Also see: Why I Would Never Go Back to Offline Teaching

Say what you like about technology use in the classroom, the biggest difference for me is that it changes the way I teach, and the way my students learn.

That may seem easier for me to say, since I’m a mostly-live online teacher. But I’ve joyfully discovered that there are plenty of benefits that affect educators in face to face or asynchronous education as well.

messy locker-200One big plus of utilizing online tools is the ease of organizing course material. Here is a photo of a student locker at a private school in Paramus, NJ. Sadly, this was not the only one: there were rows and rows of these disaster areas.

The division head who showed me around the school waved it all off with a smile. “Yes, they always look like this.” How can students keep track of their belongings and assignments when this is what their lockers look like? Are students taught organizational skills or given time to organize and leaf through old material?

A huge benefit of using a Learning Management System (LMS) is never receiving the excuse: “I lost my classwork/homework.” It’s true that students find other excuses – “I didn’t see that question posted” and “I didn’t understand what to do” are popular. However, most of my students get the hang of and appreciate the benefits of using an LMS. One commented:

I used to think it would be really hard and confusing about how to organize the information. Now, I don’t even know how I lived without google drive and using an LMS – the organization is EASIER online!!!!

Teaching online

As a distance learning teacher, I’ve taught in over 40 institutions (students and adults) across North America, England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Holland from my home office in Jerusalem. I was teaching online, in fact, before the arrival of Google Drive and similar cloud-based tools (I don’t know how I organized things back then!).

Sometimes I was ‘brought in’ as an expert for a Jewish or Catholic school. Other times schools reserved me or someone from my company as a guest speaker for a special occasion. Some schools contract with my online learning company, JETS, Jerusalem EdTech Solutions, for core curriculum classes – Jewish History, Bible Studies, Talmud, Middle Eastern history and religion – which are taught multiple times a week.

Kadima girls hard at work-300In these types of situations, my students and I use many online tools to explore the internet and indulge in the joys of collaborative learning. One such school is Yeshivat Kadimah, a modern Orthodox high school in St. Louis, MO. I teach Jewish History twice a week to small groups of multi-age students (grades 8-12 together!) in single-gender classrooms.

The students interact with me using Webex, which provides visual and audio communication from screens in their classrooms. I use the Haiku LMS as an accompanying tool, as I’ve written about in a previous blog. Students are assigned a laptop at the beginning of each day and return it to the school office when they’re done. Not all classes require them, but I can’t imagine my class without it.

At the beginning of the year, collaborative learning required the students to make some adjustments. For example, they were not used to reading other students’ opinions before submitting their own. They were accustomed instead to writing responses to the teacher’s questions and submitting them privately, on paper.

Kadima boys hard at workA shift in our learning began when they learned to use online discussion forums, polls and lino boards (virtual sticky notes), collaboratively creating and sharing Google presentations and documents. They also needed to adjust to giving feedback on each other’s’ responses. I gave them guidelines on offering feedback and reminded them frequently to ask themselves if they had offered meaningful responses.

When posting on the Haiku LMS Discussion Forum, one student asked me: “After reading A’s response, I’d like to change my mind. Is that OK?’

Is that OK?! “It’s great,” I responded. “That is called learning!” The student gave me a look and quickly went back to type in a new post, which include student A’s point of view. An educable moment.

The C words: Cheating vs collaboration

When sharing this experience in a professional development session with teachers in another private school in NJ, one curious teacher asked ‘How do you know they’re not cheating?”

sir-ken-cheatingThis is a question I’ve heard from teachers across the spectrum. “How do you know students are learning, when they can see each other’s’ responses?” “One student posted something he never could have thought of on his own. Why is it OK for him to copy off another student?”

I was reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA video Changing Education Paradigms when he states

Now a lot of things have happened to these kids as they have grown up. But one of the most important things is that by now, they have become educated. They have spent 10 years at school being told that there is one answer – it’s at the back…and don’t look, and don’t copy, because that’s cheating. I mean, outside schools, that’s called collaboration.

There are a number of ways to address cheating in a collaborative environment. Here are three suggestions of my own, and I’m interested in hearing viewers’ perspectives.

1. Offer open ended questions and a variety of posting opportunities.

I often provide a few different mediums in which students can respond. For example, there can be a poll, discussion forum and a lino board to cover one topic in a unit. What is most important to me is that there are multiple responses. For example, instead of asking ‘what is the theme of this story,’ I would ask ‘which theme was most meaningful for you and why” or “which individual, in your opinion, reflected deepest character growth and why?”

Therefore, I worry less about cheating and more about whether students can express themselves clearly and explain themselves fully. To me, this is a more accurate assessment of student learning and accomplishment. In my PD sessions, I use these guidelines to create lino boards, but the guidelines are appropriate for discussion forums or any open-ended idea.

class discussion

Throughout our year together, I request feedback from my students about the collaborative ways we learn. Their responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Many enjoy this relatively new form of learning, and (typically) only one or two have been exposed to it beforehand. Here are some of their responses in their own words.

 ▶  I enjoy reading what my classmates say on the discussion forums because sometimes I hadn’t thought about something they said, and it allows me to take their ideas and internalize them and add their answers to my own. Sometimes I will even change my opinion because of what someone has said. I also like the online aspect because I can do it whenever I want – I don’t feel rushed in class that I have to finish something and it allows me time to form my answer. (I like the ability to add and change)

▶  I like discussion forums, the polls, Lino Boards – because I can see what people think without knowing who said what exactly and also because I think people are more likely to express their true opinion when people don’t know it’s them who is saying something. I also like the lino boards because it’s a great example of how you can build on what people say – literally. The boards always look so cool because there are stickies upon stickies and sometimes they branch off and/or you can add new ideas. (Also in general, someone can ask a question publicly and everyone can answer – everyone’s teaching everyone.)

2. Set up discussion forums as ‘private’ or in small groups (see screenshots of different options). This reduces the fear that students will copy off of each other and facilitates guided discussion among specific students.

If you’d like to get started slowly with collaborative learning, try getting your feet wet by opening discussion forums in small groups, or by having students submit online in stages:

Stage 1: Student submits privately to teacher. Teacher comments on student’s response.
Stage 2: Student submits to a small group chosen by teacher. Group members comment on each other’s’ responses.
Stage 3: Student submits to class, or to multiple groups. Students comment on each other’s’ responses.

3. Follow up when needed

I personally prefer students to engage in open class discussion forums, where all students can respond to each other. But I have small classes. If I had a larger one, I would break them into heterogeneous groups.

I like when my students learn from each other. If a weak student, let’s call him Jack, was able to post a more powerful response than is his usual standard, I’m pleased he made the effort to read others’ responses and took the time to share which thought or opinion was most meaningful to him.

sir-ken-collaborationTo me, Jack has demonstrated learning. If I were to ask all my students to post their thoughts in a private discussion, chances are Jack would have not have submitted a response, or would have submitted a blank or weak response, indicating that he did not read or understand the material. Jack’s new, meaningful post indicates that he’s learned something, and cares enough to participate in the conversation.

I can easily follow up with Jack in dialogue during class, or in writing, by responding to his post on the discussion forum. This form of dialogue and follow up is an essential aspect to our online relationship.

What does ‘following up’ involve? ‘Following up’ involves engaging with the student about his response. This can be as simple as ‘what did you mean by that? Explain further’ to ‘I don’t understand your point.’ Or I might go further: “This response doesn’t answer the question. The question asks for you to quote the article, which you didn’t do. Please read the article and post a response which lets us know that you read and understood it.’”

Read the second part of this article, Why I Would Never Go Back to Offline Teaching

About the author
Smadar Goldstein is an online educator based in Jerusalem, Israel, who has taught in over 20 schools in three continents, and feels the potential of online learning has just begun. Smadar is the Founder and Director of JETS, Judaic online and distance learning providers. She's passionate about merging the movements of yoga into online learning. Follow Smadar on Twitter @jetsisrael.