The opportunity to study International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme subjects online has been available to students around the world for the past six years. It is an option that gives schools a way to deliver an innovative blended learning approach that suits many students in today’s digital age and, according to recent research, prepares them well for university. The American International School Guangzhou in China is one of an increasing number of IB World Schools offering some IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) subjects to their students through online courses. Rod Murphy is the online coordinator at AIS Guangzhou. He explains how he helps his students get to grips with studying online and describes the impact of learning this way:
Understanding online learning
“I’ve done a lot of reading about what makes an efficient online course. Not so much from the academic perspective, but more about the social implications, such as making the kids feel valued as online learners, establishing some social contact between teacher and student, and giving online students a sense of belonging.
Promoting class belonging
I believe the online learners need to feel they’re part of a group and so we have the Pamoja Class of 2014-2015, pictures of our online graduates for each year, and we’ve allocated an online learning room for the students which has clear evidence of its purpose – it has pictures of the online teachers on the walls, signs and displays about the online learning, etc. It gives the kids a sense of ownership and belonging.
Three weeks before the start of class, I introduce the students to the concept of online learning. The students often have little experience of true online learning and some of them don’t have a smooth time, particularly in the early weeks. This early stage is when the site based coordinator (SBC), who supports the students with their online learning, is most important. The students need the SBC to ask them how they’re doing, what problems they’re having, and to help them with the details such as: have they checked that their skype is working properly in preparation for a skype discussion, have they checked they have the right time differences for a scheduled skype. This support in the early weeks is vital.
Introducing helpful systems
One of the exercises I get the students to do during the introductory session is to set up a system of time management. I introduce them to the idea of the ‘uncalendar’ – where you put in some important, fun things you want to do and then fit the online learning around that. The kids also have to set up an email system where they have to regularly check in with emails.
The SBC should help the kids to think about their systems and practices. This is an important teaching opportunity about the various tools that are available for an online learner to use; what you can select and why a tool will work for you – or not. It’s important that the students decide for themselves what will work for them; it’s a valuable life skill.
The SBC also needs to help students to prepare with a plan B and C for situations they may face in their online learning, especially for the group project work that requires collaboration and if technical issues occur.
The role of the SBC is also about relationships. The SBC is the face-to-face, on-campus connection for the online learners. It needs to be a fairly informal role; one where you are watching the students, supporting them, acting as their cheerleader, marshalling, and helping them to build a community and relationships. It’s an essential role.
I’m realising how being an online teacher is so much harder than being in the classroom so I’m always looking for ways to build that community between teacher and student. We’ve got photos of the teachers around the place so the kids know what their teachers look like. It’s very simple but it’s important.
Responding proactively to learning challenges
Online learning itself isn’t daunting for our kids. The Pamoja courses (Pamoja is the only approved provider of IBDP online learning) offer lots of opportunities for giving the online learners help and support, but kids often just ask the person next to them. So I say to them: ‘if you’re in trouble, spend two minutes trying to work it out yourself, then ask the person next to you, then ask me (SBC) as I can use the Pamoja help desk, and then ask your online teacher for help.’ One of the skills the online students have to learn is: if you’ve got a problem, it’s your responsibility to do something about it.
When I talk to the kids who are thinking about doing an online course, my first question to them is: ‘have you looked at the course?’ I encourage them to do some research, to think about the challenges of learning online and if they are willing to work through them, to invest some time learning about how Pamoja courses work and about being an online student.
Most of them choose an online course because it’s one that isn’t available in the traditional classroom, or because, as a result of timetable scheduling, they can’t do the courses they want at the same time, so they choose an online option to overcome that. Not many students select an online course because it gives them something different; not yet.
Raising awareness of the online learning
All our teachers know about the online learning because I do a lot of promotion. They need to know that it’s an IBDP course, that the students will spend two years studying online, that the content is the same as a traditional IB course taught in the classroom, that the exam is the same and the qualification the students receive is the same.
I also talk to our classroom teachers about the Pamoja students and tell them how they’re progressing with their online courses. We’ve also had a few school blog posts showcasing our online learners and what they’re doing, and we share what’s going on with the online learning to the rest of the school.
Offering an online choice
Our school is very supportive of the online courses. In some cases, it can be more business efficient to use Pamoja than to hire a specialist teacher. The counsellors are the ones who do subject allocation and the Principal makes the decisions about expanding our online subject offerings.
As a school we offer our students the option of online learning as a viable alternative in instances where we believe the student has all the skills and capacities to cope with working online and where the online subject helps to support what the student wants to do. It’s about giving our students and their parents the choice.
Enhancing IBDP learning
I think, in some ways, online learning enhances the IBDP experience. For example, all of the Pamoja students are working together with other Pamoja students around the world so, as well as learning their subject content, they are learning how to collaborate with others online, with people who may have very different perspectives. They are also learning to plan and communicate on an international scale; calculating the different time zones of everyone in their group. They are also learning how to take control of their learning. Different students handle these practicalities in very different ways.
Tackling a different way of learning
By taking on a new way of learning, such as online learning, the students are dealing with different learning situations. They find out a lot about their own learning preferences. Some kids want to actively participate and want the social experience, and others want to do all the learning by themselves. It gives each student a much better understanding of who they are as a learner which is good preparation for higher education.
The learners I see who struggle with the online learning are those who have very poor time management, who are poorly organised, or those who learn best synchronously by talking with people face-to-face, where there’s a quick rapid interchange. My job is to help these students develop better skills to cope with this different way of learning.
Sometimes the student simply needs a nudge in the right direction. I might just need to say: ‘have you tried this?’ or suggest that a student uses Google Calendars to help them keep organised, or encourage a student to work out their organisational structure. The more a student invests in setting up their own system, the more likely they are to use it, and use it well.
A different learning approach
The quiet students; those who are not outgoing, often particularly enjoy the online learning because they have a voice. Being an online learner, all students are out of their usual comfort zone, so it creates an even playing field for everyone. The people who are the social learners, who typically take over the discussions in the traditional classroom, they can’t do that online as they have to use the communication structures that are there – and with Pamoja this means a platform where everyone has to contribute.
Preparing for higher education
The online experience is preparing them to be able to establish learning processes and systems for university. It also transitions them into being an independent learner. In the classroom, there’s always a teacher reminding you, and when they get to university you don’t have that support. For many students, university is the first time that they’re having to think about their learning themselves; the Pamoja kids are doing that all the time.
Most of the kids enjoy the freedom and self-direction of learning online. I think the experience is making them more responsible and self-reliant. One of the advantages of learning how to study online now is that they will be very capable online learners in the future. For sure, at some time in their adult life they will do an online course and so they will be well prepared. And they will be ready to make their own learning decisions at university too.
I think a requirement of high school graduation should be that online learning is compulsory – for at least one semester. This would help all kids to learn the skills about being organised, about time management, chunking stuff, understanding the remembering curve, and about what happens if you learn but don’t revisit the learning.”
This article was originally published by International Teacher Magazine in two parts, click the links below to access:
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