Sunday, January 11, 2015

Teacher Creativity Skill: Create Digital Learning Spaces

One of the most useful creativity skills we can develop is the ability to imagine and develop the spaces in which creativity can most easily happen. Great classrooms have always been the fertile earth for creative work, but in the Digital Age, we have the responsibility to adapt to new opportunities and new environments.

Online learning experiences can be both transformative and restrictive. Learning when and how best to use digital environments in the service of learning requires more than just a passing thought. The upside is that digital tools allow us to extend our learning, not just in terms of time, but in terms of capacity and opportunity. We can now create opportunities to collaborate and learn together at any time, and we can bring in great new tools that make new experiences possible.

The downside is that digital environments can feel impersonal and artificial when over-used or when used poorly. Poorly designed spaces can interfere with a student's ability to engage and learn.  The skills and knowledge needed to create useful digital spaces, so that we can take advantage of their creative potential, are topics we have a responsibility to explore.

Where Should We Start?

Teachers are already making great use of many digital learning spaces to support online and blended learning, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes because they see the potential. If you are just getting started with teaching online there are four areas you might consider for establishing your digital presence and for developing online learning spaces.

Learning Management Systems (LMSs) offer digital spaces that often are structured similarly to physical classrooms. They often have a space for discussions, announcements, assignments, assessments, and resources. Many also feature a calendar and gradebook. There are great free LMSs, and there are very complex LMSs that districts purchase. The advantages of LMSs are that they are built for learning. The disadvantages are that they can often feel institutional and, honestly, a little too dependent on a traditional view of teaching and learning. That said, used well, LMSs are a great space in which to work with students. The field of LMS choices can be pretty overwhelming, and if you are looking for one on your own (as opposed to finding one for a district), your search can be different. Our district uses My Big Campus, and I like it really well. but at the end of the day, your selection will depend on your needs.

Websites, Wikis and Blogs are another great way to create a central online hub for collaborating, information sharing, and building community. My first attempt at establishing an online community with students was through a blog. Honestly, I think it was a great way to interact after the bell, and I liked having a space to put the resources my students needed. The upside to all of these options is that they are super-easy to create, develop and maintain. Many great options are available for free. They also have a lot of resources and extras built around them. The downside is that they are less full featured than LMSs and they tend to be more static in nature. Students can find this boring if you don't find ways to create engagement. If you are just starting out, I would recommend that you look at Weebly and Blogger as good beginner spaces that offer ease of use, functionality, and nice visual design.

Social Media offers a group of very useful (and free) tools for creating community. I know teachers who use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to great effect with students. The challenges with social media can be related to district policy toward social media, student access (especially based on age), and the un-gated nature of social media. Using social media with students well requires a bit more learning, but can also provide great rewards. Some of the advantages are that social media is built around community and collaboration, social media is fluid and more organic in its nature, and people are already there which makes sharing with parents easier in some cases. If you are considering social media platforms, I really like Google+ Communities and Facebook Groups for collaboration. For information and resource sharing and for backchannel discussions, Twitter is a fantastic tool.

Other Digital Tools include texting tools like Remind and Celly, Backchanneling tools like Today's Meet, classroom interaction tools like Plickers, NearPod, Kahoot and Infuse Learning, and classroom management tools like ClassDojo and ClassCraft. Each of these tools adds another layer of digital interaction that can enhance online and blended learning.

I would also be remiss if I didn't include in this list Google Apps for Education. The collaborative tools provided there are increasingly becoming indispensable to the teachers who are leading the way in terms of designing meaningful and engaging online learning experiences. While these tools are more loosely connected than the tools in, say, an LMS, together they represent a nearly complete set of classroom tools that can easily be integrated with other online spaces.

Advice for Teaching in Digital Spaces

I certainly don't want to offer this as a complete list, but the following represent some observations I've made while working with successful online teachers:
  1. Establish Your Norms-  Just as in physical spaces, it is important to lay out your expectations for how folks will conduct themselves in digital spaces. This helps students feel more secure about participating, and it helps to avoid misconduct. 
  2. Ask For Feedback Early and Often- Asking students what they like about the digital space, what they don't like, what is missing, and what is unnecessary will help to make the experience better for everyone. I used to ask kids these questions as we tried new things with our blog. Their responses were always helpful.
  3. Keep The Space Fresh- Kids will click everything you put in front of them once. After that, they're less likely to return unless there is something new to see. Adding new content and removing unneeded content regularly will keep them checking in more often.
  4. It Doesn't All Have To Be Business-  As with physical spaces, bringing your own personality helps to make the space feel more friendly and accessible. It also helps to build community. I used to post discussion topics that didn't have an academic goal, but that would invite engagement (e.g. "Who would win in a fight- Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway?"). I also shared information like "What's on my iPod," and invited students to do the same.
  5. Be Visually Consistent- When giving students assignments that I needed them to respond to, I always used the same format, text colors, and images for like-things. All discussion topics might have a picture of a microphone, for example. That way at first glance students can identify information that requires a response.
  6. Set Clear Deadlines- In asynchronous digital worlds, time can be a bit wibbly-wobbly. If I say something is due on a certain date, do I mean by midnight? The nice thing is that interactions on blogs, on social media, or in LMSs tend to be timestamped, so knowing when something was turned in is pretty easy to establish.
  7. Keep Organized- In digital spaces it is just as important as in physical spaces to keep your materials organized for everyone involved. Having a space for assignment sheets is good. Having folders with all materials related to a unit is even better.
  8. Be Flexible- While building your digital space, you will run into all kinds of new stumbling blocks. What if a kid's Internet went out last night? What if a website you shared last semester is suddenly blocked this semester? What if your Twitter feed gets hacked? Having a flexible attitude helps when things go wrong.
  9. Remember That Not Everyone is Techie and Kids Need to be Taught How to Learn in Digital Environments- Teaching in a digital environment can mean also teaching how to use a digital environment. A kid's failure to chime in on a discussion thread may have more to do with user-error than it does with not having anything to add. Be sure to follow-up often with kids when they aren't contributing online. This also means that teaching Digital Citizenship is an ongoing and essential part of learning.
  10. Take Full Advantage of the Digital Space- If all you do is the same type of work that you could have done in the physical world, you are missing an opportunity. Technology has given us the opportunity to have kids experience and do amazing things with people from all over the world. A digital learning space can enable collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
For more advice on teaching in digital spaces, check out these links:

Our Task

With new technologies come new practices. While much of what makes great teaching and learning translates from one environment to the next, we also need to be prepared to adjust our methods to take advantage of new opportunities. Today, teaching without some form of online presence seems incomplete even if the work we are doing in the physical classroom is rich. 

Of course, becoming comfortable with designing creative digital spaces isn't just about how we teach. It is about learning the skills that we want to pass on to our students. They will soon enter a world in which navigating, working in, and even creating their own digital worlds will be as important as mastering their physical work environments. Learning these skills together now will ensure that they can apply them wisely in the future.

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