Friday, November 11, 2011

Teachers As Designers

Online learning will replace teachers. This is the mantra of many fearful brick and mortar educators. Guess what? They are right.....sort of. The fears will not come to fruition because we choose to utilize online learning, whether in a blended or fully online environment. It will come to fruition if we allow how we teach online or blended learning to be dictated by outside content providers. As some have said, "Content is king." I say then kill the king.

Yesterday I was fortunate to choose a break-out session at the Virtual School Symposium 2011 on "Motivating Students Online" facilitated by Andrew Vanden Heuval, an individual rightfully tagged as one to watch. During the session, I met a group of teachers who teach in a blended fashion, which for them meant students study two days online and two days face to face. This particular group of teachers use a prepackaged online curriculum and Learning Management System (LMS) from one of the major providers. What this meant was they used their content and methods of instruction. What quickly surfaced was a frustration with the restrictions this curriculum placed on them.

For various reasons, mainly that the provider funds the school, the teachers are not allowed to customize the curriculum, plus they really couldn't even if they were allowed. Additionally, they felt that the curriculum, which was created for fully online courses, did not lend itself smoothly to a blended course. A fully online course is difficult to use in a blended classroom if it was not created with the blended classroom in mind. Modulation and flexibility are key to a blended curriculum and not available in many, if not most, of commercial online course curriculum.

This group, of what seemed to me to be a caring and competent group of teachers, felt marginalized by the online curriculum. Well, they should feel marginalized because that is what is happening. Of course, one could argue that it is fine if the outcomes are more positive. However, as you might expect, removing the teacher from playing an integral role in the curriculum and instruction did not translate into higher quality or outcomes.

When asked if the teachers wanted the ability to make changes to the curriculum, the group answered with an overwhelming "Yes!." Whether online or offline, the best teachers may use a core curriculum, but infuse their personality, expertise and personalize the curriculum and instruction to the students they know so well. The teacher is at the core of a successful classroom, online or not. If we stifle their ability to be at the core and use their unique skills to create a high quality learning environment we risk negatively impacting our students.

What it comes down to in this new world of online education is that teacher must also be designers. Whether teachers develop their own online curriculum or uses a providers pre-packaged offering, they must have the ability to customize it. They must be able to choose what works and what does not. They must be able to add new content, activities and experiences and remove the ones that they deem ineffective. There are many reason I can understand why it is not in the best interest of a commercial company to allow for such customization, but then we must ask ourselves whether we should continue to use the providers that do not value the teachers role in design? In addition, as we move and hopefully grow our value for student-centric teaching, the need for the teacher to customize and have the ability to be flexible will only increase.

When a school decides to utilize online education they often look at commercial providers to supply them with what they do not how to create. That makes sense. However, in speaking with the group of teachers yesterday and many other schools that are not funded by the provider, the same story was told. They began with the providers prepackaged curriculum, found it to be rigid and after a few years began to train their teachers on how to create their own online curriculum.

I say to us Jewish educators, let us learn from others and skip the three year process of realization that teachers are the best people to rely on to design our online and blended classrooms.

As we are in the first stages as a field of producing Judaics online, let us take advantage of the knowledge gained by others. Yes, we need online content, but why wait for a few commercial companies to tell us how it should be taught? Why wait for a few non-profits to design curriculum and tell us this is what works for everyone? That is not to say commercial options and non-profit development is not important and will add tremendously to the field. However, let us begin by putting our limited resources where they belong; into the teachers. Let us teach them how to instruct online and in a blended class, but not based on one rigid curriculum. Let us give the educators the skills and training they need to be excellent online and blended teachers by also giving them the skills to be designers.

This does not mean that every teacher now must create fully online courses for their classes and be alone in this process. We must do this is as a collaborative and supportive effort across the field. So, what does this look like? Well, that is for another post. Yet, moving forward, at the core of how we do so must be a respect for our teachers by ensuring they have the ability to use and design the curriculum in the way that works best for their students.

This post is crossposted at

Eliezer A. Jones, PhD
Educational Technology Specialist

Institute for University-School Partnership
Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Yeshiva University

Phone: 917-836-2257

skype: eliezerjones
Twitter: DrEliezerJones
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Wanderingstu said...
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Shimshon Stu Siegel (shimstu) said...

I wonder if any of the big content providers have created quasi-open platforms, the way Apple does with the iOS developers' kit. That sort of model allows third parties (and, in theory, motivated users) to create their own content and frameworks within the larger, fixed context-- but allows the originator (Apple, in this case) to still make its tons of money...