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Isolation: A Pitfall of Online Learning

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Online learning is nothing new.  Believe it or not, it’s been over 20 years since the first online class! What started as a mind-blowing shift in learning has become another tool in the toolbox for many teachers. Online lessons are frequently part of a fully-online class, a remediation module for a traditional class, a flipped lesson to prep students for an activity, a blended approach that combines online and face-to-face learning, or even a way to reach students who are more comfortable with digital communication.

Online lesson design has moved from a specialized skill to one that’s much more common, and in the right schools, a necessary skill. When I talk to teachers, they bring a wide variety of experiences to the table. In any group, there are some who have built entire courses in Blackboard, an online learning platform, and others who have created flipped assignments using resources in Schoology, or Edmodo, or Moodle. I’ve met second grade teachers who use Canvas and high school teachers who collect all their student work using Google Classroom. But when I ask about the negatives associated with online lessons, they offer the same stories, regardless of the virtual platform.

What makes a bad online lesson? Across the board, I hear bad online lessons are:

  • Text heavy
  • Passive
  • Unengaging
  • Confusing
  • Isolating
  • Artificial

Let’s examine one of those a little more closely. Sometimes online lessons make students feel isolated. That’s sad to me because a good online component for a class should help students feel included! About six years ago, I started using a wiki, which is a web page that can be easily edited, along with an online chat program to allow my students to work more asynchronously and to collaborate outside of our class time. My findings? A portion of my class that wasn’t very responsive to in-class activities really stepped up their game, usually in the middle of the night. One student in particular would write the most insightful posts by far. The thing is, she hardly ever spoke in class. She quietly did her work, and during class discussions she would only offer ideas if called upon. But online – what a difference – she was a whiz! I found out that she just needed time to process. She took the questions I asked in class seriously and wanted time to mull them over before formulating her ideas. Moving some of those discussions online gave her the freedom to think, and in turn, her posts drove our in-class discussions the following day. Yes, the same group of extroverts dominated the talk, but they used her ideas as a reference point. The class became more connected as a result of the online component.

Students will find online lessons isolating when they aren’t interacting with their classmates or the teacher.  And sometimes teachers have to get out of the way.  In another class, a group of students decided, entirely on their own, to create social media profiles for the characters in the novel the class was reading. They went all out – costuming, making conscious choices about which words to use in posts, reacting to each other in character based on the events of the book – it was honestly a richer learning experience than our in-class activities. All I had to do was step out of the way and let it happen.

Here’s one tip to leave you with. When designing online lessons, it’s a matter of leveraging the online environment for what it does well. It gives students the chance to think, to explore, to connect. Not every lesson is most effective when delivered online. Think about whether the lessons will help students connect with you, each other, and the subject matter. The strongest online teaching can do all three.

Let’s get some discussion going on your favorite methods to avoid that feeling of isolation. Is there a particular tool/service/website that you like?  Do you have a way of structuring your lessons to maximize interaction among students? Add your comments and share your expertise!

Jason Lineberger is a 2014 PBS Digital Innovator and the Digital Learning Coordinator for Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina, where he runs their online Virtual Academy. Jason regularly presents at conferences and delivers weeklong professional development sessions on technology at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. You can find him on Twitter at @teachertechccs or on stage with his ukulele-powered band, The Dancing Fleas!

Jason Lineberger

Jason Lineberger Digital Learning Coordinator Twitter: teachertechccs

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