Promoting Online Access to the English Classroom
Students today are all, to varying extents and through use of their various technological devices, nodes in the virtual network of an online world. Within this network, learning and communication as well as learning through communication occur while giving participants the physical freedom to live their busy lives in the offline world. The University of Alberta has taken measures to become a node in this virtual environment, with many departments and professors creating online communities through the use of the university's website and eClass. This virtual pool of resources has been very useful to me throughout my degree, allowing me to catch up in my studies after a period of absences or to gain an in-depth understanding of my favorite subjects through supplementary resources. While many grade schools use programs such as Power School to promote online accessibility to assessment results, the classroom environment offered by a program like eClass is largely unavailable unless the individual teacher creates one. Since the online classroom has promoted my own learning, I would like to explore the ways in which I can offer this online environment to my secondary English students. The following TIPS have been developed with regards to constructing this virtual community.
Take a look at this design for an English 20-1 website. If you click this button, it will take you to the course website, which you are only granted access to because you have the link. If you search my page in a search engine, it will not come up as a search result.
This brings me to my first TIP. When creating an online classroom community, it is integral to consider who can gain access and promote a safe learning environment.
As an educator of young people, it is my responsibility to promote a safe learning environment. In the online context, this means preventing strangers from accessing my students' ideas and information. It is worth noting that "much of our identity and even location on the earth becomes available every time we access the Internet, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or any World Wide Website" (Berezan, 2013, p.15). Furthermore, if there is a personal response forum, students may unknowingly draw attention to these pieces of information. As I mentioned earlier, you have access to my website because I gave you the link. I would take this safety filter to the next level for my students by granting them access through their email addresses. With the Google program I have used, I can organize the students' email addresses into a Google group, and invite the group to join the website. I could even give administrative capabilities to some or all of the students if I decide to turn the site into a fully collaborative effort. This level of student authority depends on grade level and maturity.
While I certainly cannot shield my students from the dangers that exist in the online world as a whole, promoting safety in the learning environment - be it virtual or physical - is a requirement outlined in both the Teaching Quality Standard Related to Interim Certification and the Teaching Quality Standard Related to Permanent Certification. These documents state that, as an educator, I "understand students' needs for physical, social, cultural, and psychological security" (Alberta Education, 2006, p. 1). Of equal importance to restricting access to the appropriate participants, this requirement also entails moderating harmful commentary and cyber-bullying in the discussion forums.
The second TIP involves critically delving into the reasons why any given component of the classroom practice occurs online. It is necessary to gather student input to gage the relevance of online activities and assignments as a means of determining whether they will promote learning or hinder it.
My intention with this online community is to engage as many students as possible in the learning environment, without wasting any valuable instructional time on technological education when it should be spent on English studies. This is why "teachers and students must decide why technologies are needed and what benefit they will offer in our interactive work before they are incorporated in the classroom" (Berezan, 2013, p. 14). If the majority of students are lacking the resources to access an online class, then assigning something to them for online completion is unnecessary. A colleague of mine mentioned that most, if not all students have some form of internet access. While I agree with this statement, it seems that a heavy reliance on online assignments is assuming that students can conveniently access the internet.
This element of convenience is why I see the virtual classroom primarily as a tool for review, reminders and online access to course material and supplementary resources. If the students have internet access readily and consistently available to them, and express an interest in online discussion forums, I will assign forum posts to the entire class.
Every educator has undoubtedly encountered a student who does not respond to the physical classroom environment. Maybe they skip class frequently, maybe they disrupt the learning environment or maybe they simply cannot sit and pay attention for an extended period of time. Whatever the reason for a lack of connection to the physical classroom, the virtual alternative could be more engaging for this type of person. This is why I did include a discussion forum on my website:
As you can see, both Jennie and I have responded to the prompt with multimedia input. This brings me to my third TIP: creating an online discussion forum can allow for students to express themselves clearly within their preferred symbolic system.
The theoretical framework that undergirds this TIP is the multiple intelligence theory put forth by Gardner in the 1980's. According to Gardner (2006), in response to alternate theories of intelligence, "an intelligence must also be susceptible to encoding in a symbol system - a culturally contrived system of meaning that captures and conveys important forms of information" (p. 8). If students feel the need to synthesize themes in popular culture with themes in Shakespeare, as Jennie and I have done in our responses, they can do so quickly and with the use of audio/visual/video sources in the online discussion.
In fact, the Teaching Quality Standard documents require that educators "understand that all students can learn, albeit at different rates and in in different ways" (The Alberta Teachers' Association, 2006a, p.1). So, facilitating the different ways in which students can learn and express their understanding is part of my job as a teacher. The online community provides a vehicle for these alternate forms of information to be accessed and understood, while promoting the multiple intelligences of a student body with regards to demonstrating understanding and synthesizing knowledge.
While it is notable that many educators work endlessly on providing a learning environment that appeals to the rich tapestry of learner preferences and profiles, there is still a gap in the system:
In this regard, providing online access to materials and course-related communication can be a tool to level the playing field for different ability levels. My fourth tip is centered around extending the principles of inclusion and universal design for learning through the creation of an online classroom.
I see the inclusion element here as twofold: on one hand, students who have missed a significant amount of classes need to feel like part of the classroom community, on the other hand, those who are struggling or falling behind the pace of the class lectures may need clarification or more time to look over the material. In order for students to become "socially included and engaged, [they] need to feel accepted by their teachers and peers, and have opportunities to interact with both" (Katz, 2013, p. 179). The discussion forum is a tool for students who may otherwise feel alienated in the physical classroom to communicate with peers and catch up on missed information. The "email me" link on the right sidebar menu is a way for these students to communicate with me if they are confused or behind in their studies. Ideally, this element of inclusion would contribute to a sense of intellectual acceptance and promote engagement.
"Universal Design for Learning researchers suggest that digital formats increase our options for access," which further lends to the notion of a virtual class environment levelling the playing field for different ability levels and learner needs (Pearson Learning Studios, 2012, p. 126). In architecture, universal design is the element that makes buildings accessible to everyone through the use of ramps, elevators, etc. In the learning context then, one of the ramps can be online accessibility. Just like in architecture, providing access to those who are differently abled can benefit the entire community.