Don’t Undervalue Online Education

Digital technology can enhance teaching and learning — if used properly

Watching the news accounts pressing for students to return to the classroom riles me. I’m not opposed to students returning to the classroom safely; I’m riled because educational technology is getting a bad rap. In this dark pandemic, ed tech should seem bright with possibility, not something we need to escape.

I believe an online education can be equally effective with students if it is used correctly.

As a teacher, I began using technology with my middle and high school students after I participated in a week-long, grant-funded summer school for teachers on how to use technology in the classroom. It changed how I taught forever.

At the time, I taught at a school that combined homeschooling and face-to-face schooling. Students attended school Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and homeschooled — using teacher-assigned lessons — on Mondays and Thursdays. It was a perfect marriage that included parents and teachers in the learning process and a perfect opportunity for me to employ digital tools in a school that had little in the way of digital resources.

Yes, I experimented with my students — and they and I were better for it.

Many digital tools are free

Because my school had no budget for digital resources, I had to find free tools to use with my students. They are everywhere.

A free blog was one of the first tools I used. I didn’t write a personal blog; I wrote “Literature Loves Company,” along the theme of “misery loves company.” Instead of students purchasing a portfolio notebook and writing lame journal entries that I had to collect and grade, I wrote a blog post related to what we were tackling in class — literature, vocabulary, essay writing, preparation for the Advanced Placement tests — and required my students to respond. I then graded their responses.

It gave them an opportunity to “speak” unhindered as well as a chance to learn from each other. (I’ll share more details in a future post, but if you wanted to boost your blog stats, requiring your students to read and comment could be a way to do that.) 🙂

Unlike the school where I did my summer school learning, my school didn’t have a cart of laptops I could wheel into the room to get everyone online. But all of them had computer access at home, and since the tools I used were free, every student could use them too.

Eventually, I added a website with a calendar for our assignments with links to either documents or online resources. We used Quizlet for tackling vocabulary, wikispaces for special projects, submitted essays and research papers into plagiarism detectors, did grades online, offered digital tests and quizzes, created spiffy slideshows and videos, and so much more.

I didn’t do this alone. My students helped.

Your students are digital natives

One of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it to someone else. Let your students use what is familiar to them — digital tools — to create artifacts that express or expand what they are learning and share them with the class. Many allow students to collaborate virtually while they do this.

When we studied William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, my students created their own version of Facebook using Wikispaces. A small group of them created Facebook profiles for each of the characters and had them interact on the platform. It was silly; it was fun; it helped them engage with the content.

Though I would have found the assignment overwhelming, my students grouped together to create videos to relay books we read as well. They took great pride in working together to produce something fabulous, and they had fun doing it.

Here’s one a group of students created for The Great Gatsby.

Screenshot by author

Students found digital tools for learning a natural extension of learning, and in addition to learning “reading, ‘writing, and ‘rithmetic,” they also became comfortable using tools they will use in their future lives.

Digital learning and traditional classrooms aren’t mutually exclusive

The special hybrid of teaching and homeschooling allowed me the luxury of teaching using digital tools, in part because I taught older students. Parents weren’t looking to homeschool their teenagers on Mondays and Thursdays; digital aspects of my course allowed me to present information and engage students without being present. It worked well.

However, I didn’t use digital tools to lecture or hold Zoom meetings with students. The goal wasn’t to mimic what I did in the classroom online, and when our school eventually went to more days in the classroom, I didn’t stop using digital tools. I found they had value in my classroom as well as out of it.

Digital learning and face-to-face or brick and mortar classrooms aren’t mutually exclusive. Many teachers incorporate digital tools in some form even when teaching in a traditional classroom. But if you are limited to digital teaching only because of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, you can make it a valuable experience.

I’ve used digital tools as a teacher — and as a student. Shortly after I started using technology with my students, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in educational technology — all online. The University of Florida offered that focus as part of its master’s degree in education in Curriculum and Instruction.

I completed the degree over three years, taking two courses per semester while teaching full time. Everything I learned in the course I put into action teaching. Personally, I found it to be the most effective learning experience of my life.

This month, I plan to give you some ideas to use technology effectively with your students — whether you remain at home or joy in reuniting with students in a classroom. I hope you find them beneficial.

And, of course, I hope to defend educational technology, much as I did in the Prezi below, a project for one of my classes. If you want to know some of the academic argument for and against ed tech, you might enjoy learning via the presentation linked below.

Screenshot by author

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