Living and working in Weyburn, a good hour away from the University of Regina where I am enrolled in Graduate studies, is a challenge. On campus classes in the evening require that I leave home by 4:00pm to travel to the city (encountering traffic and wildlife along the way), sit in class for 3 hours or so, and then drive home – roughly seven hours of time for one class. This takes a toll on the mind and body. Not to mention that I hate winter driving … and Saskatchewan seems to have 8 months of winter every year. Not an ideal way to motivate me to attend classes in person.
Enter web-based classes! Online/blended learning has been a surprisingly fantastic experience, despite me being a tech dinosaur. Tech usage may not come easy to me, but the benefits of learning in this type of environment are far more positive than negative. Despite my lack of experience with and knowledge of technology, my online/blended classes have been fantastic for a variety of reasons. “Flexibility of online learning is clearly of great value to many mature adults trying to balance work, family, and study requirements” (Appana, 2008). My classmate Scott pointed out in his blog this week that online learning is very beneficial to him as a busy dad, and I agree – as a mom/wife/teacher/coach whose schedule is packed, learning from the comfort of my home and eliminating the commute to an evening class saves me invaluable time. I use that time to work on class readings or to collaborate with my classmates on group projects using a variety of online resources. Or to do laundry. You know – fun stuff like that!
For those who don’t know what is meant by online or blended learning, these might help:
My first hybrid online/blended class last semester was a huge learning curve, made easier by the communication and support from Alec and my classmates. I wish all of the grad classes were offered in this manner as it would make my life less stressful. However, I know that not everyone feels the same. This type of learning environment may work very well at a graduate level, but for my elementary teacher friends, it would probably not be as effective. My classmate Brooke talks about her struggle with this in her blog for this week. I agree that face to face interactions are vital for young students, but have been thinking quite a bit lately about how a more blended approach could be utilized in my high school ELA classes. I currently have three students who have a variety of medical challenges and are missing quite a few classes while they deal with their situations. Blended learning would greatly increase their chances of finishing their courses on time and obtaining their ELA credits. The online delivery or environment would likely not be as much of a challenge for them as it has been for me since they are quite adept at the use of technology, and it would likely alleviate some of the stress that they feel for not being able to attend class on a regular basis. I have done my own version of “correspondence” courses for students in the last ten years. I have had students who have started at our school due to living in the community for hockey and then they transfer back to their home schools but want to finish my courses for a variety of reasons. This type of learning was made possible through the use of the internet and was supported by my admin team and by the students’ home schools. The students obtained their credits by communicating via web tools to “participate” in class, by sending me assignments electronically, and by attending some days in person (final presentations and final exams). Could we have done it better? Yes. Overall, though, it was a good learning experience for me and for the students. My experience with that and with taking Alec’s EC&I 832 and EC&I 833 has motivated me to take EC&I 834 next semester to learn more about designing online and blended learning environments.
Some of the online/blended learning tools that I feel have been of benefit to me and/or to students are:
- Digital libraries – though I love books and physical copies of resources, digital libraries have played a huge role in education for me over the last ten years. Being able to access online databases and libraries for educational research has saved me time and money.
- Partnerships & Professional Learning Communities – the collaborative experience when using the internet for learning has been key to my growth as an educator and as a grad student. From technical support to collaborating on projects to sharing our resources for teaching, the relationships that I’ve been able to foster have been beneficial to me in so many ways. I am very lucky to have an amazing group of colleagues in the ELA department in my school with whom to collaborate but am also blessed to have a larger group of professional colleagues online. Reaching out and discussing what is working for other educators in other parts of the province and across North America has been an incredible experience that I plan to continue.
- Blogs – I love writing. I truly do. Writing helps me to organize my thoughts and contribute to my own learning. Though I’ve never been really shy about sharing my opinion in traditional classroom settings, I do enjoy having time to think and organize my thoughts on a given topic before being required to respond. Developing a blog for my EC&I classes has been a great learning tool for me! I have many ideas for how to incorporate blogging into my high school ELA classroom because of these experiences.
- Microblogging – though I am not a huge fan of Twitter on my mobile device, I do appreciate and enjoy the quickness of the microblogging experience. Using Tweetdeck and other time-saving elements have made the experience more manageable for me. I can click on the articles that interest me, easily see what my classmates are viewing or reading from their posts, follow people and organizations who have content that is of concern or interest to me as an educator, and connect with a variety of people all over the world in a matter of seconds. There is value in microblogging as a tool for learning in my classroom as well, though I know that incorporating this would be more of a struggle for me than blogging, for instance. I would have to become more adept at the use of it myself before I would start introducing it to students.
- Social Networking – hands down, this is the way students communicate. An area of great interest to me as an educator is in how we can incorporate the use of social networking to enhance student learning. The power of connecting to others around the world could be of great benefit to students in the growth of their social responsibility, a concept embedded in our SK ELA curricula.
- Zoom – using Zoom for online meetings and classes has been a game changer! It saves time and money for organizations such as the provincial sport board I am on – we don’t have to pay for mileage to have meetings. It is a very valuable tool for online learning as classes can meet at a specified time to participate in class discussions. The ability to share screens, form break out rooms for small group discussion, and to record the sessions are great perks to using this online conferencing tool.
- Online sharing and collaboration – with tools such as Google docs and slides, working on projects or collaborating with classmates is very simple and effective. Autosave features are helpful and working in real time with others on collaborative projects is easy. Though it does have some limitations ( for example, I don’t like Google sheets due to some performance issues I’ve had with it in the past), the projects for which I’ve used Google docs and slides have all been good experiences.
While thinking about and searching for information on how to become a blended educator, I came across this useful infographic:
Though I don’t think I am ready to be an online educator full time, I can see the benefits of using blended learning for myself and my students. As an educator, I value the relationships that I am able to foster with my students in the classroom and I fear that I would not be as effective in fostering those same relationships online. Fear of change and doing new things can be crippling, but it can also be used to grow. Tackling the aspects of online/blended learning that cause me to feel apprehensive may take some work, but ultimately would be rewarding. Using some of the tools I’ve encountered, such as Zoom, could help me with this. Who knows? Maybe someday I will be required to teach in an online environment. I am thankful that I’ve been introduced to some of the tools that would help me make that shift and am even more grateful for the professional learning community that I’ve been able to foster as a result of my teaching career and my time in undergraduate and graduate courses, in person and online.