Action Research: A Guide to Developing Effective Online Courses for Traditionally Trained Teachers
Background of the Problem
Teaching the 21st Century learner presents teachers with many challenges, one of which is how to effectively incorporate technology into the classroom. Also, many colleges and universities have added significant numbers of online courses in recent years, as the demand for online learning has increased. High schools, focused on preparing their students for college, have had to incorporate online learning platforms to equip their students for success in post-secondary education. In 2017, the Arkansas state legislature passed a law that required every high school student to complete one digital course (A.C.A. § 6-16-1406). This statute allows for course design ranging from blended learning to completely digital.
Definition of Terms
For the purpose of this action research paper, terms “digital setting” and “online platform” refer to any classroom that is taught in a web-based format, where the instructor and students communicate primarily through electronic means.
“Digital learning” refers to the evidence of building knowledge and skills presented in a digital setting.
“Inclusion” refers to the opportunity for students who may be disadvantaged (learning disabled, English language learner, physically disabled) to successfully learn in a digital setting.
“Assessment” refers to any method that an instructor employs to measure student learning. This includes formative (ongoing) assessments and summative (end of unit/course) assessments.
“Student-centered learning” refers to a focus on teaching the student instead of teaching materials. In student-centered learning, the students’ learning needs, interests, aspirations, cultural backgrounds, and educational abilities are all taken into consideration (Chiles, 2019). Teachers use this information to tailor their teaching methods and instructional activities to foster real learning for each individual student.
Purpose and Significance of the Study
Online courses have been increasingly used over the last twenty years in higher education (Tilghman, 2011). Up until recently, high schools have shied away from using such platforms (National Education Association, n.d.). That has changed, as states such as Arkansas have introduced legislation requiring every student to complete a digitally based course (Digital Learning Act of 2013, (A.C.A. § 6-16-1406), 2017). Requiring schools to offer digital courses presents a set of challenges for traditionally trained teachers. These challenges include designing effective teaching methods in a digital setting, designing effective assessment of student learning, and ensuring that students who have special learning needs thrive in a digital environment (National Education Association, n.d.).
Traditional teacher training at the university level has not included digital course design and delivery (National Education Association, n.d.), meaning teachers who must meet this statute may be inadequately prepared to offer an effective online experience for their students. Thus, teachers must learn how to use digital platforms, create and design units digitally, and hunt for outside sources that can be included in the lesson. The greatest challenge while designing these courses is ensuring that students learn the knowledge and skills required by the course standards (Hawkins, Graham, Sudweeks, & Barbour, 2013).
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The second challenge that teachers face in a digital classroom is designing effective assessment tools. Assessment using traditional methods such as tests and quizzes may not be the most accurate assessment of student knowledge and skills (Garthwait, 2014). Moreover, digital teachers are not always present to conduct ongoing formative assessments and to ensure the fidelity of summative assessments (Tilghman, 2011).
The third challenge that digital teachers face is ensuring that the digital course is appropriate for students of all academic abilities. The Arkansas statute does not exclude students who have learning difficulties, are English language learners, or have other identified disabilities. Because digital courses tend to be heavy reading courses, students with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, or language challenges face disadvantages when attempting these courses (Massengale & Vasquez III, 2016). Also, the lack of teacher/student in-person interaction can make it difficult for a teacher to assess student strengths and weaknesses (Heitner & Jennings, 2016).
Despite these challenges, secondary students should become familiar with courses offered digitally. The author does not dispute the validity of the Arkansas statute, or digital learning in general. This action research project’s purpose is to review the literature in online learning from a teacher perspective and respond to the challenges previously posed: what are the most effective teaching methods to ensure student learning in a digital classroom, how can teachers design effective and accurate formative and summative student assessments in a digital setting, and what steps should teachers take to ensure the digital environment is inclusive for students of all academic and language abilities.
The focus of today’s educational climate has shifted to ensuring that the student is learning. The key role for educators has shifted from a teacher-centered role to more of an educational facilitator providing opportunities for student-centered learning. The digital environment is ideal for this type of educational facilitation. However, without adequate preparation and training, teachers can create a digital classroom that is more of a “checklist of activities” instead of a learning environment. As John Wooden once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement” (Wooden & Tobin, 1988).
Limitations of the Study
This exploratory mixed-method study will examine existing literature to answer the three previously stated challenges, using available qualitative and quantitative data to draw conclusions. The limitations of this study are that the available literature is authored by different researchers who studied a variable number of students spanning different schools in different parts of the world. Thus, conclusions from this research will be broad and focused on a best practice approach to digital learning based on the available literature.
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