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Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Online Learning

Am I in a very small minority on this one? I think so! But this isn’t click-bait. I really do love online teaching. Here’s why.

I freely admit that “in-person” learning is probably the best for most people in most situations. So let’s get that out of the way right off. I’m not advocating for doing away with F2F learning. And if we can make it work, I’m for it. However, I learned a lot in the last few years about teaching online and found that I really loved it. So before I get to my 10 reasons why I love online teaching, I’ll tell you a bit about how I did it.

I taught from home for a year. My school was supportive enough of my at-risk status that they actually hired an assistant to monitor my classes. So my students were there at the school physically, going through their daily schedule, and I had them come to my room as per usual, 4 or 5 classes a day. The only difference was that I “zoomed in”. There are 2 big screens on the walls in that room, so I was the Big Head in the room. My assistant made sure all the students were there and on task. They had iPads and worked on their projects on those. I actually had to redo my entire CS curriculum that year to have all of my projects work on iPads, but that’s a story for another blog post.

Teachers know that creating a supportive learning environment is key. I always want my students to support one another, and to be willing to help out and share their successes and failures. That’s a job you have to work at, especially at the beginning of each new class. My classes ran for 10 weeks, so I had to get that sense of community built right away.
How do you create community in a virtual space? I found 2 ways to do this and I did both of them at the beginning of every period: dad jokes and music.

Okay, dad jokes? Seriously? I stole the idea from a university professor I met online. I figured if they could work in a university setting, they would work in middle school. I phrased the joke in the form of a question (“What do you call a dog that has magical powers?”) and challenged the students to write the answer in the Zoom chat. First one with the correct answer gets….. nothing! Except my annoucing that they got it. The correct answer, by the way, is “a labracadabrador.”

Why do dad jokes work with everybody? Because they’re so lame! They make you groan. And I can tell you that if I somehow forgot the dad joke, students would call me on it right away. So we’re all focused on one little inconsequential thing that has nothing to do with the class content. It’s just fun. And it sure beats the “today class, we’re going to learn about….” introduction. Talk about lame!

And I also did music. I picked different genres of electronic music — house, synthwave, chillstep, lofi hiphop, samurai lofi hiphop (yes, it’s a thing), acid, techno, triphop….. If you know me, you know that my musical jam is blues. Old school, analog, raw blues. But I got into electronica from teaching Sonic Pi and also because I find as background music, it helps me to work. So every day I had some of that music playing when students joined the Zoom class. I would have a virtual background displaying the name of the genre. And I extended it further to feature certain genres on certain days: Boombap Mondays and Chiptune Tuesdays!

Rituals and traditions are so important in building community, right? And I found that doing these two simple things every class helped to build community, and that spilled over to learning. And the funny thing is when I returned to the classroom in person, students demanded dad jokes and music!

Why would I spend all this time before actually telling you why I love online learning? Because you can do online learning poorly and then declare that it’s always a disaster, leads to “learning loss”, and vow never to do it again. We saw that happen recently in schools. We tried “emergency remote learning” and mistook it for actual online learning, then vowed Never Again. Not blaming anyone, just saying!

So here are the Top 10 reasons Why I Love Online Learning (with a bonus reason), in no particular order:

  1. Frees us from geographical constraint
    1. How many times have you heard that schools should be preparing our students with a global mindset? For me, about a million times. But how do you do that from the confines of your classroom? It’s doable but not easy. All of your learners are in one place, and presumably all have lived in that one place for some time. So right away, you’ve got some cultural and geographical blinkers on. But if you could break the walls down and have people from anywhere in your room, you could easily have multiple cultures, backgrounds, histories.
    2. and not only that, as a teacher, I am not limited to getting “clients” who live within driving distance of my classroom. I have a global marketplace of learners.
  2. Ensures safety in times of health crises
    1. I can’t tell you what a relief it was for an at-risk person like myself to be able to do the thing that I love, teaching, without worrying every day about my exposure to the “petri dish” of students. And I’m sure that many students felt the same way.
    2. This current pandemic won’t be the last one we experience on this planet. But it doesn’t have to stop us learning.
  3. Technology tools allow us to personalize and differentiate the learning
    1. Think of all the tools built into Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, and other online meeting software: chat, breakout rooms, screen sharing, audio and video, whiteboards, collaborative spaces…. and it will only get better
    2. So it’s possible to have learning be individualized and differentiated per the students’ needs. We don’t have to lockstep every student into the same learning path, and it’s all manageable from the teacher’s dashboard.
  4. Can be archived for future reference
    1. what if a student misses class? If you archive the class, you don’t have to find time to reteach the lesson when you and the student can get together. They can find the archive and go through it at their own pace and as many times as necessary
    2. and maybe future classes could be asynchronous, or a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous. Perhaps some of that material could be available for the student to preview/review, allowing the teacher to give individualized help as needed.
  5. Community can be achieved (see above)
    1. Yes, it can be done!
  6. Collaborative learning is possible, even easy
    1. this can happen with a group project, or on an ad hoc basis. I’ve had students stuck on a particular point of coding, and I simply moved them into the breakout room of another student who just mastered that concept. Easy peasy!
    2. Students can use whiteboards, share screens, whatever is needed to collaborate.
  7. Lends itself to project-based learning
    1. You may know that I use PBL exclusively in my classes. So how does that work in a virtual space?
    2. We always start with the dad joke and the music, then a few minutes to go over a particular skill or area of concern, then it’s time for breakout rooms.
    3. In the physical classroom, I MBWA — Manage By Walking Around. I look over shoulders, see how students are doing, celebrate successes and failures, offer advice, try not to answer too many questions but steer them to other resources, etc.
    4. In the virtual classroom, I pop into breakout rooms unannounced. I let them know this will happen ahead of time, so they aren’t spooked. Sometimes it’s just a “how’s it going” visit, sometimes it’s more involved, but they know that I’m there and checking.
    5. and they can always request help from within their breakout rooms.
  8. Enables extra help for students who need it
    1. I can use all of the tools we mentioned above — screen sharing, whiteboards, etc, and the student just has to make an appointment. Time isn’t flexible, but space sure is, so they can get to “my office” easily.
  9. Tech tools allow us to create variety in presentation modes
    1. Jamboards, whiteboards, slide decks, video, Minecraft worlds, screen sharing….. so many digital tools for sharing content and learning. We live in the golden age of learning environments.
  10. Some students feel safer in the virtual space
    1. Not so much from health crises, but for some students, “going to school” is fraught with so many stress-inducing possibilities.
    2. They appreciate the physical distance from the school and can attend school from home, which is perhaps their safe space.
  11. Bonus reason — we are actually preparing students for the future!
    1. If I had a nickel for every time in my career I heard about “preparing our students for the future”…. well, I could have retired a long time ago! Truthfully, a lot of school talks that talk but in reality is educating learners the way the teachers were educated, back in the day. So we’re actually preparing students for the past!
    2. In a world which is globally interconnected, with an increase of shared virtual spaces, in which digital technology is more and more transparent…. online learning is actually what a lot of education will look like in the not too distant future!

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