader a district needs. The district technology leader can be and should be a significant strategic educational leader rather than just the chief technician.

Technology has the capabilities of changing education and personalizing it for each student. Currently most schools hold down technology’s strong attributes by implementing it for existing practices, like showing overheads or teaching word processing.  They call it a “tool” or speak of integrating technology.

This vocabulary indicates that districts should treat it differently from typical school practices.  Interesting how schools never describe books, curriculum materials, busses or even lunch as a “tools.”  The term integration suggests that hardware and software do not belong in classrooms and that we must commit some special action to make them part of learning.  I suggest that schools that have these mental constructs could be better spending their taxpayers money.

Education technology focuses on results, on student learning, and on accomplishments.  It’s not about the latest gadgets or software.  How can we help students learn, work together, and join the “new normal?”

The digital district, that is on the horizon, provides a myriad of learning opportunities for students through the Internet. Cloud computing removes the technology upgrade cycle from the district’s work basket. The digital district will  focus on a strong infrastructure for students to use their personal devices. This includes wireless and wired access, along with locations for students to charge their batteries. Additionally, digital content is becoming available through open education resources initiatives, from low-cost consortium memberships to that purchased from content providers.

While the anvil of NCLB hangs over all school districts, the long-promoted promises of technology can make a difference in the development of all students.

“Yes, but”

Today Will Richardson spoke to a group of school administrators.  He provided a compelling description of the changes (shift) that’s occurring in society and that schools have been immune.  He demonstrated ways that he is learning by connecting to others.  He asked the questions, “What can I learn from you? How can we learn together?”   Learning networks can be created through Twitter, his recommended first step.  He pleaded that schools should turn from fact-based learning (you can search for it) to problem-based, inquiry learning, although I’ve written in earlier postings that students should leave schools with some facts to have reasonable conversations with others.

Further he presented that we should be teaching information literacy by teaching wikipedia.  While the content has inaccuracies, so do many text-based authoritative sources.

Additionally, he presented some compelling evidence from the business world about managing our online reputations and that we should teach our students the same. 

In the afternoon, he asked the participants to begin to develop a vision and formulate a plan to help bring the shift to their schools.  The discussion centered on things and the adults.  Little was about the schools we want to create for our students and how we want them to learn.

All day the participant conversation included many “Yes, but” statements from the administrative group. 

I have been listening to many conversations at administrative conferences in past decade.  The conversation with school leaders usually devolves into a list of what we want to purchase (laptops for students) rather than how students should learn.  While I was energized by Richardson’s ideas, I was “depressed” about the school leaders’ views of where we need to go.   I am not sure that we, as a school leadership group, will ever get the changes that are occurring in society, where many students have more access and better technology at home than they have at school.  Perhaps school as we know it will become obsolete and one day we’ll turn around and wonder where our students went.

Richardson’s evidence is very similar to Christensen’s formal study of disruptive innovation.  The change will hit fast and schools will not be nimble enough to adjust to the change.

Richardson, Christensen and others continue to warn us of what’s just across the horizon.  If only we could  or would do something about this.  Rather all we hear is “Yes, but.”

It might be too late before these curves line up.

No curves to line up

Looks like there’s a leadership issue with President Obama’s change in direction for NASA.  In short, let’s encourage private industry to build and launch the rockets.  Interesting view of a president who acts as if government only has the capabilities for bold initiatives — like health care, job creation, and such.

The name of this writing is based on Neil Armstrong’s four curves as described in Rocket Men.  In the initial posting I wrote:

A group of NASA employees went to Caltech, where the first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, “got up at the blackboard and he drew four curves.  They look kind of like mountain peaks.”  The titles of the peaks were “Leadership,” “Threat,” “Good Economy”, and “World Peace.”  As Griffin recalls, Armstrong said, “My theory is that when all of those curves are in conjunction, when they all line up together, you can do something like Apollo.  Apollo, or something like it, will happen.  And we happened to be ready for that when all those curves lined up” (p. 348).

Leadership or not, there’s a vacuum regarding human exploration.  This curve is missing. 

Threat.  The country has many threats, real and perceived.  The largest with respect to science and technology is China.  The Chinese Long March booster is thought to be able to lift over 10,000 pounds into low earth orbit and around 5,000 pounds into stationary orbit so that a satellite  revolves around the earth once a day.  When placed at that position, the satellite says over one place on Earth.  This is valuable for relaying communications and watching weather.  The current booster is no threat.

In comparison, the Russian’s Energia booster can lift approximately 100 tons to low earth orbit, and approximately 20 tons to the higher orbit.  The American Space Shuttle lifts about 25 tons to low earth orbit and around 5 tons to higher orbit.  Clearly, the Russians are winning the booster chase, but the Chinese are working diligently on their program.  Be mindful, but not surprised, of a Chinese surprise in space exploration.  The president thinks that we don’t need a booster.  Let’s stop the program and the progress.

Further, threats no longer appear to be international.  Terrorism certainly is international, but nations threatening nations, like during the Cold War, is minimal.  It’s impossible for a national leader to link a space race to terrorism.  It’s not likely that a terrorist group will launch an ICBM at the United States.  This threat is more local, by a few individuals turning small weapons against cities.  No threat curve.

Good Economy?  Not today.  We are already spending an amount equal to the Apollo program in today’s dollars every 18 months in two desert wars.  And the president wants to move toward private contractors.  No economy curve.

World Peace.  For the most part, yes, besides the regional conflicts and the real/perceived threat of terrorism.  No curve here.

So, using Armstrong’s analysis, there are no curves to line up.  No leadership, no threat, bad economy, and a world largely at peace.  So it means no focused human exploration of the universe around us until the Chinese do something dramatic.  Be watchful.


Puzzled. That’s the recent non-verbal response from a group of experienced educators when discussing web 2.0 opportunities.  The conversation focused on the differences between threaded discussions, blogs and wikis, not the education implementation, transformation, and innovation that can occur when students are provided with liberating opportunities.

When the most important resources in a classroom continue to be the teacher and the textbook, how do we get experienced educators to implement the innovative practices that liberating opportunities provide?

This group (no, not my AU class), continued to focus on how to use — the mechanics of — the software rather in how it can be used for communication, student learning and connected learning.  I am not sure whether such discussions are lost causes because they are going after the “skill” level.

Last week our AU class heard from David Jakes, he asked the group which is more important:  skills, literacy, or fluency?  Clearly another way to look at how the adults view technology and whether they will or will not open transformative opportunities for kids.  There is a difference.  I can count to ten in Spanish, but I’m not fluent using the numbers in context or without counting in my head before I speak.

I think we want students who are above the skill level and are applying hardware and software in their learning at the fluency level.

online ≠ isolation

One of the critiques of online education is that it isolates students from their peers.  In a recent posting by technologist Larry Cuban, he wrote that “Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career.”  The limit to the “community values” thought is that many schools don’t do this now.  Schools are guided by state and federal laws.  Many parents are ruffled by terms like “Winter Break” or “Holiday Break,” when to them it’s CHRISTMAS!  Federal laws and court cases limit what communities value.  Community values are started at home, nurtured with neighbors, and expanded in churches and civic organizations.  Schools continue to be a barrier to community values.

Further how do schools prepare students for civic responsibilities?  Some have required civics and consumer education courses.  Besides observing a local government in action or visiting a bank, there’s little more in most schools.   Some others have community service opportunities or service groups.  The opportunities are limited to those who want to participate, if they are available at all.  I propose that the local church, synagogue, mosque, YMCA, or local food pantry has better civic programs than those offered in schools.  Volunteer opportunities at museums, nursing homes,  hospitals provide stronger opportunities for students to learn about the strong ties of communities.

I am a proponent of public education, although during these days of globalization, the time and space of “school,” bound by busses, bells and rows of desks, makes less sense than it did twenty years ago.  The great liberation of the Internet has made it possible to break down traditional barriers of time and space.

As for getting them ready for work and college, for the most part, beyond the obvious, high-profile exceptions, many schools get their students ready for college, at a great expense one might add.

Is online education THE answer?  Obviously, no.  While I am not normally a “choice” advocate, online education offers families the capabilities of education, without the boundaries of busses, bells, lines of students in hallways (a waste of time),and walls.  It offers students and families the abilty to time-shift or location-shift school.   It allows familiescomplete flexibility with travel, family arrangements, and time — the most value commodity in traditional schools. 

Not all online courses are of high-quality.  Many resemble higher education courses, where students read an assignment, post blogs or respond to discussion boards, and write analysis papers.  Many K-12 courses, even those from high-profile online schools or for-profit companies, emulate the higher education model.  Adolescents and children need different forms of input: reading, audio, video and simulations.  They need to be able the select the modality in which they learn.  I may want to read the assignment while Mary wants to listen or watch a video.  Additionally, adolescents want more adult direction during their online learning.  They tell us that in our course surveys.

Cuban and many professional peers think that online means isolation.  Students find many ways to socialize beyond the school walls.  Go to any coffee shop, fast food joint or mall parking lot on a warm evening.  You’ll find them socializing.  Perhaps that interaction is more meaningful than the activity that occurs locker bays between classes.  Students socialize in many ways outside school.  They don’t need the premise of school to do that, and they can be productive, socialized citizens.

What do I need to know?

In my family when the males are together, the conversation topic quickly turns to football, Big Ten football, er Ohio State football.  From the great Buckeye State, that is the focus athletics.  Folks support the Reds, Indians, Bengals, Browns and Cavaliers, but the real sport is Ohio State football.  A recent conversation quickly turned to the possibility of adding more teams to the Big Ten and it brought me to the notion what I read in educational technology blogs:  What do students need to know?

How is football related to what students should know?  What do students need to know when they can look up the answers?  Do they need to know the capital of Idaho?  Do they need to know the Constitution when they can look it up on the Internet?  Is there fundamental knowledge that everybody needs, or is the next generation of children the “Lookup Generation?”  They don’t need to know anything except how to use Google or Bing.  (So as we start the next decade, although I never start counting at zero, will it be called the the Lookup Decade or the kids known as Gen Lookup?)

To the contrary, fundamental knowledge is significant and necessary.  Students should learn their state capitals, know the Constitution. 

Back to the football conversation.  How did we know enough to talk about the topic?  Never learned about the Big Ten in school, except for my 7th grade music teacher who taught us the fight songs of the Big Ten.  From what I remember about the Ohio State Band — All Brass, All Boys, and All Ohio, although the last two requirements have been changed over the years.   Still no clarinets!

So we learned about this informally, through an interest that was home grown.  How do we cultivate the interest?  With all the money spent on technology in schools and on the myriad of reform efforts, kids still sit in rows and have to raise their hands to participate.  Group work becomes a dudgery of non-participation and conflict between participants.  Outside school, at home, on the playing fields, we work and play in groups.  Yep, it’s drudgery at times; yet in schools rows and and raised hands are the rule.   Yes, certain work and learning are not always pleasant, but we do little to personalize learning, and so everybody is in a row with a raised hand.

Make the learning interesting, problem based and personlized.  Ask real world questions, appropriate for the age level, that allow students to think, develop understandings and factual foundations.  Personalize learning so that students can progress at their own rate.  Does it matter if a student completes third grade in 18 months and fifth grade in 6 months?  Encourage individual achievement and the importance of group work from a young age.  Get the kids out of rows with raised hands!

The football conversation was clarified by references to facts found on a smartphone or two.  Conversations during work references the web through a search or two, but that is not the foundation of the conversation.  Searching for information clarifies and sharpens the focus, not forms the foundation.

Request for Help

The planetarium community has a history of generosity to colleagues.  This involves offering advice and material goods, even when many of the donating organizations operate on meager budgets.  I have never seen a cadre pull together like this group of professionals.  An opportunity of sharing and support has turned our direction.

The Great Lakes Planetarium Association has a small presence on”Linked In.”  Recently, we received a request from help from a planetarian in India.  His request follows

Dear sir, I reside at Mumbai, India. We started a group COSMOS – for propogating astronomy through sessions, telescopes, lcd’s, night skies etc.. My wife now looks after the activities. we are 6 of us in core team.

we have a planeterium at worli, owned by a government organisation..

I wanted to know if you can help us propogate through new aids.

India has a great thirst for knowledge and hence provide a good base. I shall discuss more..

If you can assist, please join us in Linked in and provide professional assistance and any materials that might be helpful to this fledgling operation.

People want results

As I catch up on reading on my desk, I see an interesting column by Rob Preston, Editor of Information week, from November 16, 2009.  His column title, “People want results, not solutions.”  As we speak with individuals who need our services, we can easily make promises, say “Yes!,” and talk about easy fixes, solutions.

Preston starts his column:  “Farms and financial institutions and police departments and hospitals and the people who run them aren’t really interested in hardware, software, services, or even ‘solutions.’  They’re interested in producing outcomes . . .”

After we make our promises, when the reality sets in overworked staff, trying to implement the promise we made two months ago, look at us in amazement.  Sometimes our drive to please the individual in pain makes it too easy to offer the “solution” that we cannot easily implement.  That action does not do anybody good, and gives us a bad reputation as a person who cannot deliver, but make only promises.

For many years, I have used a priority guiding point that I will drop my work to help anybody who requests it.  I’ll find a way to get my work done.  I don’t want them waiting for me.  If my written promise is 48 hours after a request is submitted, I will frequently complete the task within a half day.  It’s the underpromise and over deliver mentality.  As I wrote above.  I don’t want them waiting on me.

As a leader we have no value if we’re not delivering results.  As an organizational leader, deliver results, not solutions.  And may your curves always line up.

Watching the Sun, Moon and Planets