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!

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?





Summer Reading


Writing and reading on a summer afternoon.

Writing and reading on a summer afternoon.

As I sit reading and writing on a summer afternoon it’s hard to imagine a prettier spot to reflect on Donalyn Miller‘s two books: The Book Whisperer, and Reading in the Wild. Her clear message is that we go beyond teaching children how to read and comprehend; we are to create life long readers. And she asks the question:  What are the habits of life long readers?

Do you consider yourself a life long reader? Could you identify the reading habits you have developed that ‘fit’, with being a life long reader?

I had to think about this. What makes me a life long reader? My love of books was developed early in life, and I delight in the connections I make as I read, connections that enlarge my view of the world and give me a better understanding of my self, but how does this love of reading translate into guiding students to become life long readers?  What is it that life long readers do?

In Reading in the Wild Donalyn Miller identifies and explains how she promotes these 5 characteristics of life long readers.

Life long readers:

1. Dedicate time to read. –  I am thinking that I need to guide my students to develop reading stamina and learn to read for longer periods of time.  Can students add to their reading time in other ways?  Yes! Donalyn uses the term, reading on the edge, for those small blocks of time through the the day, waiting for an appointment, or riding on the bus when we can capture a few minutes of reading time. Of course, it is helpful to carry a book with you wherever you go in case you have just such a reading emergency. 

2. Self-select reading material. How true this is! Students are keen to read books they choose themselves.

3. Share books and reading with other readers. A classroom community of readers who share and talk about books, sounds inviting. I love talking about books with friends and colleagues and I know that my students would love this too.

4. Have reading plans. I have never thought about explicitly teaching this to students. I can see that this characteristic propels readers onward. The onus is on me to continually increase my knowledge of children’s literature so that I can inspire my students to anticipate the next book they might read. Fortunately this is something I love to do.

5. Show preferences for genres, authors, and topics. In my experience grade threes are beginning to develop preferences and often it is books that are part of a series. There is room to expand their horizons and show them the variety of reading options available.

And so I wondered…  How do I encourage these habits with 8 year olds who are just on the cusp of becoming established readers. And more importantly how do I promote these characteristics with online learners?

The answer just fell into my lap last spring!  Tune in to my next post to learn about my plan.


An Online Math Course verses Summer Reading

This summer I am taking an online math course from Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education, Stanford University.

It is fitting I think, that an online math teacher should take an online math course and it is logical then, that one of my interests is the very structure and organization of the course. How do I as a student interact with the course and with other students?  In what way is this course engaging? How do I assess my progress?  Does the course provide resources for further learning? And how on earth can an online course compete with summer in Alberta?

Summer reads verses online math courses, its a tough competition.

Summer reads verses online math courses, its a tough competition.

It must be engaging, and you may be happy to know it is, both in content and structure, because for a period of time each day I am passing up on warm sunshine and relaxing beach reading, to sit in front of my computer.

What are the features of this course that make it work for me? Each lesson consists of a series of  short videos with accompanying text.  I can view the videos several times if I wish and stop at any point to jot notes. The videos are short, from less then a minute to about 12 minutes and each video ends with a question that asks a response from me. In addition each video includes a forum where participants can reflect and comment on content. As a whole the course is easy to navigate, I can see my progress and understand what is next.

Already I can see these strengths:

– short chunks for learning

– immediate opportunity for response to the content

–  interaction with other students

– flexibility to work through the material in any order.

– easy to navigate

– learn when I want ( and enjoy the sunshine too!)

Have you ever taken an online course?  How was it structured? Did the course format work for you? What worked well?  What would have improved the course for you?  I would like to hear about it.