Transitioning to Online Curriculum in Central Texas
I love books. I like the feel of books under my fingers, I like writing in my books (with my own handwriting), and I like seeing my many shelves at home and in the classroom stacked full with the books I enjoy revisiting, old friends, mirrors of who I am deep down. Like many people, I tend to equate scholarship with books, while I disapprovingly tend to equate being online with video games, or at best, looking up a quick fact. But for the past five years I’ve taught English at an alternative high school using online digital curriculum, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
According to the first great champion of public education, Horace Mann, the purpose of education is “to inspire the love of truth, as the supremest good, and to clarify the vision of the intellect to discern it.” What does this tell us about whether a curriculum should be from a book or online? Seemingly, nothing. This is because curriculum doesn’t inspire the love of truth; teachers do. Curriculum doesn’t clarify the vision of the intellect; teachers do. These days when discussing the best form of curriculum, the teacher is often left out of the equation. The question is, “Does the student learn better out of a textbook or online?” This confuses education with self-education and imagines a student alone in a room with a notepad and a textbook, or alone in a room with a laptop.
Fortunately, education properly achieved involves teachers running the show. With the teacher’s role in mind, the right question to consider when choosing a curriculum modality is this: What format will give me (the teacher) the most control and flexibility over the educational experience of my students? The importance of this question is illustrated by Shinchi Suzuki’s “Mother-Tongue Method.” Suzuki observed that learning to speak Japanese is an especially difficult task, and yet all Japanese kids speak Japanese! Their success is at least in part due to the rich environment the students are exposed to while learning. Everyone is constantly speaking Japanese around them. Almost no moment in the student’s waking hour is wasted. Every moment that involves communication (and thinking) is a learning/teaching moment. This is the teacher’s role and goal, to thoroughly control the educational environment making it as rich in learning possibilities as possible, to not miss a minute of learning. The teacher uses many tools to achieve this goal, but as far as the teacher’s tool called “curriculum” is concerned, the online version gives him more opportunities to control and enrich the educational experience. (I’ll show you how.) So whether or not this is or was your reason for switching to an online curriculum, the opportunity to better shape your educational environment is what you should seize once the die is cast.
How to Transition
If you want your change to an online curriculum to be progress and not just change, smart work upfront is necessary. The good news is that fundamentally, there are only two things to do. The first is learning the mechanics of the new system. Naturally you need to learn how to do basic things like enroll your students and grade their work, but the real opportunities come from some of the other possibilities online systems afford. Some systems (like the one we use at my campus from Odysseyware) allow you to insert lessons from one course into another with a simple click and drag. The more adventurous can even create their own lessons with embedded pictures and media and insert them into the course.
Other features involve creating reports showing all kinds of student or class data like grades, progress, and time logged in and out. Finally, some systems allow you to assign weights to different kinds of lessons (what percentage of the grade will be quizzes, tests, lessons, projects, etc.). These features aren’t difficult, but some require thought and practice. Remember, creativity is a function of expertise. Before you can use your new tool in creative ways, you need to know how your tool works.
The other thing you need to do is to study your new “textbook.” Before going online you probably had one book and supplemental materials. Your online system may now have a dozen classes that you could borrow lessons from and insert into your course. You know your students best. It is worth your time to go through the course and see what fits well for your students and what may not. If a lesson doesn’t fit, you may be able to borrow a lesson from another course, or you can create your own lesson instead. In essence, you have the opportunity to become your own mini-curriculum director.
To concretize, at my school we determined that our students needed more reading time than the online course demanded. We easily created lessons connected to novels and plays and inserted them into the courses. Now our students walk around school with their laptops and books. We also determined that our students would benefit from giving presentations based off of their research papers. We created and inserted lessons into the courses for the presentations. Now most days you can attend a student presentation at our school. Finally, we determined that our students could benefit from peer editing of rough drafts. We inserted “round table” lessons asking students to have three or four peers review and discuss their rough draft and report on the results. Now most days at our school you will see small groups of students discussing rough drafts.
The beauty of these adjustments is that they are all seamlessly presented within the online course. Oftentimes the students are unaware of which lessons are from the original online course and which are teacher-authored. What the student experiences is the integrated educational vision of the teacher as a whole, and not as a curriculum (book) with supplemental materials from various potentially disparate sources. The order and structure of the course is always there for the student to see (as well as his progress and grades) and that order and structure is the creation and composition of the teacher.
Switching to an online curriculum? At a time when many teachers are feeling their control of the classroom slip away, be prepared to take control back. Be prepared to create and compose. Be prepared to teach.