Monday, October 23, 2017

Can I get my online students to voluntarily interact with each other?

One of the struggles that a number of my online teaching colleagues and I have discussed over the years is getting students who are separated by both time (asynchronous course format) and space (geographically spread out) to interact with each other in meaningful ways. After all, learning happens in community, and the more students realize that they're part of an entire community of online learners, perhaps the more they'll feel connected to their online course experience and the subject they're studying.

One thing I tried with my summer French 1 students this year (a very small class) was giving them an opportunity to share via a Padlet after the first or second week of class. I asked them questions about what interesting things they're learning about French as well as how to navigate class, what they're surprised about, and what's currently challenging. I wanted this to be both a way for them to see they're not alone but also get them talking about their experience. I was pleasantly surprised by the meager yet enthusiastic participation I witnessed in this activity. My favorite part was the response echoed by a few different students about what surprised them the most about their online course (taken from a copy to take out student names and comments):

So, students were surprised at how much they would be communicating with each other! I found this surprising, as, like I said earlier, the students don't have a ton of opportunities to communicate with each other. It seems like my goal for this type of activity was met... the very nature of this activity seemed to contribute to students feeling like they're able to communicate with each other.

Doing something like this in the summer is pretty easy, but when it comes to the larger class sizes we accommodate in the fall or spring, I knew I would have to be a bit more strategic to get this to actually work. So, I wanted to release a Padlet for this week (we're at about week 8 in our semester), giving students an opportunity to share similar pieces of information as this summer experiment.

Here are some things I did to elicit student participation (and even recognition that we were doing this), as this is not a required activity, nor can it be (not worth points or an official part of the course design):
- I let students know the week before (via Remind) that "something" was coming. I tried to build a little anticipation by keeping it somewhat a mystery. :)
- I gave myself plenty of time to think through all of the "systems" type of details on Friday that would go into a successful posting and management of the Padlet for 2 different courses.
- I created the Padlet, made clear directions for exactly what I wanted students to post, created a sample post for them to follow as an example, and then made a quick YouTube tutorial for how to post.
- I replaced the normal Google Slide announcement with the embedded Padlet to make it "front and center" in the course landing page (pretty tough for anyone to miss it).
- I also encouraged students to share a picture of themselves (and shared a picture of myself in my example post to get things started). This can sometimes be a controversial move with minors in the online setting, but it certainly isn't required, nor should it be a true security issue within our closed online environment.

The results? So far a lot of really great participation. I've also been able to comment on some student posts to answer questions, and I'm seeing the students comment a bit, too.

My hope is that in the future I'll perhaps do one or two more Padlets this semester, next time mostly or completely in the target language (French).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Getting ready for Fall 17-18

Bonjour à tous!

As I've been preparing my online courses for a new group of unique learners from across the state, I've tried to combine the best of last year's strategies with some hopefully helpful upgrades in both aesthetics and function.

In general, I have been on a journey over the past 5 years of continually identifying the activities that offer the greatest impact on student engagement and seeking to direct the most energy toward said activities. I am always eager to find ways to increase efficiency in day-to-day tasks so that I can spend the most energy possible on the highest impact areas of my role as a teacher and lead instructor. Therefore, when it comes to implementing something new in a school year, it often has to do with completing a familiar task more efficiently so that I can do the things I already know are really effective in the online environment (such as relationship building, developing engaging supplemental content, creating systems that allow students to interact with one another appropriately, and so on).

Announcements & Whole Class Communication

Many of my online teaching colleagues have been using an embedded Google Slides presentation as their announcements within Blackboard. What's nice is that the announcements are visually-stimulating and can be easily read by a screen reader. Having both a rich visually presentation and an adherence to principles of universal access is a complete win-win!

In my Google Slides announcements this year, I'm using a really sharp-looking template developed by my former colleague Tyler Morkin (and very willingly shared with our team) that provides lots of options for recurring "sections", kind of like a f2f teacher's bulletin board or whiteboard might have:
- Weekly quote
- Pacing reminders
- Feature of the week
- Ongoing reminders

As I post these weekly slides, I plan to email out the announcement each week, being sure to include a hyperlink to the slides deck (otherwise it won't display in the Bb-generated email... embedded content doesn't show up). Additionally, I plan to share the announcement slides with those students, parents, and mentors who are signed up via my Remind class so that all audiences are getting these same key messages.

One of my misgivings about this form of announcements in the past is not being sure if students are readily viewing the new announcements each week or accessing previous weeks' announcements if they're enrolling late (such as the all important "welcome announcement"). To hopefully counteract this, I have my welcome announcement as a normal Bb text type of announcement (not in Google Slides), and it has very clear steps on exactly what students need to do on the first day of class to get started.

Additionally, above my embedded Slides is a note that directs students to the bottom-most (welcome) announcement when they're accessing the course for the first time. I'm hoping these little details will provide both quickly-progressing students and newly-enrolled students with the best content for their current situation. I also provide them with a Getting Started Guide that walks them through the first few steps to get started in class, including viewing the "welcome announcement".

Finally, I learned that emailing out this particular slideshow was rendering a really small view (as the page properties are set to a really long page). In my email text, along with providing a link to the Slides presentation, I provided a quick screenshot that shows directions for how to magnify the slide for ideal viewing. :)
Click here for a link to the announcement slides. If receiving this announcement via email, click here for a quick tip on how to magnify the size of the slides on the screen.
I really try to avoid anything that could seem annoying or inconvenient for my students, mentors, or parents, as it's really easy for simple things like this to simply turn someone off of learning.

Aesthetics & Engagement in French Culture

In addition to using this new format for announcements, I created a new course banner incorporating pictures I took on a recent trip to France:

In most things I post in class, I tend to focus on the online course functionality (such as Bb tips and tricks) to the neglect of really cool French stuff. I hope to incorporate more images, videos, interactives, etc. that has to do directly with my course content.

Access to the Most Needed Information

Along the lines of being efficient so that I can spend time on what's most engaging, I try to anticipate the most common areas of confusion with regard to starting class, navigating our LMS, course policies, and the like. The more I can have well-articulated, student-friendly answers to these common questions, the less time I spend answering the same questions over and over (and, ideally, I place the resources in the students' hands before they even know they have the question).

I was greatly inspired by my online German colleague Freda Jackson, who created a "How Do I...?" menu item within her courses. She would post really useful tips in a visually-stimulating way. I have been doing similarly for about a year, but I found that it would take me a while to recreate this section of my course each semester, for each course I was teaching. Additionally, if I wanted to share one of these resources with a parent or someone outside of Blackboard, I'd have to go and pull a screenshot or look up the URL for a particular video. Why not throw the entire "How Do I...?" collection into a Google Slides presentation and embed it in class? That way I can quickly and easily share the entire collection to anyone, regardless of their access to Blackboard.

Next Steps

There are a number of previously-used or completely-new things I'd like to try in the coming weeks, such as:
- Using Padlet to get students to share (with each other) how the first weeks of class have been going, what they're surprised about, what they're learning, what's challenging, etc.
- Class contests with leader boards (such as getting students to post a video of themselves speaking French)... this one might be out there, but I'm highly considering it.
- Regular (perhaps weekly) video announcements in which I'm curating a bit of the course for them, letting them know some things in the content that are coming up / providing some additional tips or practice.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

#MACUL16 Part 1: A Culmination of Cultural Revolution (Spring Synergy)

For those of us fortunate to be a part of the Michigan Virtual School instructional team, we participated in our annual pre-MACUL conference this past Wednesday (now called "Spring Synergy"). Doesn't that name just get you up and moving?

Last year our pre-MACUL day consisted mostly of outside session facilitators who spoke to us on a variety of topics. The sessions were good, but there was something very special about this year's event. Each session facilitator was from MVU, and many of them were our very own instructors or former instructors. The information presented was very practical to teaching online (finding information that can readily be implemented in the fully online environment is a challenge at almost any conference, even MACUL). In fact, one of our world language instructors told me that the conferences we put on are getting better and better, and she's so glad that she took the time and effort to come. She had practical ideas she was excited to implement as soon as she could!

More encouraging yet was a conversation I had with my esteemed colleague Peter about Wednesday's event. He had heard a good report about our event, and he mentioned that he could imagine the learning and sharing that happened was the result of several months of effort to provide continual professional development to our instructional team. I had to take a step back and really think about Peter's comment... we have been working really hard to provide continuous professional development for our instructors, whether through big events like Collaboration of the Minds, our monthly online department meetings, our face-to-face Synergy Sessions, or our weekly iEducator webinars. I'd like to highlight this last one in particular, providing some context.

This summer, several (all, really) of us full-time instructors were involved in developing a brand new training program that could take a newbie and turn him/her into a full-time online instructor in only 1 month. Ambitious? Yes. I feel that we have developed our best training program to date, and the most beautiful thing about it was that it was such a collaborative effort. Even more noteworthy, though, is that the training didn't end with a period; it ended with an ellipsis. That is, this is only the beginning...

Every week of the school year our full-time instructors and/or iEducators themselves have been working to provide a novel, highly-interactive webinar to teach our iEducator team (and anyone else who cares to come) new skills to implement in the online classroom. People on our team are pouring themselves out on an ongoing basis to articulate to others the amazing things they're doing in their classrooms, with their students, mentors, and parents. No one has been exempted from providing the webinars (it's a team effort), and we all benefit each and every week. 

More than that, as the walls of our online classes come down (we see inside what other instructors are doing more and more), we create a shared vision for excellence and engagement with our students, and we all continually hear and try new and innovative strategies, creating new iterations of someone else's idea and then sharing it. I know this type of sharing has been going on in the F2F and blended world via educators who are active in PLCs, but it was particularly encouraging to see this happening in our online ed world like I haven't before. I feel we're right in the midst of a deep and lasting culture shift at MVS.

In the spirit of "letting the walls come down" check out our MVS World Languages department teaming up on Wednesday and doing some grading together, reflecting on how their online grading strategies may be similar to or different from one another.

Finally, I wish to touch specifically on collaboration a bit. I'm the kind of guy who's comfortable doing his own thing, and I don't really like people seeing a work in progress, so to speak. I would rather prep something on my own, in the comfort of my own perspective and thought processes. I'm learning (somewhat slowly) that collaboration is a true blessing, as I need others' perspectives. Plus, we can produce so much faster when we work together (provided that relationship and shared culture of expectations have been adequately developed). More than anything, I have learned this in our lead instructor team. It's pretty much a given that the six of us will meet prior to an event such as Spring Synergy to discuss how we'll be communicating consistent information in our department breakout sessions as well as share/borrow/remix what we have each developed.

I could not have imagined this is what our team dynamic would have looked like 2 years or even 1 year ago. While the full-time instructional staff has always been very open to sharing and learning from one another, I don't feel that it truly became an essential part of the nature of our culture until this past year. We truly have an outstanding team with leadership that has provided an example as well as architecture for this type of culture to blossom. You can't force a culture shift on an organization or team, but you can plant the seeds and water them. A huge thank you to our leaders (you know who you are!) for letting this happen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A mutually encouraging interaction

So, it's almost time for MACUL when some 4,000 or so Michigan educators will descend upon Grand Rapids and learn/share/collaborate like crazy for 3 days. This is an amazing conference, and I often go away overwhelmed by an information overload...this new strategy I'd like to incorporate into online teaching or that new tool to try.

One of the things I was almost certain that I would feel after MACUL: I should be blogging! So, this post is an attempt to subvert that sensation of being "behind" or lacking in one more area before it gets here. :)

In the realm of online teaching, we spend a lot of time having one-on-one interactions with students. For me, these typically occur through my feedback (text or video) left on assignments, email interactions, and text messages. It may also include a phone call (imagine that!), which is a method I'm finding increasingly beneficial. Many of my colleagues have conducted a lot of their interactions through this format, and I've been a slow adopter, probably due to my tendency to want to weigh words carefully before responding (anyone else a green on the True Colors assessment?).

Out of all of the interactions we have in a given week (hundreds), how many of them lead to a positive outcome? How many times is the communication one-sided (reaching out to a struggling student or his/her mentor and not receiving a reply)? I think I have a tendency to focus on what's not going well to a fault and thus forget the good that truly is occurring in my online classrooms.

Today I had a very rich interaction with a student that encouraged both of us. Here's a little recap of what was said as well as the context around how this interaction occurred. You may also enjoy my curious onlooking son in the background.

So, here's to focusing on the positive outcomes as well as taking that risk to say, "Please call me to chat about this". Yes, I said "call".

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reflection from MACUL 2015 - Sustainable Health

I was blessed to attend MACUL 2015 this year (March 18-20 @ Cobo Center, Detroit, MI). This conference affords one of those rare but important opportunities to step outside of the day-to-day environment and be inspired, connect with others, and catch a vision. I am very thankful to my organization for allowing me to go and empowering me with the opportunity to learn, share, and connect with other excellent #miched folks.

How often are we affording ourselves this important opportunity of reflection, inspiration, and connecting in helpful ways? For many of my colleagues, supervisors, and myself, I find that we are constantly in "go mode". It's practically always the on season (including in summer), and taking the time for careful reflection, inspiration, networking, and practical implementation of new teaching strategies can be an elusive quest. I have experienced various changing seasons of teaching, projects, and priorities in the last 3 years, and at the present time we're gearing up for a season that may be the most intense ever. While I look ahead with anticipation to new adventures and lessons to be learned, I am reminded of the importance of being healthy. To be clear, by "healthy" I am referring to having a positive and energized outlook on life as a whole as well as working with students and colleagues. I guess I'm referring to a mental/emotional health, though the physical is definitely connected as well.

I am thinking a lot about what quality onboarding and mentoring of new instructors looks like (having trained several instructors over the past year and looking at implementing a more formal program of training and support in the next few months), and one thing I'm reminded of is how much we "catch" through modeling. For instance, many of the ways I've learned to communicate were first modeled to me by my supervisor and department chair. Many of these principles weren't necessarily explicitly taught but rather "caught". I constantly observe the same principle with my four children at home. Who I am is often much more important than the things I say/teach, as they will replicate the same attitudes and lifestyle that I actually live, apart from anything I say.

All of this is making me think that one of our priorities needs to be a lifestyle of health, encouragement, and inspiration. While there are always many needs and priorities shouting, "Tend to me! I am important! I need attention now!", the fact of the matter is that if we are not creating a teaching/learning environment for our instructors that is sustainable, they will not be teaching with us five years (or perhaps even one year!) from now. And, of course, we as teachers model for our students a certain lifestyle, and we need to be asking, as George Couros wisely stated in his keynote, "Would I want to sit through my class for six hours?". In other words, would I want to be under my own teaching/modeling/coaching? Do I exhibit an attitude and lifestyle worth replicating in others under my influence?

True, there will always be urgent priorities and we indeed need to step up to the daily challenge to address these. But there is a difference between a measured, wise, and deliberate approach to the issues at hand and a harried, unprepared, or rash approach. And sometimes we don't have the option to respond with as much reflection and preparation as we would like. But if we are constantly in a crisis mode, we will not truly make consistent growth happen in important areas (kind of like what I mentioned in my last blog post).

So, the main thoughts (apart from specific tools and strategies gleaned from MACUL this year) are the following:

Healthy mentors reproduce healthy mentees. The contrapositive is also true: Unhealthy mentors reproduce unhealthy mentees. We need to each model what we want to see in others. While there will always be urgent needs, sometimes those "needs" need to take a back seat to priorities that are higher up in the hierarchy of values that promote a sustainable, energizing, and joyful instructional force. I will be looking to promote ways to carefully think of the long-term needs as we approach a season of increased intensity for our teaching team.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A year later...looking ahead to better things

Well, I haven't written in over a year, and I feel it's time to start this process back up again. This past school year has been very solid..."solid" in ways I didn't necessarily desire or readily welcome. We had a very rough launch to a new format of course offering in the fall, and much effort was given by many people on our team to address the technical issues. We ended up switching delivery models halfway through the school year, and while the transition was tough (and took a lot more time and effort on the part of students, instructors, and mentors), many of the main tech issues were resolved. Still, throughout this past school year I feel that the majority of my best time, effort, and heart were given to mending broken systems so that they could have at least some semblance of functionality for our online world language students.

This isn't what teaching should look like!!

An instructor should be motivating, instructing, and otherwise helping students with both content knowledge and character development. When technology is working properly, it can be a tremendous tool leveraged to facilitate meaningful learning in the online (or face-to-face) environment. When it isn't working properly, though, it is detrimental to student learning in at least 3 ways:

1) the technology becomes the focus for the student (instead of the subject being studied),
2) the student's affective domain (how s/he feels about the learning) is negatively impacted, which can significantly inhibit the learning that can take place, and
3) the technology becomes the focus for the instructor (instead of the student or the student's learning being the focus)

In any case, we have the past year behind us at our online school and I am looking forward to a year of stability and growth in the actual instruction of our online world language students. This development and growth of the learner experience should always be the primary focus in our efforts as instructors. Sometimes this development must take the technical/troubleshooting side in order to deliver something truly beneficial to students, but I'd much rather focus on the actual cognitive learning strategies whenever possible. When technology and sound instructional practices can work hand-in-hand, it is a beautiful thing!

I guess there will always be technical (or other) challenges to work around that can tend to get in the way of a laser-focus attention on effective instruction for students, regardless of teaching/learning format (f2f, blended, or online). The goal, then, would be to focus on the learner, despite the other issues at hand. We shouldn't allow the students to be victims of circumstance, but rather we should rise above the challenges to still deliver the most meaningful experience possible for them.

Friday, July 19, 2013


This is my first blog post, and I am interested to see what will become of this experiment in reflection upon and sharing of my learning and teaching experiences. I have come to recognize lately that there is great value in being a reflective teacher who collaborates with others to share ideas and provide encouragement.

Blogging is also a tool I would like my online French students to use (in limited measure, at least for a start), and with any tool or tech skill, I want to be well-versed with the technology before I ask my students to use it. Barbara Sawhill's excellent article titled The Changing Role of the Language Teacher/Technologist (2008) reminded me of this instructional principle when she said, "[j]ust as language teachers should be proficient in the language, they also need to demonstrate proficiency in the technologies they use and be ready to defend their use a viable, pedagogically sound tool for teaching and learning" (p. 3). Therefore, I really need to take time to experiment with this form of reflection and communication as I evaluate the effectiveness of its use and synthesize opportunities for my students to use it.

Finally, I'm also interested in possibly trying different applications for blogging, such as Wordpress. I'm finding that the best way to really discover the features of each specific tool is by actually creating content with it.

Thank you for reading, and I welcome any constructive feedback,


Sawhill, B. (2008). The changing role of the language teacher/technologist: Connected learning, meaningful collaborations, and reciprocal apprenticeships in the foreign language curriculum. IALLT Journal of Language Learning Technologies, 40(1), 1-17. Retrieved from