Online Courses – What makes them work for you?

Will Richardson’s, thought-provoking questions at BlendEd 2018 Edmonton, Alberta @willrich45, @blendEDAB

If you were asked, “Identify ten ingredients for an effective and meaningful online course.”,what would you include as essential?

Have you taken an online course?  What worked for you?  What were the challenges?  Share your insights, thoughts, and wishes when it comes to online learning. I am curious to hear from students, teachers, parents, and others.

My thoughts are shared here. Some of my essentials have to do with course design, other ideas relate to effective pedagogy and how we learn best.  As a teacher and designer of online learning for a unique and mixed audience, young learners in grades 1 to 3, and their families, I think about this every day. My online courses continually evolve as I learn new things and respond to the needs of my students. This list is not definitive, it’s my free flow thoughts in early January as I think about the remainder of this school year and how to give my students the best I know.

Here you go:

1. Start with in-depth support for students as they begin working in an online learning program and provide ongoing guidance to participants.

2. Ensure clarity of language, ease of navigation and visually appealing design.

4. Provide accessible opportunities for easy interaction and connection with the instructor and with other students.

5. Develop a variety of activities and tasks for learners to meet learning goals.

6. Give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning.

7. Provide opportunities for self-assessment, peer feedback, and goal setting.

8. Give feedback that identifies growth and next steps for learning.

9. Create videos for instruction, demonstrations, and feedback.

10. Always model and teach digital citizenship in each aspect of online work and interaction.

What would you suggest or add to this list?

If there is one thing I have observed, it is that young learners are very capable of using digital tools for learning, and this has made my work more fun and creative. Not only have digital tools become more intuitive and friendly, young learners are also increasingly familiar and adept at using technology in their lives. This opens opportunities for new ways of doing things.  So exciting!

A Community of Learners, Near and Far

This is a story about some of my favorite learners who live throughout Alberta.  They access their courses online, connect in Blackboard Collaborate sessions, and share in small groups via Google Meet. Once a week, those that can, meet for for a full day of learning and exploring together. These young students know that you can learn wherever you are. They are community of learners.

This particular day was ‘Pumpkin Research Day!’ Curiosity and excitement abounded, and everyone near and far participated.

Notice and Wonder

Look at all those beautiful orange pumpkins in a row.

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

“Will we make a pumpkin pie?”

“Will these seeds grow into more pumpkins?”

“Will the seeds from the small pumpkin grow other small pumpkins?”

“How many seeds are there inside that pumpkin?”

“Does a big pumpkin have more seeds than the small one?”

There was only one way to find out…

First some predictions about the possible number of seeds in our pumpkins.








How are we going to count all those seeds?   By ones, by twos, by fives, by tens? The serious counting begins.

Such a great day of exploration, as these scientists and mathematicians were at work.

Students Far and Near

Something more was going on behind the scenes something that made this experience complete. Earlier that day my teaching partner, Susan Sundlie, @128sue on twitter, met with students who live in other parts of the province, via Blackboard Collaborate. They too were engaged in the this inquiry process. Perplexed with some of the same questions and with equal curiosity they were conducting research in their homes across the province throughout the day. They knew that their classmates were work addressing these same questions. Everyone would share their discoveries at the end of the day.

Scientists Share Results and Data

All scientists share data and discuss results, and so did we.

Near the end of the day students gathered on the carpet and in a Google Meet to discuss and report results. Each group presented their challenges, methods and results. Students who worked at home listened and shared their results with those at school.

As students discussed their findings they discovered there were common challenges! Counting by 2’s to 190 was not easy! And then there were still more seeds to count!! One student was pleased to share that she had learn how to count by 10 beyond a hundred. “Now I get it!” she happily reported to her mom at the end of the day.

Meaningful learning, engagement, and a genuine learning community for each student no matter where they were.

As I reflected on the day, my students, and their learning, I realized that this is what normal looks like for them. They are living in a world where learning is not constrained by walls, or distance, textbooks or isolation. Today they were participants in learning sparked by curiosity and inquiry. They are learning about collaboration, sharing information, and connecting with others.







Finding the Best Blend for Learning (It’s not about the coffee.)

Will this bridge support 500 grams?

Last fall, at the BlendED and Online Symposium, one of our discussions centered on this question:  How do educators define blended learning? This is relavent question in education today, and one that is especially pertinent to me, because I teach students in both online and face to face settings. How is blended learning put into action in my classroom? Here’s the story of one day.

On this particular day the grade 3’s were excited to come together to take on a bridge building challenge.  Could they use the supplied materials and budget requirements to build a bridge that would support 500 grams and span a gap of 30 cm?

The day started off with an online meeting. Three students in distant locations, Mexico, Somalia, and Calgary met to discuss types of bridge construction, essential considerations for bridge building, and an examination of local bridge design. These students were given the challenge and agreed to meet with us later in the day to share their final bridge designs.

Shortly thereafter, other grade 3s arrived onsite to work together on the same challenge. Both groups knew they are working towards a common goal, in different locations. In an effort to promote collboration and aware that 8 year olds would want to take their own bridge home at the end of the day, I explained that everyone could discuss ideas and help each other, but would build their own bridge.

Each student received a budget of $100 dollars to purchase supplies needed for construction.  This added element in the design challenge defiantly preoccupied several students as they immediately set to work to determine just what they could buy and  how that would impact design.  A cubic centimeter of plasticine cost $1.00 and one student happily concluded that he could buy $79.00 worth. Others set to work building and decided to determine the cost as they went along.

Focused conversation, iterative planing and construction, successes, and problem solving filled our day. One student learned that hot glue, did not work well for joining plastic straws and plasticine, another discovered that plastic cups with a wide base were perfect for pillars. “Is it possible to build a bridge for vehicles and trains?” “What could I use to reinforce this weak spot?” “What is the best way to join these popsicle sticks for the purpose I have in mind?” Good questions filled the day.

Mid-afternoon we met with our other classmates via a Google Hangout projected on the interactive whiteboard. Everyone could see and with the benefit of a speaker system and microphone in our classroom each student could participate in the conversation.  Students were ready and eager to explain their design, discuss their process, and test their bridges.  Interest and excitement were high.

Connected Learners

Each student had been purposefully engaged in the building process and now they were genuinely interested to see and hear what others had done, and to learn more about the design process from others.

Now consider the ways students connected on this day: an online meeting via Blackboard Collaborate, face to face collaborative work, and a Google Hangout to conclude the day. Is this blended learning? Yes, it is, and not because of the technology we accessed or the face to face time we shared, although that may be part of the definition of blended learning. It’s because the needs of the learners were met in a variety of ways. Connected learning enabled students to problem solve, create, collaborate, and learn from each other. The best blend of learning opportunities is always in response to student needs.

How do you support learning in a blended environment?