Guest Blogger: Why your high school needs online learning

While many high schools follow a curriculum designed to prepare students for higher education, programs that don’t offer online learning opportunities fail to teach students skills they will need in college. This is especially important for students who will enroll in online degree programs, though most courses in a university setting feature some level of online participation.

Furthermore, introducing online components can be particularly effective in teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects as they free up class time for more active learning. By understanding the benefits of digital learning and creating smart opportunities to incorporate online components in a high school curriculum, schools and teachers can better prepare their students for the challenges they’ll face as they continue their education.

What is a Flipped Classroom?

The “flipped classroom” is a term that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as educators realize the benefits of incorporating online portions in their classes. In a flipped classroom, a teacher creates videos and other educational materials and places them in a central location online. This allows students to access the information at any point and review lessons at their own pace.

Much of this information would normally be conveyed through in-class lectures. By allowing students to first encounter the information on their own, outside of class, teachers free up class time that can be spent discussing the lesson, working on projects, listening to guest speakers, taking field trips, and applying concepts through problem solving.

The humanities have used this model for at least as long as the printing press has been around. They often rely on an individual’s ability to process information outside of the classroom — for example, reading a novel — and then work from that base understanding in the classroom through discussions, presentations, and writing prompts. Some believe it is more difficult for someone who is studying a complex subject like engineering to learn effectively from static materials like a book on their own. However, flipped classrooms are particularly well suited for STEM subjects.

With the advent of digital learning systems, teachers have many more options to convey information, which can help them to better engage students with different learning styles. Assigning readings from a textbook may provide a structured overview of a topic, but teachers don’t have to leave students alone with a stale text.

For example, a teacher could create a short video that accompanies that night’s reading, tailoring the lesson to a specific group, providing examples, and clarifying key concepts students might not understand simply from reading. If a teacher is uncomfortable standing in front of a camera or needs to demonstrate a complex concept visually, they can also create animated videos in order to cover some content.

In a STEM classroom, concepts can often be confounding, even if they are explained clearly in class. It just isn’t as simple as hearing and understanding. The online components of a flipped classroom offer students an extra step in the learning process before students have to apply new concepts on their own.

Traditionally, the structure of a course often works like this:

  1. Students first encounter information as a teacher speaks in class about a new concept. Students might take notes and ask any immediate questions.
  2. Students go home and read from a textbook or work on homework alone in order to apply concepts from that day’s lesson.
  3. Students return to class the next day, possibly with questions and concerns about struggles they may have had with the homework.

In a flipped classroom, the structure works like this:

  • Students view video lectures and other materials at home the night before class and write down any questions they might have. They might also respond to a short quiz or writing prompt, post within a discussion board, or work through a few sample problems.
  • Students come to class where they can continue their discussions and ask questions, having had some time to process the information. They can also apply the concepts to problems and projects with the benefit of supervision and guidance from the teacher.
  • Students go home and continue to apply the concepts they’ve now encountered twice by completing homework or working on a long-term project on their own.

As you can see, in the flipped classroom, the first encounter students have with information allows them to review particular portions of a lesson as many times as they need in order to prepare for class. The second step in the flipped model may be the most crucial as students aren’t left alone when they do the hard work of applying new concepts to problems and projects. If they make mistakes, teachers can offer immediate feedback and guide the students toward clearer understandings.

In contrast, within the traditional classroom structure, a student might misunderstand a concept during a lecture and go home only to fail to apply a concept to their homework, putting them behind in the course.

Teach Students How to Learn from Online Content

In order to benefit from the structure of a flipped classroom, students will have to first understand how to learn from online content. Different than simply watching YouTube videos for entertainment, students need to understand how to learn from videos and other digital mediums on their own. For example, students might not realize they may need to review materials multiple times in order to understand certain concepts.

Online learning places a significant amount of responsibility on students to make time to carefully process videos and online materials at home. And of course, with extra-curricular activities, social situations, and family drama, high school students can be forgetful. This pressure to engage in focused time-management is a skill students can use for the rest of their lives.

While it is one thing for students to neglect to do their homework outside of school hours, neglecting to take part in the main form of content coverage involved with a flipped classroom can leave a student completely lost. Because online learning requires such individual accountability, it can be especially useful to include some kind of activity that requires students to interact with the materials, such as a discussion board or a writing prompt. Teachers might even include a list of key terms students should look for and be able to identify in order to guide their learning.

Asking students to take notes about key concepts and questions during video lectures can also help them to interact with the material, rather than passively receiving it. If students can learn how to engage with digital resources to self-educate, they will gain the tools to be lifelong learners. This will help in college as well as any time they need to solve a problem or learn about a subject in the future.

Examples of Online Learning Opportunities

The task of creating content that exposes high school students to online learning doesn’t have to rest solely on high school teachers. Partnering with universities, massive open online courses (MOOC), and other services can provide online learning opportunities that supplement high school STEM courses.

For example, Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy (GFA) offers high school students the chance to complete coursework using the edX platform. Students have a safe place to practice the kind of work they’ll do in college, and because students aren’t required to pay for courses in which they do not receive a passing grade, it is a financially risk-free opportunity to try college. GFA provides access to college-level studies for students who may not be sure if they will further their education after high school.

Khan Academy is another obvious example. This organization has expanded from producing a series of instructional videos on YouTube to offering tools that allow students to track their progress and practice applying concepts as well as resources for teachers. These cost-free materials can function as a stand-alone curriculum for students or teachers who want to expand their understanding of a variety of subjects on their own, or they can supplement existing courses.

There are also a number of organizations offeringMOOCs that can be incorporated into high school curriculums. Aside from allowing students to communicate with each other within MOOCs, they can also participate in discussions with thousands of other people from around the world. This influx of perspectives can be extremely valuable for high school students and can also give them a taste of the type of interactions they may have in college.

Potential Challenges

Some students may not have at-home access to the internet, computers, and other technology that might be required for a flipped classroom. This can create socio-economic divides between classmates and can cause poorer students to fall behind. It’s also possible some students may choose not to participate in online learning or may not be mature enough to be prepared for this kind of learning.

A major challenge for teachers is that they have to plan their courses and create or curate a lot of educational materials well in advance. Recording and uploading lectures and introducing in-class activities that will engage the students and further the lesson objectives takes a lot of work. One strategy for working through this is to develop and introduce online components gradually into the curriculum over a number of years, perhaps even restricting online learning to specific lessons. This allows teachers to experiment with online learning in their courses without having to change their entire curriculum.

The length and quantity of videos and other materials is very important. A larger quantity of bite-sized pieces of information often does a better job of demystifying a concept than a single, lengthy video that covers all aspects of a lesson. Also, teachers should be intentional about striking a balance between the amount and types of work required in and out of class. Watching videos at home, working out problems for homework, and working on problems and exams in class can overwhelm students.

It’s important for teachers and institutions to allow for some experimentation and modification of a course, especially when introducing online components for the first time. Not every subject or lesson will work the same way for different groups. However, with careful planning it’s possible to incorporate online elements within STEM classrooms in order to improve learning, free up class time, and teach students skills they will use throughout their education.

Devin Morrisey CoderZ Blog Guest Blogger

This article was written by Devin Morrisey, who connected with CoderZ via Twitter. Devin writes from his garage in Daly City, CA, stopping periodically to build robot cars with his nephew. He is a stark advocate for technological integration in educational policy.

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