I grew up in the eighties. I loved school. Well, for a while anyway. I had a third-grade teacher who differentiated our spelling words each week, all of us working on words specific to us. I was fortunate to have that teacher loop up to fourth grade, where she also differentiated math, allowing us to work at our own pace through the curriculum. That was also the year that our class got the very first classroom computer in the entire school. Oh, how I loved Oregon Trail and Print Shop! That was pretty much the extent of my virtual learning for many years. In high school, I got to add Appleworks word processing to my list of digital experiences. We would go to the computer lab in English class to type essays. Needless to say, that wasn’t nearly as fun as Oregon Trail.

Photo by Methodshop.com on Flickr

In traditional classrooms, like those I grew up in,  there is one expert: the teacher. Students are typically expected to sit and consume information, memorize facts, and be ready to regurgitate them on assessments. This shouldn’t be the way classrooms look today. Virtual learning opportunities have vastly changed the landscape in the world of education by empowering critical and creative thinking, leveraging data-driven instruction, personalizing learning, and increasing collaboration and communication within the classroom and well beyond the school walls.

  1. Empowering Critical and Creative Thinking: Teachers are no longer the sole experts, and students literally have the world at their fingertips. Teaching becomes more about helping students become critical and creative thinkers so they learn how to formulate their own questions, and take charge of their own learning. Students have access to so much research. Virtual Reality experiences provide even more learning opportunities for students.  Kevin Hodges, Google, says “I see VR as a unique opportunity to expand learning inside (and outside) the classroom. This freedom allows learners to experience landmarks and places they might never see before by downloading an app on a smart-phone”. With these windows into the world, teaching has to change. Teachers need to teach students how to write guiding questions for their research, and then how to conduct reliable online searches. The critical thinking processes begin before the research starts, and continue through to the end when they (ideally) choose a creative outlet to share their findings. Children are actually born with high amounts of creativity. Traditional schooling, however, washes that out of their school lives. We will need to empower them to try new tools and strategies, giving them the freedom to take risks in rediscovering their creative capabilities. Virtual learning opportunities opens more doors to conduct the research, and more avenues for the creative outlets. The hardest part for the teacher is getting out of the way.
  2. Leveraging Data-Driven Instruction: Jason Lange said this about data-driven instruction, “When educators use data to drive their plans and decisions, they can grasp how to respond to problems, construct new ways to teach, and advance skill sets at an even faster rate.” Giving regular and meaningful formative assessments has never been easier. There are so many qualities programs that allow for layers of information for both teachers and students to easily access. Larger assessments in a virtual environment become more about students showing evidence of their learning in a variety of methods and to a much larger audience. Learning becomes personalized and more meaningful. Students no longer have to wait to know how they did on an assessment. The feedback is immediate, and rich with direction for next steps. A key component is involving students in collecting and utilizing the data to set goals and track their progress. This leads to them being invested in the learning rather than being a passive bystander.  
  3. Personalizing Learning Experiences: Personalization has been defined as a process where, “the learner and teacher collaborate to drive learning and determine needs, plans, and learning designs.” While virtual learning tools aren’t a necessity for personalized learning, they make the implementation easier and more effective and engaging for the students. Students are constantly utilizing feedback from formative assessments to reflect and set next steps in their learning processes. They are in frequent communication with their teachers via goal-setting and design conferences. Personalized learning is not putting kids on adaptive software programs. Instead, the teachers and students work collaboratively to allow students to select the content, mode of learning, and the method in which to demonstrate their learning. I particularly like how Robyn Howton defined personalized learning. “It is the purposeful design of blended instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and student-to-student collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests for deeper learning.”  
  4. Increasing Collaboration and Communication: With virtual learning resources available, administrators, teachers, and students can communicate and collaborate with peers and experts, regardless of time zone or physical distances. These are two skills absolutely necessary for success in the 21st century. They must be taught, encouraged, and fostered. Teachers should be designing opportunities for students to engage in meaningful communication and purposeful collaboration that transcends the brick-and-mortar classroom. Group projects are a fantastic way to facilitate effective collaboration and communication, but there needs to be some intentional norm-setting before these projects can be successful. There should be defined roles in each group. After having experienced each role, the students should be allowed to choose their role based on their personal strengths and interests. Reflection throughout and following the project is also essential to ensure individual accountability in a group. But let’s not limit these types of projects to one classroom. Students can be in groups with people in other classes in their school, in their districts, or in an entirely different country. If good communication and collaboration skills have been taught and practiced, there is no reasons students (and teachers) can’t tap into the benefits of learning with students around the world. Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, PenPal Schools, are just a few virtual tools that make our world a smaller place.

In order for these changes to take place, teachers and administrators need to build some foundations first. First and foremost, school leaders must model flexibility, risk-taking, continuous learning, focus, and persistence. Administrators need to provide teachers with resources, strategies, and ongoing professional learning opportunities. Teachers need to move at an incremental speed. Many of these transitions, utilizing virtual learning opportunities, will need to be scaffolded for their students. By embracing all that virtual learning brings to the classroom table, we are opening up student-driven learning possibilities for our students where they play an active role in their education. Classroom digital experiences have come a long way since Oregon Trail. Let’s harness them to make school a place where students are handed the reins.


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