A digital initiative

A few weeks ago I was selected to be part of an innovative team of educators who will be responsible for laying the groundwork for an online high school in Massachusetts. Thanks to a $400,000 grant, pockets of teachers from across the state will develop quarterly online courses that can be administered to students via computers through the Internet.

I met recently with five other content area teachers at a regional educational collaborative. There we were given laptops and offered an opportunity to explore various Web 2.0 tools. Once we become familiar with the electronic options available to us, we'll conceptualize how to best put them to use to teach students the curriculum they need to earn a high school diploma.

The majority of my work will be done in the fall, when I will actually create the class using the Moodle content management system. Once the course is set up, I will administer one pilot section of it in the spring. The goal is to fine-tune the course for the state so that eventually, other tech-savvy, certified educators will be able to teach the course to students from across MA.

Online learning has a number of benefits. The asynchronous nature allows for students to engage with the content during the hours that are most suitable for them and their lives. The discussion-board style discourse gives all equal voice. This is a contrast to brick-and-mortar classrooms, where the most vocal or loquacious students run the risk of dominating classroom conversation. Rather than get caught up in the heat of the moment, posters also have a chance to reflect on what it is they are learning, and how exactly they want to portray an idea or show their understanding of a concept.

Given that students spend nearly eight hours per day in front of screens, online learning also provides comfort and familiarity. The main drawback, obviously, is that students miss out on an opportunity for face-to-face contact and interaction. It's hard to truly get a"feel" for your teacher and classmates until you actually spend time with them in the same physical place.

One nice component about the course I'm piloting is that the students will be in a room with other students taking the class, and they'll have the assistance of a paraprofessional. Thanks to Skype and other video conferencing programs, students and paras will be able to converse with the "behind the screen" teacher to ask questions and receive immediate feedback.

As an aside, one of the teachers in my cohort was an old friend from my undergraduate days at UMass whom I hadn't seen in more than 10 years. It was great to reconnect with her, and served to further drive home the notion that it really is a small world, and we are connected in more ways than we realize.

Photo credit iStockphoto

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