The Benefits of a Student Learning Network

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Forget any previous stigma your mind has attached to “social networking” and think about what a social network offers. At its core, it allows participants to interact with each other on topical matters, share different relevant media, and connect to others in meaningful ways beyond the traditional face-to-face environment. If you focus on these aspects, it’s a dream come true for a teacher.

Every teacher in Weber School District can make a simple learning network through our Moodle system, eCourses. Create a forum and let your students communicate and collaborate. Guide the discussions with topics you’re discussing in class, and allow students to engage each other and reflect on their own learning. Often the shy students are the ones who shine the most, since online communication tends to “level” the playing field for many of them. From what I’ve seen with our teachers who use Moodle forums, the extremely shy and reticent students really open up online, and make friendships with their classmates that then extend directly to the face-to-face environment, making them a more active and social part of the classroom in general. Plus, we’ve found that our secondary students often log in and are talking to each other at 9 or 10 at night (even though the teacher tells them to go to bed), discussing the topics the teacher raised.

A Moodle forum can provide a way for students to share their work with each other, so it’s not just the teacher who sees it, but all the classmates who see it and provide feedback. For a classroom with a lot of technology-oriented projects (e.g. videos, podcasts, VoiceThreads, etc.), establishing a learning network on Moodle can be a huge benefit. Ultimately, it widens the span of cooperative learning.

The Importance of Student Reflection

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In an online classroom, there are two primary written reflection tools: blogs and forums.

A forum is ideal for collaborating in a group, and following prompted topics. For example, a history instructor teaching a unit on the U.S. Civil War may post weekly discussion questions like:

  • Why do you think it took hundreds of years for slavery to become such a divisive issue?
  • How did women contribute to the war efforts?
  • How did the abolitionist movement begin?

From these questions, a very lively and thought-provoking discussion may occur among the students. Each shares their own input, responds to others, and contributes by drawing from their existing knowledge and experience. It’s an excellent activity for hybrid learning environments, and directed online classes.

Forums work well for self-directed classes, too, where students work at their own pace. While you can’t guarantee that every student will progress the same through the course, thoughtful forum-based questions can cause the student to continually think about the general topics at hand. It is not unusual for forum topics anywhere on the web to be rekindled one or two years after they go silent, often by an enthusiastic or curious contributor. The advantage of the forum is that it doesn’t have to be limited in time.

In this sense, the forum acts somewhat like a blog. Student A responding to a post that Student B made a year ago probably won’t hear anything back from the Student B, since Student B likely completed the course a long time ago. But Student A still gains valuable reflection from writing. Especially in a K-12 environment where safety policies may prohibit teachers from endorsing student blogging, a closed forum hosted on the LMS can be a welcome, viable alternative.

Dawley (2007) wrote, “The asynchronous nature of discussion forums provides opportunity for in-depth reflection over time. They also create a sense of community through discussion of course concepts, peer interaction and feedback, making instructor feedback visible to all students, and they also exemplify one of the highly touted benefits of online learning — anywhere, anyplace, anytime” (p. ix).

A blog is a reflection tool that doesn’t need strictly directed prompts. When students blog, they are writing to the world, and inviting comments from people all over, not just their classmates. Using blogs gives the students ownership of their content, and lets them engage a worldwide audience, not just their teachers and classmates. Plus, many students who are shy in face-to-face settings and never speak up in the classroom, finally find they have a voice and can assume a vibrant, charismatic persona they would never seem to be able to do in a face-to-face class session (Ferdig & Trammell, 2004).

References

Dawley, L. (2007). The Tools for Successful Online Teaching (1st ed.). IGI Global.

Ferdig, R. E., & Trammell, K. D. (2004, February). Content delivery in the ‘blogosphere.’ T.H.E. Journal, 31(7), 12-20.

E-Learning Courseware Tools

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An online classroom offers more provisions to use web-based tools than a face-to-face classroom might. For Weber Online, we are using the Utah Electronic High School’s (EHS) curriculum, but our plan is to “update” it to model better practices, and Web 2.0, which have gotten increasingly sophisticated, will undoubtedly play an important role in this. Modern students, both young and old, thrive with richly interactive web tools, especially as the next generations will be increasingly comfortable and familiar with interactive web-based environments.

Udutu

Udutu is a courseware development tool that allows the teacher to make non-linear Flash-based lessons with multimedia, quizzes, and activities. The lessons are far more visually appealing than simply reading a giant page of textual information, which is how EHS courses are currently set up. Thought-provoking activities such as roleplays are ideal for Udutu lessons. What’s more, you can import Flash (SWF) files into the course you develop, which opens up numerous possibilities to integrate Udutu with other Web 2.0 tools, and existing materials on the web.

For example, typing “photosynthesis filetype:swf” will yield a number of Flash animations that could be imported for a lesson on plants, such as http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/forestbiology/photosynthesis.swf Searching for “nuclear fission filetype:swf” yields a number of good animations on nuclear fission, such as http://www.british-energy.com/swf/fission.swf. Before importing anything, it is a good idea to make sure you’re not running afoul of copyright and fair use restrictions, and make sure you include a link to the source.

Animoto

If you have a segment of your lesson that’s heavy on photos or short videos, you can use Animoto to create an eye-catching musical video with interspersed text, and add this to a Udutu page. It only takes a few minutes to design a video with Animoto, though you may have to wait awhile for it to fully render it. Make sure you sign up with Animoto for Education to take advantage of the special longer videos they offer to teachers, for free.

ToonDoo

ToonDoo is a comic strip creator. Students may respond to instructional material better when a virtual character is guiding and co-learning the material with them (Spierling, 2005). ToonDoo allows you to place virtual characters in scenes, arrange relevant props around them, then use captions to share instructional content. Due to the limited-text nature of comics, these shouldn’t be used as the primary tool in delivering instructional material, but to emphasize key points of lessons conveyed through other more conventional means, such as text, audio, etc.

References

Spierling, U. (2005). Beyond virtual tutors: Semi-autonomous characters as learning companions. ACM SIGGRAPH 2005 Educators program, SIGGRAPH ’05. Los Angeles, California: ACM.

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