Designing an online unit is new territory for me and it could be said that it is still new territory for K-12. I plan to design a small unit for 8th grade students who are reading the book The Giver by Lois Lowry. The unit will not cover the entire book, but will focus on one aspect (storytelling and memories), the final project, and assessment. According to Jeffery Wilhelm (2008) in his book, You Gotta BE the Book: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, storytelling is “…a primary way of knowing and organizing our personal knowledge of ourselves and the world. Storying defines humanity, makes us human, empowers us in being who we are, and makes it possible for us to conceive of being more than we are’ (p. 52-53). This idea of storytelling and personalizing it will appeal to where 8th grade students are developmentally. Being able to communicate one’s life stories and memories is something society views as beneficial and it is also culturally relevant when considering Alaska Natives and the other cultures of the students. Based on the Alaska Language Arts Standards for 8th grade this will be an appropriate choice and will lend itself to many learning objectives. The content is something I am familiar with and I can better predict what 8th grade students can academically and socially handle based on my previous teaching experience.
Developmentally 8th grade students are teenagers and that means there are a lot of outside and internal factors impacting their learning. The developmental stage of an 8th grade student could include the following characteristics:
- Is discovering their individual identity and comparing his/herself to others
- Abstract thinking/reasoning/metacognition is beginning to develop (Piaget’s formal operations period)
- Risk takers
- Have difficulty with long-term planning and live in the moment
- Longer attention span most of the time
- Brain is going through a purge of neural pathways (use it or lose it phase)
- Social relationships are VERY important
- Test boundaries
- Desire to feel independent and more like an adult
- Like to grapple with the gray areas of life
- Mood can be unpredictable
This is not a comprehensive list of all possible characteristic of where an 8th grade student is developmentally because all children develop at their own pace, but it gives one a general idea of what to expect. Based on this information it may not be wise to develop a completely online unit for 8th graders, but with their ability to utilize technology and the Internet I think it is possible. In my experience 8th graders I find have a new found curiosity about the world and want to understand it more completely. Online learning would give them a sense of freedom and control over their learning. Let them feel more like an adult. With that said I do not think online learning is for everyone. Not all learning styles can be effectively met in an online learning environment. A screening process for success would be required especially at the 8th grade level. In my research it appears K-12 online learning is usually only available to high school students with a good GPA and recommendations, but I think it would be beneficial to expose students to this learning environment at an earlier age where the academic stakes are not quite as high yet. A blended environment might be a way to start and with the use of Edmodo and other education friendly social networking sites many students have been exposed to some aspects of the online learning environment by the time they are an 8th grader.
The situational factors that will be most challenging to the unit’s development fall under the categories Fink (2013) describes as specific context of the teaching and learning situation, characteristics of the learners, and characteristics of the teacher. More specifically it is my inexperience as an online teacher, students’ lack of experience in a completely online learning environment, and how the unit fits into a larger school like structure that make designing the unit challenging.
The first two situational factors that will make designing the online unit challenging is my inexperience and the high probability of the students’ unfamiliarity with the online learning environment. The online learning environment is something I have been a student in, but not a teacher. I do not know what design aspects will help or hinder the students’ learning experience, but based on their developmental needs the 8th grades students will need a highly organized learning environment that is easy to navigate and helps them stay on track and not fall behind. It will also have to be a social learning environment where students regularly interact with their peers. This requires me to find an online learning management system that uniquely fits the needs of 8th graders. This leads to the situational factor that the 8th grade students will most likely be unfamiliar with the online learning environment. There are not many online learning options before 8th grade, so students will most likely not have an academic online presence. Ideally each of the students I am teaching would also be taking an introductory class about online learning that would cover appropriate online behavior, plagiarism, and the impact of their digital footprint/presence for their future.
The last major situational factor that will be a challenge is not knowing the specific context of the teaching and learning situation. Due to online learning not being very present at the 8th grade level I do not know how many students I would have or if they are enrolled in a virtual school or still attending face-to-face classes. In an ideal world I would have 20-30 students just like a regular face-to-face class and it would be a unit taught in the greater context of a virtual school’s 8th grade English course. I think the course would mostly be asynchronous online learning with periodic class wide check-ins that would be optional, but maybe have the external motivation of offering a little extra credit if attended. There is also the question of whether students have equal access to the Internet and the appropriate devices to complete an online course. Ideally the school would provide the hardware and software for students to use while taking an online course. I could also see the context of the teaching and learning situation being of a home-schooled nature. My unit could be part of an extracurricular class offered online for home-schooled students. What are your thoughts? Suggestions?
Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wilhelm, J. D. (2008). You Gotta BE the Book: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press.