This blog post shares the experiences of two high school English teachers - one based in California and the other in South Africa - as they planned and implemented a connected learning experience for their Grade 9 English students. Although not without its challenges, the project was found to have an overall positive impact on both student learning and on engagement. Based on this experience, both teachers are keen to collaborate further and strongly encourage other educators to look for opportunities to connect.
My name is Shelby, and I’m Katherine. Both of us teach high school English, but one of us works in California and the other works in South Africa. Although we have never met in person, we nevertheless planned and implemented a fully connected learning experience for our students during the months of October and November of the 2015/2016 academic year.
Shelby: Katherine and I found each other through the Connected Classrooms Workshop community on Google Plus. Katherine was looking for a class to collaborate with, and I responded. After a bit of discussion back and forth, we saw a perfect opportunity to connect our Grade 9 classes around our study of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Given the racial tensions in both countries - both past and present - we saw great potential for our students to gain a deeper appreciation of the ongoing relevance of the novel and its themes to their lives.
Katherine: Shelby and I based our project on the principles of connectivism, as articulated by George Siemens. According to Siemens, a new theory of learning is required in the digital age, one that takes into account the enormous impact of technology on virtually every aspect of our lives. By helping our students get plugged in to a network of other sources of information, both human and physical, we hoped that their possibilities for learning would be vastly increased.
As we put together our design, we also took into account the three core learning principles - interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented - and the three design principles - production-centered, openly networked, and shared purpose - of connected learning, as advocated by Connected Learning.
We decided to use the following free and easily accessible tools to create an open network within which our students could support one another in their learning about the novel: Twitter, TweetDeck, Blogger/WordPress, Feedly, Skype, and YouTube.
To generate interest and shared purpose as well as to help ensure that the final products/assessments were in alignment with our goals and intentions, we used the principles of backwards design to develop three essential questions for our unit, as follows:
What are the causes and consequences of stereotyping and racism?
How are justice and social inequality linked?
How do great works of literature continue to be relevant to our lives today?
Next, we identified the key formative and summative assessments we would use to monitor and evaluate student learning. Formative assessments for our unit included videos, tweets, blog and vlog posts, and recorded Skype interviews, whereas summative assessments included a Socratic Seminar and literary essay in the case of Katherine’s class, and a digital portfolio in the case of Shelby’s.
Our learning plan was as follows:
Step 1: Introduce the novel, the concept of connected learning, and the tools used
Step 2: Connect
Step 3: Begin reading & interacting around the novel & its themes
Step 4: Synthesize learning
Getting the students set up and ready to go took us a bit more time that we had initially thought it would, but once we had had overcome the initial hurdles, our students were soon tweeting, blogging, and Skyping away. Shelby’s students were excited to learn more about Katherine’s students in South Africa, as many of them had not traveled outside of the US before (click here to see an introductory video from Shelby’s class, and here for one from Katherine’s). Katherine’s students were challenged by Shelby’s extremely keen honors students to write both more extensively and more thoughtfully and both groups of students were able to make a variety of connections between not only what they were learning and the two different cultural contexts, but also amongst themselves.
Despite these successes, challenges also existed. The planning required for this unit - perhaps because it was our first time collaborating - was significant. Everything was new for Shelby and some things were new for Katherine, so the learning curve was quite steep. Furthermore, Shelby had 110 Grade 9 English students, whereas Katherine only had 14. This meant that Katherine’s students would become deluged with responses to their posts whereas Shelby’s students would often feel neglected. This issue was partly exacerbated by the time difference, which meant that all interactions had to be asynchronous. Another issue was the fact that Blogger, the blogging platform that we had initially both planned to use, ended up being blocked at Shelby’s school; as a result it took her a bit longer than she had initially planned for to identify an alternative and get her students set up with their own, individual blogs. Finally, our students were working at very different levels, with different summatives required for Katherine’s class.
Nevertheless, both of us feel that the advantages of teaching and learning this way far outweighed the disadvantages. Now that we’ve both been through the process once, we know what to do and future planning and implementation will be much more efficient. We both plan to experiment further with the potential of connected learning to enhance engagement and deepen student learning at the same time as it prepares our learners for the challenges of life and work in the 21st century. We encourage other teachers to join us for the ride!
To learn more about our experiences and to see examples of student work, please click on the link to this Prezi.
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