In the last year or two, I’ve seen a real push within our field to embrace blended learning.  I think that’s a wonderful trend and one that has the potential to really change face to face classrooms and bring them into the 21st Century.  However, at the same time, I think we need to think about and embrace the role that fully online education has in the spectrum of what we call good instruction.

Ultimately, blended learning fills a niche in our field but so does online learning.  For lots of different students, an online education is the only way to help them achieve their educational goals.  Here are just a few of the populations that need a fully online opportunity:

  • Young parents
  • Students who work full-time to support their families
  • Students with significant health problems
  • Students with mental health issues including anxiety that won’t thrive in a classroom environment
  • Athletes, dancers, singers, and other talented students who travel in pursuit of excellence in their field
  • Students who are credit deficient and must accelerate their learning
  • Students who can’t learn in a traditional classroom environment–for whatever reason

And this doesn’t even include the students who simply prefer an online environment, one that closely simulates the work environments they may face in the future.  While I think the promise of blended education is significant, I also think that fully online education has its place.  I fear that some in our profession are losing sight of the beauty and uniqueness of a fully online education in pursuit of the latest new model.  I’d encourage all of us to remember our roots and try to create the best educational opportunities for all students, including those for whom an online classroom is, hands down, the best fit.  They need best practices too.  Let’s ensure that we’re hanging on to what’s working and encouraging all unique models, not just those that fit the latest trend.


This summer I have the supreme privilege of spending pretty much every day hanging out with my kids, ages 4, 6, and 7.  It’s so awesome to see their little minds process the world and absorb new information.  We’ve taken a ton of field trips to everywhere from the pool to the science museum. Today, we visited the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado.  It was a great opportunity to practice thinking like a scientist and ask questions about why the world works like it does. In situations like this I’ve found that my best teaching strategy is to lay low.  I let them explore and make observations as they have them.  Then we ask questions and talk about possible answers.

Today was no exception.  While watching some butterflies perched on a feeder, the kids noticed that when the butterflies land, the outside of their wings are very plain, not fancy and colorful like the inside of the wings.  Being the teacher-mom that I am, I asked the kids why that might be, of course hoping that they’d figure out that when the butterflies land they might want to be camouflaged, and thus hide the bright side of their wings.  3462302660_74c3e4d42c_zImagine my surprise when a perfect stranger jumped in and answered the question for them!  He explained all about how the butterflies camouflage, assuming that I just didn’t know better.  I was so disappointed. It was a great teaching moment, ruined by the uncontrollable urge for someone to “give the right answer.” I wanted my kids to think through the answer themselves, maybe even coming up with some bad answers and throwing them out to eventually arrive at a reasonable hypothesis.  But they didn’t get that chance.

The whole experience got me thinking.  How often do we as teachers jump in and give the answer when we really should be coaching our kids on how to think through the problem on their own and come up with their own answers?  In an online classroom, how often do I let kids both ASK the questions AND answer them?  While we use a lot of constructivist thinking in our discussion boards, I fear that too often I’m controlling the conversation, like Oz behind the curtain.  That’s really not the kind of teacher I want to be.  Instead, I’d like to be purposeful about making space for asking questions and valuing thinking rather than jumping in with answers.  It’s just a better way to learn, even if it’s sometimes frustrating!

As I reflect on this year’s ISTE conference, I am absolutely blown away by the number of buzz words I see thrown around.  The current trends such as flipped classroom, 1:1 computing, BYOD, iPad (or iPod, iAnything), mobile technology, virtual reality, design thinkingdigital literacy, and ebooks are definitely making an impact here.  I think all of these trends are good for education and challenge us to create better classrooms for our students.  However, I’m increasingly concerned that in our search for the “next big thing” we’re not allowing space or, more importantly, time to develop these new practices into tried and true methods that improve instruction.

What if at this conference I become enamored with the flipped classroom and decide it’s something I want to try?  I rush home and put together a plan for flipping my instruction and then I try it out for a year.  It’s hard work and I’m not sure how I like it.  There are positives, there are negatives, and there are things that just plain stink.  Then, I attend ISTE the next year and come across the next “big thing” and rush home to try it instead.  Rinse, wash, repeat, year after year.  While I might be cutting edge at all times, have I really become a better teacher?

I care about good instruction and I care about kids.  I care about using my classroom as a lab for what works but I don’t want to be a butterfly as a professional, flitting from one trend to another.  Instead, I want to commit to lasting improvements that I think will work and then experiment with them over time, continuing to improve them, more of a scientist than a butterfly.  That’s where quality instruction can happen–when I choose a high-quality idea and improve it over time.  I’m all for complete overhauls in education, after all I teach in an online classroom, but if we’re going to overhaul, let’s commit to those philosophies over time and find ways to make them truly powerful–lasting trends.

BabyandBathWaterThat’s my wish for all of us as we leave ISTE and head into the next school year–that we would critically reflect on what’s working right now in our classrooms and how we can improve it using the strategies and trends we learned at ISTE.  Let’s make sure we take care of the baby when we change the bathwater!

Day one of ISTE is gone and a new day is beginning.  Both mind and body were challenged yesterday–by tons of walking and extraordinary ideas.   There are so many passionate educators here who are willing to try new things to improve our student’s educational experience.  That’s inspiring and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

The most interesting idea I heard yesterday is that we need to help our students become more connected and “self-organized learners.”  It’s a theme I heard mentioned in yesterday’s Ignite session, Will Richardson’s session, the personal branding breakout, and in a few of the poster sessions.  Our students need to be purposefully developing their digital footprint.  Beyond that, they need to be developing Personal Learning Networks (PLN).  As an educator, I’ve long embraced the idea of a PLN and seen the immense benefits to my development as a professional but I’d never considered that I should be helping my students develop a PLN.  The idea has immense power but I’m also a little stuck on where to begin.  Since Twitter has the most potential, perhaps beginning there and helping students find thoughtful tweets to follow, related either to my content area or to their future careers.  Even better?  Helping them engage those professionals in a dialogue.

I’d love to hear from you–how are you helping kids build their PLN?  Where’s the best place to begin and how do students react to the concept?

This week I have the honor of attending ISTE 2013 in San Antonio.  It’s an awesome opportunity to meet some of the leaders in educational technology, be inspired, and learn some new tricks.  I’m also going to be presenting at ISTE this year.  For a preview of my presentation, check out the Prezi below.  I’d love to see you there!  My session is called Teaching on the Education Frontier: Creating a Successful Blended Classroom and it’s on Wednesday at 11:45 in room 216.

p.s.  I’ll also be selling copies of my book at the presentation, signed if you’d like 🙂

Teaching on the Education Frontier:  Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms Grades 5-12

Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms Grades 5-12

I’m absolutely thrilled to let you know that my new book is now available! It’s a primer on teaching in an online or blended environment, both for new online teachers and experienced ones looking for some new tricks. The project has been a labor of love and I truly hope it encourages you on your journey. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or directly from the publisher, Wiley.  It’s also available in Kindle and Nook formats.

Note: This entry is a cross-post for a blog I wrote for Jossey-Bass Education.

Today the World Wide Web is absolutely overflowing with new web 2.0 tools.  From video editing to file sharing to image manipulation to brainstorming, there’s a tool for every possible task we could ask students to do.  At every conference I attend, I’m asked, “So, what tools do you use with your students?”  Everyone is looking for the latest and greatest websites, hoping for the silver bullet in their classroom.  I think that seeking out the best tools and making our classrooms as current as possible is a noble goal.  However, I think we also have a professional responsibility to start thinking about which tools are “best” for our classrooms and limiting the field to just those tools that are really powerful.  Otherwise, we risk spending just as much time teaching students how to use technology as we do teaching them our content area.

That’s why, starting a few years ago, I limited the number of tools I use regularly with students.  I forced myself to limit drastically to just six tools total all semester.  That small arsenal of websites then became the ones we went back to time after time to get the work of learning and demonstrating knowledge done in my class.  By the end of the course, students were experts with those tools because they’d used them several times, not just once for a single project.  Not only could they create efficiently within the tool, they also began to distinguish within that tool set to determine which tool was best for each task, an extraordinarily sophisticated skill (and one that is more what the real world looks like!).

Although every content area and classroom may look different, below are the basic tools that I use regularly in my classroom along with a brief rationale for each.  I try to choose those tools that are most powerful and most flexible for my needs.  Each of them is explained in far more detail with example assignments in my forthcoming book, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for the Online and Blended Classroom.

  • First, a Learning Management System is an absolute requirement.  My classroom is fully online so an LMS is where students access all of our collaboration tools, assignments, and grades.  However, even in a face to face classroom, using an LMS can make the classroom more engaging and more efficient (as I mentioned in this post).  My school district uses Schoology and really likes its powerful, intuitive interface, which looks a lot like Facebook.
  • Second, a powerful wiki tool is needed.  I use wikis for all sorts of projects in my class, from completing the prewriting for research papers to demonstrating competence on a final project.  Wikis are flexible, powerful, and engaging for all sorts of tasks.  I currently use Google Sites but have also had success with Wikispaces.
  • Third, students need access to a drawing tool so they can demonstrate their understanding of a concept in a non-linear, sometimes even non-verbal way.  At first, I used Webspiration as my core drawing tool.  Now that they’ve moved to a fee-based service, my default is Google Drawing.  It’s easy to use and powerful, especially if you teach students how to find and use templates.
  • Fourth, we rely on a presentation tool.  Students need a flexible tool where they can demonstrate their understanding in a visually pleasing way and also add more complex elements such as video, web links, and audio.  For my class, we use Prezi.  It’s a relatively simple tool to use with the possibility for extraordinary complexity when needed and as students become more experienced with the tool.
  • Fifth, because I believe wholeheartedly in the power of digital storytelling, a video editing tool is needed, preferably one that allows students to add images, music, and voice as easily as adding actual video.  Right now my students prefer Windows MovieMaker but we’ve also experimented with Photo Story 3.
  • Sixth, since we attempt some collaborative writing, an online word processor with the option to share, comment, and write together is important.  Google Drive, specifically the word processing tool, has proved to be powerful and simple to use.

And that’s all.  Although students occasionally choose to go outside these tools, these six tools are the ones we use regularly throughout the school year.  We spend time learning the ins and outs of them during the first six weeks and then for future projects, I expect that my students already know how to use the tool and can instead focus on the learning.  I’ve found that the result is a more efficient classroom and far fewer problems with technology and learning new tools.

What do you think?  What tools am I missing from my arsenal?  Or, are there some that are even more powerful that could replace my current go-to’s?  Just like you, I love to stay on the leading edge and make sure I’m using the tools that are best for my students, just as long as there aren’t too many of them!