Engaging Learners Online: Part 2 - Building Online Professional Learning Environments
by Miguel Guhlin (mguhlin@gmail.com)

A year ago when I actively started working to use Moodle to impact professional learning in my school district, I had no real clue as to what I was doing. Having built my professional learning network--composed of a global education community that reached as far as Spain, New Zealand, Australia using tools like Twitter and my blog--I was able to rely on the help of many who have gone before. Doing this kind of work is nerve-wracking, because you are facing the equivalent of a "blank slate." You simply don't know what you don't know.

This short article highlights our discoveries of ignorance, and then recommends steps to take. It also includes our best thinking on the subject of online learning facilitation, the essential elements an online course should have, and links to sample courses designed with this in mind.

In a recent MIT Press report, the following quote underscores the importance of building professional learning networks that employ easy to use technologies:


Moodle is one of those new technologies that enables teachers hoping to facilitate online learning to learn together and from each other. The exact logistics of accomplishing that facilitation, though, caused me some angst early on. It became apparent--due to our lack of knowledge about online learning--that the desire to teach online would require some serious deliberation and consideration. To that end, I turned to my team of talented professionals, begging them to join me in my effort to learn how to facilitate professional learning in my urban, inner-city school district.

Here are the steps we took in our journey, a journey that is far from complete:

  1. Get staff certified as PBS TeacherLine Online Facilitators - this enabled me and my team to better understand what is involved in facilitating an online course and gave us a standard framework to innovate from when designing a course. (www.pbs.org/teacherline/
  2. Construct an Introduction to Online Learning course--about a week long--that can be used as a pre-requisite for teachers who have never experienced online professional learning before. This enables everyone to start from a common perspective, building familiarity with Moodle course management system (which becomes your district standard) and opening teachers' eyes to the power of a collaborative professional learning. There was no extrinsic incentive for completion of this course except 6 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) and/or gifted and talented (GT) credit hours. Any teacher not passing course can take it up to three more times. Pass rate for this course is about 98%.
  3. Purchase online courses that are relevant to teachers' practice in ways that are relevant to the focus of your District. Since my focus is technology integration, I sought out courses that are relevant to achieving the Texas ePlan:
    • PBS TeacherLine courses--available for a variety of areas, not just "technology"--for deployment in your district. These courses are 30 hours each, can be converted to Moodle format and deployed in your district. My district purchased 90 hours of content--3 courses--with unlimited rights and had them converted to Moodle format. Our goal is to license the content for two years at a minimum and offer the 30 hour courses in smaller bites. This is necessary because PBS TeacherLine courses, which run for 6 weeks each, are fairly intensive.
    • LOTI Lead Teacher courses, which last 10-weeks, enable you to gradually ease teachers into the online learning environment. Frankly, in my experience, teachers --myself included--have little stamina for lengthy online courses. LOTI enables you to have conversations about learning and technology over an extended period of time without the rigor of a PBS TeacherLine course, which can be frightening for newbies. Furthermore, the LOTI (levels of teaching innovation) Lead Teacher course discusses how to "harness the power of your existing programs into one united effort to assess, plan, implement, and sustain a systems approach to improved student achievement using 21st Century teaching, learning and leadership." This can put online learning into perspective.
    • Third party how-to online learning experiences are widely available. Whether you use InfoSource Learning's content, or Atomic Learning, the question to ask yourself is, "How easy is it to plug-n-play these technologies into my Moodle?" Will I be able to embed content from these tutorial web sites into my Moodle or will participants find themselves having to log-in to yet another system? It is this last question that encouraged me to consider the next option.
  4. Create your own online courses. When I started creating courses, I found myself wondering, "Where are the templates for designing an online course? What are the standards?" Like any teacher developing a lesson, I wanted some framework, a checklist to follow. I recently had the opportunity to review an online course developed by another district on an important subject. I was disappointed at the design of the course. As a result, I spent some time working with two of my team who are actively developing their own courses for use in the district. We set out to develop and revise an Introduction to Online Learning course that truly reflected the values we had adopted going through Online Facilitator Training. Our course design is modular (course content and activities like forums, assignments organized by topic), features a syllabus, assignment checklist, and is multi-modal, featuring videos, audio, and text. As we worked collaboratively to revise and design new courses together, it has been helpful to have a set of internal standards to adhere to.

In truth, however, these were less like steps and more like opportunities to learn what path would work best for our school district. In step three, my district spent money so that we could discover that courses designed in-house could be more powerful for school staff than external courses. Yet, these outside courses also helped me better understand the work ahead of us. In retrospect, I would recommend a different series of steps.

The learning path I would now recommend to a district starting out:

  1. Establish a team of professional learning facilitators who will commit to learning how to design online classes and facilitate online courses. My team of one coordinator and four facilitators--all past classroom teachers who work in Instructional Technology--can boast various online learning certifications. For them, building online professional learning is about continuous improvement. For example, my team began with PBS TeacherLine courses and is now moving to get certified by the State Education Agency in facilitating online learning for students (http://txvsn.org). These individuals do a lot more than just sit around and design online courses. However, we all made a commitment to learn how to do this together and then, to do it.
  2. Create your own online courses about a week in duration to start with and then grow from there. Pick out the top five to six courses that you think will be worthwhile for your teachers and then go for it. Design of a week-long course takes about 20-25 hours of work. Thankfully, using Moodle, you are able to easily structure learning activities that can engage your learners in ways that simply posting information online could not. Some of the lessons we learned about facilitating successful online courses are encapsulated in Sidebar #1: 8 Tips to Successful Online Learning Environments.
  3. Purchase courses--such as from PBS TeacherLine or LOTI Connection--that address content you do not know how to organize for online learning. This allows you to learn the structure and content of a course and then to create your own course using Creative Commons Copyrighted materials available via the Web. Or, your district may have purchased books that can be used.

The biggest mistake I made in our first year of designing online professional learning opportunities was that I tried to jumpstart the process by buying commercial offerings. Instead, we were better served by developing a rubric or template (Sidebar #2 - Online Learning Course Development Checklist) for what a course we wanted to teach should include. The next draft of our course design will match our work to iNACOL's (http://www.inacol.org/). From that point we developed the course as a team, moving forward together and buliding clarity about the common elements and structure. You can find some of our early work--including Moodle courses you can download--online at http://sn.im/saelearning.

CONCLUSION
Online learning design has been a most exhilirating experience, sparking new growth for myself and my team. While teachers are locked away in their classrooms, in boxes locked tight by federal and state expectations, using Moodle to build online learning communities has had a profound impact. The impact has been on those of us who design and facilitate virtual learning experiences, but also on teachers who thought they had forgotten how to learn, who never imagined their district had the wherewithal to craft engaging, authentic, high-tech professional learning. I invite you to join us, not as expert designers of online learning, but as voyagers in virtual exploration.

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin (Email: mguhlin@gmail.com) continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing (http://mguhlin.net) or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner-MGuhlin.org (http://mguhlin.org).


Sidebar #1:
8 Tips for Successful Online Learning Environments

Learning should be social…and in today’s world being social means being connected while you learn. Do we help create these social connections or are we to worried about the time students might waste being social and being connected?
Source: The Thinking Stick Blog

Easy access to course management systems like Moodle, Sakai, among others, make online learning possible for K-16 educational institutions. At a presentation at the recently held Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) Conference, colleague Tonya Mills and I had the opportunity to share our thoughts on online course facilitation. We both had the opportunity to share the wisdom that comes from reflecting on past mistakes with online course facilitation with a state-wide audience. This article encapsulates 8 tips that we have learned, both as online facilitators ourselves and through the constant reading and reflection we have engaged in.

This online learning experience kept my interest and provided me with learning that I know will benefit me as an educator and, thus, will positively impact student learning. I especially enjoyed being able to login at my convenience and from multiple portals (home and work). The content was challenging and interesting and I found that the activities/projects were relevant and, thus, met my needs as an adult learner.
Source: San Antonio ISD Online Course Participant

LEARNING IS SOCIAL
Learning IS social…and online learning environments engage students in that way. But we have to be careful to avoid trying to engage students in online learning environments with face to face approaches. . .the effects of F2F engagement methods may be different than what we expect. We have discovered this through our own professional learning experiences online as students and facilitators. We often joke that we’d probably still be wandering in the desert of online course facilitation if we had not taken advantage of some course facilitation opportunities. Even though our efforts are still beginning in our school district, here are 8 tips:

Tip #1 - Address the logistics of the course in your course materials and make sure they are obvious and easily accessible rather than buried in a syllabus or other document. Logistics can include how often students should login and participate in the course, assessment rubrics, etc. For example, Tonya and I have found it helpful to craft a syllabus and an assignment checklist (that can also be printed) for course participants. This enables them--and us--to know exactly where they should be throughout the course. Another approach to streamline organization of the course is to place content in textbooks organized by topic. If you are familiar with Moodle, you know you can use the Book module to put text, audio and video organized as chapters in a book. This enables your virtual students to work their way through the content for a specific topic within the overall course of study. This organizational principle can save your students a lot of time and effort, as opposed to the traditional approach of organizing everything in resources at the end of the course. For example, here is one participant's introduction:

I too am a Middle School Math teacher. I teach 7th grade. What grade do you teach?
Is this your first technology course? I just finished the TILT course and it was an awesome experience. It's nice to see other Math teachers getting involved beyond the classroom. We are so consumed with so much, with TAKS and all. I don't know about you, but I am glad TAKS testing is over with. We have a little time for freedom to incorporate the technology now. It's nice to meet you and I look forward to working with you this week.
Source: Introduce Yourself Forum, SAISD Blogging Online Course

Tip #2 - Personalize your online learning environment with multimedia. You can accomplish this by including video testimonials from former students and course introductions by district facilitators. One of my favorite examples of this approach was, when designing a course for librarians being introduced to Web 2.0, to request audio introductions to the topics from well-known library advocates such as Doug Johnson and Joyce Valenza. The expectation was that they would provide a brief introduction from their "library" perspective for each topic. This kind of personalization helps build a real connection with course participants.

In one online class, participants had the opportunity to view videos that illustrated how to subscribe to education blogs using Google Reader. Some of the positive feedback from using the videos:

Before I took this class, I had no idea how blogging could be so helpful to myself and my class. I had wanted to create a classroom web page; however I see that a blogging site would be so much better. I think it will really help my class communicate with other classes and to gather ideas from other children their age. I can use it to reflect on lessons and classroom management. I can also use it to post special projects, lessons, homework as well as showcase their work. Subscribing to RSS feeds has made it easier to obtain information. By using google reader I will save so much time....

These videos and articles put so much more into place and answered many of my questions that I had concerning getting the blog and what I am supposed to do with it!
I am excited about the possibilities!
Source: SAISD Blogging Online Course

Obviously, the power of videos helped this participant better understand what is involved and to grasp the concept of blogging and RSS feeds, without the presence of a face to face presentation.

Tip #3 - Develop and share materials (e.g. brochures) with potential participants. Making course materials available online is important, but it's also necessary to share the print resources you are using to advertise the class online. Often, course participants request access to the flyer that enticed them to sign-up for the online course. By revisiting the flyer, they can visually remember what their purpose for registering for the course was.

Tip #4 - Set up forums that address the “social dimension” of introducing people and getting to know each other, as well as forums for dealing with technical aspects. If someone hasn’t logged in, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call them or send an email a day until they respond. In one instance, technical issues at the District level interfered with the class, resulting in this question from a participant in the Technical Support Forum:

Question from Learner #1: I just received and email saying that our district server was going to be down Friday through Saturday. Does this affect our internet course? Also I wanted to follow up on the blog request form. Is there still a problem with the setting up of our blogs? I submitted the request and still haven't heard anything. I'm just concerned about completing the assigments on time. I know that something was mentioned about an extension, but I wanted to know if that still applied and also how much longer we had. Thank you

Response from Learner #2: Yes, will we be allowed extra time to complete our assignments? With the blog site down and then the entire network down it will be hard to complete assignments on time.

The power of Support Forums is that when your online learners start to come together as a community of learners, they start to help each other out and respond. As facilitator, I did not get a chance to respond quickly enough but another participant stepped up...and stepping up to help others learn fundamentally changes--in a positive way--the teaching and learning dynamic.

Tip #5 - Remember to scaffold and support learning conversations rather than dominate them. Part of your scaffolding and support is providing regular feedback and interacting with participants online. This is especially important up front since your level of activity serves as a model for the level of interaction students will exhibit when you are present but not as active.

This initial high interactivity sloping down to omni-presence enables participants to learn to rely on each other for answers, rather than you. Consider this exchange between participants in their first attempts to create a podcast using a free online service that, unfortunately, was blocked within the District (unblocked later):

Learner #1: After trying repeatedly at school to create a podcast without succes I was very determined to accomplish this task. Finally, at home I had success.
I find it very rewarding to achieve this. It was actually very simple once I was blocked by school servers. The possibilities are endless for this. I can envision student comments as they work on a project or go on a field trip as Ms Farias suggested. If I was undertaking a project on butterflies I would have my students comment on each life stage we observe. Once it was uploaded onto a blog it would be there for review. Pictures could be added to go with the dialogue.

Learner #2: Great to hear of your success - I listened to your podcast and was inspired to give it a try - I too was successful and you're correct - despite the multi-steps, not too difficult.

Learner #3: I like your idea about the butterfly, Jenny! As you already know since we work at the same school next year our campus will incorporate a gallery walk. The purpose of the gallery walk is to showcase student learning. Podcasting would be a great way to showcase a theme while incorporating technology. The students would showcase their expertise on the life cycles of the butterfly. Maybe each student could comment on a different stage of the butterfly and so forth. You could also discuss habitat and food. Great ideas, Thanks

Tip #6 - Don’t be afraid to summarize–also known as landscape–the ongoing conversations periodically, as well as remind everyone what expectations are at regular intervals (such as at the start point, mid-point, and end-points). This help everyone stay on focus.

Tip #7 - Avoid long discussion posts, as well as posts that feature a lot of questions. Focus discussions around ONE central question that resembles an ill-structured problem. For example, consider how many questions are introduced in this discussion prompt. Each question achieves equal status for the participant; how could one question or scenario help participants focus?

Discuss the solutions to the following questions:
  1. A teacher entered a “T” for tardy in the gradebook for the wrong student How can this be corrected?
  2. Who marks attendance when the teacher is absent and there is a substitute in the classroom?
  3. What happens when a student is withdrawn from Teacher A and moved to Teacher B? Why does their name no longer show on the attendance report?
  4. Can teachers change/edit attendance in the electronic gradebook once it is entered?
  5. What are the steps for running an Attendance Totals Report?

A possible alternative way to introduce these topics for discussion:

"Ms. Jones," began Teri the new assistant principal in conversation with the principal, "Mr. Cervantez was absent from work yesterday and the substitute teacher marked attendance wrong in the electronic gradebook. What we think happened is that the substitute marked Ramon Johnson tardy, but it was really Ramon Jimenez that was absent. Ramon Johnson actually transferred from Mr. Cervantez' class to Ms. Derrick's class. What should I tell Mr. Cervantez about changing his gradebook? And, is there any way we can run a report on attendance totals to see what other issues there may be?"

While this is one attempt to weave in various questions and issues into a real life scenario, it's critical to engage course participants with ill-structured problems. Ill-structured problems can be an effective way of engaging students with experiences that scaffold higher order thinking. Such problems need to achieve curriculum objectives, be engaging but not frustrating, and be developmentally appropriate for the learner.

Tip #8 - Encourage people to discover each other’s strengths and what they each have to bring to the table. One of the most rewarding aspects of online learning conversations is that people discover each other--and themselves--online. Some of the feedback that can result includes the following:

I have found that this course has made sharing information with my students and their families. Online professional learning/development for work-related purposes is a great experience. It allows for you to learn at your own pace and still offers support for those who need support. I enjoy trying to solve each task set forth independently and only seek assistance when needed...I got many ideas and helpful suggestions from the other participants.

Online courses make it easy to obtain professional development in different areas of need...This online learning experience kept my interest and provided me with learning that I know will benefit me as an educator and, thus, will positively impact student learning. I especially enjoyed being able to login at my convenience and from multiple portals (home and work). The content was challenging and interesting and I found that the activities/projects were relevant and, thus, met my needs as an adult learner.

Finally, as online learners discover the benefits of learning online for themselves--especially when they work with other people--that positive reaction will encompass your online professional learning program. I encourage you to employ these 8 tips for successful online course facilitation. Be sure to share back other tips you learn along the way!




Sidebar #2 - Online Learning Course Development Checklist
Created by Diana Benner (diana.benner@gmail.com) with feedback from Tonya Mills (tmills0220@yahoo.com), Stephanie Correa, Sue Harris, Miguel Guhlin (mguhlin@gmail.com), and a global community
Shared under Creative Commons Copyright ShareAlike-Attribution-NonCommercial


Course Name:

Designed By:

Date:

  1. Course Development Checklist

Item
Status
Comments/
Plan to Revise

1
Course Title


1.1
Welcome



Make everyone feel welcome.



Provide for introductions.


1.2
Course Description



A brief description of course is provided.


2
Course Information


2
Announcements & Support Center


2.1
Important Announcements Forum



Course goals and objectives are clearly stated and measurable. Participants know what is expected of them.






2.2
Support Forum



Inform students where help with course can be obtained.



Inform students where technical support can be
obtained.







3
Course Information


3.1
Orientation to Course



Navigation Instructions:



Outline of format of course is provided.



How to move around the course is clearly stated.



Where to go next instructions are provided.






3.2
Syllabus



Goals & Objectives:



Course goals and objectives are clearly stated and measurable. Participants know what is expected of them.



Standards:



Course standards are listed (NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC)



Requirements:



Course requirements are consistent with course goals
and are clearly stated.




Pre-Requisites



Pre-Requisite information is listed.



Course Procedures (Course Overview)



A description of the activities, assignments, and
resources that frame the course/units are described in
detail.




Assignment expectations are included.



Frequency and timing of participation expectations are
stated and described.




Schedule



A schedule of course activities is listed.



Dates for assignments/activites are shown.



Grading



Assessment expectations are included.



Course Facilitator Contact Information



Information on how to communicate with online course
facilitator and the process for these communications
are stated.




Copyright



Issues associated with copyright are addressed.



Academic Integrity Statement



Academic integrity and netiquette expectations are
stated.




Privacy Policy



Privacy policy is stated.



Other General Items



Overall syllabus provides a clear and complete course
overview.




Alternate plans in the event of technical difficulties are
stated.







3.3
Assignment Checklist



All assignments/activities are listed in order



Dates for units, assignments, and activities are shown
(unless already stated in course syllabus)




Links to course activities are provided






3.4
Assessment Rubrics



Goals and Objectives



Evaluation strategies are consistent with course goals and objectives.



Standards



Course assessments are aligned with standards
(NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC).




Type of Assessments



Ongoing and frequent assessments are included to check for understanding after completion of each lesson.



Various assessments are used.



Grading policies and procedures are easy to understand.



Other



Assessment makes student aware of his/her progress in class (beyond grades)


3.5
Pre-Assessment



Assessment of student’s prior knowledge of course material is provided.






4
Parts: Course Content


4.1
Activities/Assignments



Standards



Course activities and assignments are aligned with
standards (NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC)




Course activities and assignments are of sufficient rigor
to teach standards being addressed.




Objectives



Lesson objectives are stated in each part.



Each lesson includes a lesson overview of activities,
assignments, and assessments.




Content



Various ways to learn and multiple levels of mastery are evident in course content.



Activities provide for participant retention of
information.




Activities engage students in active learning.



Activities allow for multiple learning styles.



Activities are varied.



Activities provide for opportunities that address higher-order thinking skills and complex thinking.



Activities can be adapted to accommodate students’ needs.



Activities are appropriate for course content and students.


4.2
Discussion Forums



Communication skills and netiquette expectations are mentioned as being an integral part of course.



An opportunity for appropriate instructor-student interaction and frequent feedback about student progress is provided.



Appropriate student-student interaction to foster mastery and application of material is provided for.



A plan for monitoring discussions is provided.


4.3
Other Items to Consider



The amount and use of text is appropriate for the
course.




Multimedia use is suitable to the topic.



Course content is provided in segments that are
technologically deliverable.




Video/audio segments are edited to reduce long
download times.




All links to content are checked and working prior to
start of course.




Graphics are appropriate and well utilized.






5
Final Reflections


5.1
End of Course Reflection



Evaluation exists for assessing student’s satisfaction with course.


5.2
Learning Style Self-Assessment



Opportunity for students to self-assess potential for success in online courses is provided.






6
Resources



Links on how to acquire additional/supplemental learning resources are presented.



Sufficient learning resources and materials are available to increase student learning.



Resources enrich course content.






7
Other Course Considerations



Instructor provides regular updates to students on
course changes.




Course if free of bias.









A year ago when I actively started working to use Moodle to impact professional learning in my school district, I had no real clue as to what I was doing. Having built my professional learning network--composed of a global education community that reached as far as Spain, New Zealand, Australia using tools like Twitter and my blog--I was able to rely on the help of many who have gone before. Doing this kind of work is nerve-wracking, because you are facing the equivalent of a "blank slate." You simply don't know what you don't know.

This short article highlights our discoveries of ignorance, and then recommends steps to take. It also includes our best thinking on the subject of online learning facilitation, the essential elements an online course should have, and links to sample courses designed with this in mind.

In a recent MIT Press report, the following quote underscores the importance of building professional learning networks that employ easy to use technologies:

"New technologies allow for small groups whose members are at physical distance to each other to learn collaboratively together, and from each other; but they also enable larger, more anonymous yet equally productive interactions."
Source: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg

Moodle is one of those new technologies that enables teachers hoping to facilitate online learning to learn together and from each other. The exact logistics of accomplishing that facilitation, though, caused me some angst early on. It became apparent--due to our lack of knowledge about online learning--that the desire to teach online would require some serious deliberation and consideration. To that end, I turned to my team of talented professionals, begging them to join me in my effort to learn how to facilitate professional learning in my urban, inner-city school district.

Here are the steps we took in our journey, a journey that is far from complete:

  1. Get staff certified as PBS TeacherLine Online Facilitators - this enabled me and my team to better understand what is involved in facilitating an online course and gave us a standard framework to innovate from when designing a course. (www.pbs.org/teacherline/
  2. Construct an Introduction to Online Learning course--about a week long--that can be used as a pre-requisite for teachers who have never experienced online professional learning before. This enables everyone to start from a common perspective, building familiarity with Moodle course management system (which becomes your district standard) and opening teachers' eyes to the power of a collaborative professional learning. There was no extrinsic incentive for completion of this course except 6 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) and/or gifted and talented (GT) credit hours. Any teacher not passing course can take it up to three more times. Pass rate for this course is about 98%.
  3. Purchase online courses that are relevant to teachers' practice in ways that are relevant to the focus of your District. Since my focus is technology integration, I sought out courses that are relevant to achieving the Texas ePlan:
    • PBS TeacherLine courses--available for a variety of areas, not just "technology"--for deployment in your district. These courses are 30 hours each, can be converted to Moodle format and deployed in your district. My district purchased 90 hours of content--3 courses--with unlimited rights and had them converted to Moodle format. Our goal is to license the content for two years at a minimum and offer the 30 hour courses in smaller bites. This is necessary because PBS TeacherLine courses, which run for 6 weeks each, are fairly intensive.
    • LOTI Lead Teacher courses, which last 10-weeks, enable you to gradually ease teachers into the online learning environment. Frankly, in my experience, teachers --myself included--have little stamina for lengthy online courses. LOTI enables you to have conversations about learning and technology over an extended period of time without the rigor of a PBS TeacherLine course, which can be frightening for newbies. Furthermore, the LOTI (levels of teaching innovation) Lead Teacher course discusses how to "harness the power of your existing programs into one united effort to assess, plan, implement, and sustain a systems approach to improved student achievement using 21st Century teaching, learning and leadership." This can put online learning into perspective.
    • Third party how-to online learning experiences are widely available. Whether you use InfoSource Learning's content, or Atomic Learning, the question to ask yourself is, "How easy is it to plug-n-play these technologies into my Moodle?" Will I be able to embed content from these tutorial web sites into my Moodle or will participants find themselves having to log-in to yet another system? It is this last question that encouraged me to consider the next option.
  4. Create your own online courses. When I started creating courses, I found myself wondering, "Where are the templates for designing an online course? What are the standards?" Like any teacher developing a lesson, I wanted some framework, a checklist to follow. I recently had the opportunity to review an online course developed by another district on an important subject. I was disappointed at the design of the course. As a result, I spent some time working with two of my team who are actively developing their own courses for use in the district. We set out to develop and revise an Introduction to Online Learning course that truly reflected the values we had adopted going through Online Facilitator Training. Our course design is modular (course content and activities like forums, assignments organized by topic), features a syllabus, assignment checklist, and is multi-modal, featuring videos, audio, and text. As we worked collaboratively to revise and design new courses together, it has been helpful to have a set of internal standards to adhere to.

In truth, however, these were less like steps and more like opportunities to learn what path would work best for our school district. In step three, my district spent money so that we could discover that courses designed in-house could be more powerful for school staff than external courses. Yet, these outside courses also helped me better understand the work ahead of us. In retrospect, I would recommend a different series of steps.

The learning path I would now recommend to a district starting out:

  1. Establish a team of professional learning facilitators who will commit to learning how to design online classes and facilitate online courses. My team of one coordinator and four facilitators--all past classroom teachers who work in Instructional Technology--can boast various online learning certifications. For them, building online professional learning is about continuous improvement. For example, my team began with PBS TeacherLine courses and is now moving to get certified by the State Education Agency in facilitating online learning for students (http://txvsn.org). These individuals do a lot more than just sit around and design online courses. However, we all made a commitment to learn how to do this together and then, to do it.
  2. Create your own online courses about a week in duration to start with and then grow from there. Pick out the top five to six courses that you think will be worthwhile for your teachers and then go for it. Design of a week-long course takes about 20-25 hours of work. Thankfully, using Moodle, you are able to easily structure learning activities that can engage your learners in ways that simply posting information online could not. Some of the lessons we learned about facilitating successful online courses are encapsulated in Sidebar #1: 8 Tips to Successful Online Learning Environments.
  3. Purchase courses--such as from PBS TeacherLine or LOTI Connection--that address content you do not know how to organize for online learning. This allows you to learn the structure and content of a course and then to create your own course using Creative Commons Copyrighted materials available via the Web. Or, your district may have purchased books that can be used.

The biggest mistake I made in our first year of designing online professional learning opportunities was that I tried to jumpstart the process by buying commercial offerings. Instead, we were better served by developing a rubric or template (Sidebar #2 - Online Learning Course Development Checklist) for what a course we wanted to teach should include. The next draft of our course design will match our work to iNACOL's (http://www.inacol.org/). From that point we developed the course as a team, moving forward together and buliding clarity about the common elements and structure. You can find some of our early work--including Moodle courses you can download--online at http://sn.im/saelearning.

CONCLUSION
Online learning design has been a most exhilirating experience, sparking new growth for myself and my team. While teachers are locked away in their classrooms, in boxes locked tight by federal and state expectations, using Moodle to build online learning communities has had a profound impact. The impact has been on those of us who design and facilitate virtual learning experiences, but also on teachers who thought they had forgotten how to learn, who never imagined their district had the wherewithal to craft engaging, authentic, high-tech professional learning. I invite you to join us, not as expert designers of online learning, but as voyagers in virtual exploration.

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin (Email: mguhlin@gmail.com) continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing (http://mguhlin.net) or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner-MGuhlin.org (http://mguhlin.org).




Sidebar #2 - Online Learning Course Development Checklist
Created by Diana Benner (diana.benner@gmail.com) with feedback from Tonya Mills (tmills0220@yahoo.com), Stephanie Correa, Sue Harris, Miguel Guhlin (mguhlin@gmail.com), and a global community
Shared under Creative Commons Copyright ShareAlike-Attribution-NonCommercial

Course Name:

Designed By:

Date:

  1. Course Development Checklist

Item
Status
Comments/
Plan to Revise

1
Course Title


1.1
Welcome



Make everyone feel welcome.



Provide for introductions.


1.2
Course Description



A brief description of course is provided.


2
Course Information


2
Announcements & Support Center


2.1
Important Announcements Forum



Course goals and objectives are clearly stated and measurable. Participants know what is expected of them.






2.2
Support Forum



Inform students where help with course can be obtained.



Inform students where technical support can be
obtained.







3
Course Information


3.1
Orientation to Course



Navigation Instructions:



Outline of format of course is provided.



How to move around the course is clearly stated.



Where to go next instructions are provided.






3.2
Syllabus



Goals & Objectives:



Course goals and objectives are clearly stated and measurable. Participants know what is expected of them.



Standards:



Course standards are listed (NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC)



Requirements:



Course requirements are consistent with course goals
and are clearly stated.




Pre-Requisites



Pre-Requisite information is listed.



Course Procedures (Course Overview)



A description of the activities, assignments, and
resources that frame the course/units are described in
detail.




Assignment expectations are included.



Frequency and timing of participation expectations are
stated and described.




Schedule



A schedule of course activities is listed.



Dates for assignments/activites are shown.



Grading



Assessment expectations are included.



Course Facilitator Contact Information



Information on how to communicate with online course
facilitator and the process for these communications
are stated.




Copyright



Issues associated with copyright are addressed.



Academic Integrity Statement



Academic integrity and netiquette expectations are
stated.




Privacy Policy



Privacy policy is stated.



Other General Items



Overall syllabus provides a clear and complete course
overview.




Alternate plans in the event of technical difficulties are
stated.







3.3
Assignment Checklist



All assignments/activities are listed in order



Dates for units, assignments, and activities are shown
(unless already stated in course syllabus)




Links to course activities are provided






3.4
Assessment Rubrics



Goals and Objectives



Evaluation strategies are consistent with course goals and objectives.



Standards



Course assessments are aligned with standards
(NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC).




Type of Assessments



Ongoing and frequent assessments are included to check for understanding after completion of each lesson.



Various assessments are used.



Grading policies and procedures are easy to understand.



Other



Assessment makes student aware of his/her progress in class (beyond grades)


3.5
Pre-Assessment



Assessment of student’s prior knowledge of course material is provided.






4
Parts: Course Content


4.1
Activities/Assignments



Standards



Course activities and assignments are aligned with
standards (NETS, LOTI, ISTE, SBEC)




Course activities and assignments are of sufficient rigor
to teach standards being addressed.




Objectives



Lesson objectives are stated in each part.



Each lesson includes a lesson overview of activities,
assignments, and assessments.




Content



Various ways to learn and multiple levels of mastery are evident in course content.



Activities provide for participant retention of
information.




Activities engage students in active learning.



Activities allow for multiple learning styles.



Activities are varied.



Activities provide for opportunities that address higher-order thinking skills and complex thinking.



Activities can be adapted to accommodate students’ needs.



Activities are appropriate for course content and students.


4.2
Discussion Forums



Communication skills and netiquette expectations are mentioned as being an integral part of course.



An opportunity for appropriate instructor-student interaction and frequent feedback about student progress is provided.



Appropriate student-student interaction to foster mastery and application of material is provided for.



A plan for monitoring discussions is provided.


4.3
Other Items to Consider



The amount and use of text is appropriate for the
course.




Multimedia use is suitable to the topic.



Course content is provided in segments that are
technologically deliverable.




Video/audio segments are edited to reduce long
download times.




All links to content are checked and working prior to
start of course.




Graphics are appropriate and well utilized.






5
Final Reflections


5.1
End of Course Reflection



Evaluation exists for assessing student’s satisfaction with course.


5.2
Learning Style Self-Assessment



Opportunity for students to self-assess potential for success in online courses is provided.






6
Resources



Links on how to acquire additional/supplemental learning resources are presented.



Sufficient learning resources and materials are available to increase student learning.



Resources enrich course content.






7
Other Course Considerations



Instructor provides regular updates to students on
course changes.




Course if free of bias.








  1. Signatures
The people below have evaluated the specified course and have provided comments on improving the course and/or have listed items that need to be revised.


Name/Title
Signature
Date













Comments:





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