I joined the teaching staff of a virtual school at the very end of August 2020. My previous district had been a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) district and Google Classroom followed us into the brave new world of remote education under COVID. I created daily posts in Classroom, expected my students to work together in shared documents, and organized work for the students using hyperdocs, both before and during remote learning.
At my new virtual school, we use Canvas as the platform for our classes. While I had used Canvas for my graduate courses, I had not used it with middle-school-aged students. What I have observed is that my middle school students use Canvas only for the calendar for the links to log into their classes. Instead of feeling like they have input into their schedule or their work, they seem to depend on teachers to post a PearDeck or a Canvas link during class (and every time their internet connection is lost). Students rarely engage directly with Canvas itself, the way students did with Google in my previous school. In my observation, this leads to an over-reliance on the teacher as the source of the work and material in all classes, as students do not know how much access they actually have to the material within Canvas.
Over the December break, I took a course called “Online by Design” with Dr. Eric Moore. I had read a blog post of his, How to Design Effective Canvas Modules, and I wanted to learn more, so I took his course. I came away with lots of ideas to think about. It was most helpful for me to have another person put into words some of ideas I had been bumping up against in my new virtual education setting. For example, I felt strongly that there was an issue with the general organization, as exemplified in the constant refrain of request for the PearDeck link, but I didn’t have all the words I needed to say that well. In Dr. Moore’s course, I read an article “How to break down barriers to learning with UDL,” written by Allison Posey from CAST, and she captured and explained the phenomenon I had been struggling to put into words. She writes:
After a lesson, ask yourself, “When did I need to repeat directions?” “When did I have to show students how to do something I already taught?” or “When was a student not able to be fully included in the lesson?” The answers will help you identify the barrier in your lesson. With the barrier in mind, you can then make plans to reduce that barrier by adding an additional support or scaffold into the learning environment.
For example, imagine that after you model how to solve a word problem, some students struggle to remember the process for solving this kind of problem. The barrier is that the lesson requires students to process and work with a lot of information at once. To reduce the barrier, you could create a short video highlighting the key steps of the process. Or you could provide a graphic organizer outlining the steps.
Adding those resources to your lesson and making them available for all students to reference as needed reduces the barrier. Those resources will also help all students develop expert learning skills and make progress. That, in turn, empowers students to better understand what they need to be more independent in their learning.
Ah. When I thought about both of these pieces of research and reading together, I realized that there was a path forward toward the independence I want for my students. They need an organizational structure in their online environment that provisions them with access and tools. They need an educational culture that encourages them to explore, work together, learn from each other, and learn from mistakes. They need a technology platform that expects them to be in control of managing their own learning and also provides support and resources to make that happen.