This year, for the first time, I’m running a biology class with no physical classroom, and no place in the school timetable. See also this this earlier post. The students meet with me online, at mutually suitable times in the evening using a 25 seat Elluminate room and we have a website at Squarespace where we share asynchronously on a group discussion forum. Each student also has a jounal on the Squarespace site, and there is a calendar, file storage, and various other features.
This is a bit of an experiment, that I feel fortunate to be allowed, and funded to conduct. My intuition tells me that the students who are in this class, will do as well as those who study in traditional biology classes (that’s my hope, at least). If that is so, then it will make online classrooms a viable option for students in any school – not just a fallback for students in remote locations.
So far, I have been very pleased with how the class has been running. Below, is a short list of some of the impressions and experiences that have surfaced so far, grouped into benefits and challenges but in no particular order within those groups.
- The students are very enthusiastic – passionate even, in their feelings about how the class compares to their traditional classes. (see image below, of a post-it note left on my desk by my school principal.)
- All our meetings are recorded for us – so if a student doesn’t understand something we talk about s/he can go back later and “re-live” that part of the class – something that is not practicable in a traditional class (without quite a bit of extra effort to arrange).
- Elluminate works really well. We have had very few technical problems. It launches quickly and has been surprisingly reliable. (for some reason launching it at school takes a long time – but at home – where we use it – it is very quick).
- Elluminate is a much more capable application than I had previously realised. I am constantly finding new things we can do with it. For example, I hadn’t previously realised that I can show ANY application on my computer to my students, via Elluminate’s “Application Sharing” feature.
- Teaching this way de-specifies our work hours. I teach a few hours online in the evening, but I often go home at lunchtime on Friday (in lieu of that time) to have lunch with my wife, or to go shopping.
- If we get through a class in less than our planned time, we don’t have to work till the end of the period – we can just finish early. Likewise if we move slower than expected, we don’t have to finish on time – because after all, students don’t need to get to another class.
- We can teach and learn wherever we happen to be. Tonight, for example, I’ll be in a hotel room in Melbourne in readiness for my keynote at the VALA conference tomorrow. But I will still conduct my biology class right from the comfort of my hotel room.
- My impression is that teaching this way is more (not less) interactive than a traditional class. For example:
- Everyone can draw on the screen simultaneously… which is much more interactive than an IWB. (see image and caption below).
- There is a built in Multiple-Choice and True/False polling tool – dispensing with the need for an expensive student response system (SRS).
- The live Chat window acts as a backchannel – providing all the benefits of a backchannel that I have tried to incorporate into my traditional classes using such tools as Today’sMeet. So even when I am explaining something – students can be asking and answering each other’s questions in the chat window… and I can see what is being said, conveniently on my screen.
- In these days when everyone is feeling the need for a 1:1 laptop program – this class IS already 1:1 – because they are all sitting at a computer already – even though it may be an old desktop computer in Dad’s study and not a late model laptop.
- One night, there was a storm, and some of our students could not get Internet access … although the other day there was a storm and students were told to stay home from “real” school as well. But still, the point is that occasionally one or more students will experience Internet issues, which is inevitable. But if they miss part of a lesson as a result at least it’s recorded.
- We found that if more than two people are using their microphone at a time (Elluminate will allow six simultaneous speakers) they really need to be wearing a headset (headphones and microphone).
- Unless everyone has fast Internet, things slow down if everyone turns on their webcam at once. It works fairly well though with a small number of webcams. But after initial introductions, we have found that we tend to just turn the webcams off, unless I need to show them something, or use hand gestures in an explanation. Turning one’s webcam on or off is as simple as a mouse-click.
- Not being able to see each other all the time or move around the room using body language, requires a new skill set – and a different teaching style, on the part of a teacher. I am getting better at it, though.
- Preparation (on my part) needs to be more thorough, and is a little more time consuming than for a traditional class – although I am becoming more expedient in that as well – as I discover more efficient ways of doing things.
Thanks for following this experiment. I’ll continue to report on it as the year progresses.