Supporting "Connected Educators"

Nevin Katz is an online learning specialist, published author/illustrator, and former science teacher. He designs mathematics and science courses for EDC’s EdTech Leaders Online program, including “Using Technology to Explore Weather and Climate.” An experienced programmer and Web developer, Nevin also designs interactives and apps for online courses and initiatives throughout EDC. In this post, written in honor of Connected Educators month (October 2013), Nevin reflects on the role that facilitated online courses can play in helping connected educators acquire new technology tools and practices.

What does it mean to be a connected educator? In this day and age, it brings to mind using social networking platforms like Twitter to share resources with colleagues, or perhaps bringing Skype into the classroom to get students to talk to an expert zoologist. It might involve learning from colleagues across the globe via webinar how to use iPads for fieldwork. Or, it might involve a class contributing to an online data collection project with schools from other parts of the country. For many teachers, picking up these techniques is not a trivial task. There is much to learn about education in the digital era and, for a teacher, sometimes the best way to acquire new techniques and stay connected to other colleagues is through facilitated online courses.

Over the past five years, for EDC’s EdTech Leaders Online (ETLO) program, I’ve designed and facilitated online courses for educators from a range of backgrounds. In this role, I have had the opportunity to help teachers, administrators, and support specialists enhance their science and math teaching practices, bring blended learning into the classroom, and design their own online courses. I have seen many benefits to bringing educators together online—particularly in the blended learning cohorts I have recently facilitated, in which high school and middle school teachers learn how to integrate technology and online learning into their classrooms.

Online discussion forums are a central part of the courses I facilitate. These forums usually focus on a weekly discussion prompt—a generative, open-ended discussion question that invites responses from educators who teach a range of subjects at different grade levels. In response to the prompt, a participant responds ("starts a thread"), others contribute their own posts, and the group ultimately builds a conversation to which everyone can contribute. I find that these conversations can become very vibrant and often allow teachers to dig more deeply into a topic than they could in a face-to-face professional development setting, where the constraints of time and space limit how deeply a group can discuss a particular topic.

Checking into the forums on a given afternoon, I find teachers continually sharing ideas—how to make their lessons accessible to students with special needs, how to assess student work in the online environment, how to bring mobile devices into their classrooms. While facilitating online courses on Weather and the Earth-Moon-Sun system with teachers from New Bedford, Mass., I was amazed at how many resources and ideas they shared with each other on topics such as teaching shadows, modeling eclipses, and relating the tilt of the earth to the seasons. Unlike a daylong workshop, I was also able to learn about some of the participants' outcomes—such as a successful wiki that a teacher developed or students wanting to stay in from recess to try out an interactive their teacher introduced them to during the course.

The fact that educators are able to connect with each other online at their convenience without having to be in a physical location is huge. Teaching is an all-consuming endeavor, and with all of the day-to-day demands of teaching, planning, grading, and organizing, the prospect of venturing out on a regular basis to a physical professional development setting can be daunting. But being able to log on at your convenience—in the evenings, on the weekends, before class—helps educators find the time to develop professionally while meeting the demands of their hectic schedules. I have also found that teachers will log on if they know they can access resources that will be useful to them now. While there is great value in including current research written by experts in the field, it is important to complement it with online tools and pedagogical techniques that teachers can readily pick up and apply to their curriculum—such as wikis, online interactives, and teacher-creation tools such as Geogebra.

To make the on-ramp to classroom use as smooth as possible, it is key to show teachers how to use new techniques and tools and to have them apply what they learn. I have found clear screencasts to be invaluable in showing teachers how to use techniques and tools (here's a screencast I did on Geogebra). We embed a good amount of screencasts in our ETLO courses—always testing to make sure instructions are clear before we launch a course—but I often find myself making ad hoc screencasts to help a teacher use a particular feature in a tool like Google Earth. To enable teachers to practice and apply their learning, we give them a chance to use new tools/techniques in a final project of their own design.

While massive open online courses (MOOCs) are growing in number and help meet the increasing demand for anytime-anywhere education, I have seen tremendous value in a learning community whose numbers are small enough so that people can get to know everyone, learn about what others bring, and share resources and ideas through continual dialogue. As an online course facilitator, I am excited to be a part of these learning communities—clarifying concepts for individual educators, helping educators connect with each other, and supporting all in mastering new tools and techniques. For the motivated connected educator, this learning model can be nothing short of transformative.