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Mary LiuBack to school is in the air, as many teachers and students prepare for a new school year. Today, we hear from Mary Liu who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at a high school in a Boston suburb. Mary is both an edX student and course creator and shares her insights into how online education is impacting and enhancing high school learning.

How high schools can leverage new, innovative technologies in education.

As a teacher, I am always looking for new strategies to help meet the needs of my classroom — a diverse group of learners — and foster excitement about learning. I am often in different stages of this process: figuring out where the students are in their understanding, determining how to best meet their varying needs, and differentiating support and instruction.

Ideally, my fellow teachers and I would have more than 24 hours in a day and fewer than 24 students in a class. However, since it is unlikely that time will slow down or that all of us will have the luxury of small classes, we as teachers deal and innovate. But, the need at the end of the day remains—we need more time. Time to analyze all the data we have generated, time to give careful feedback, and time to ask follow up questions.

Here technology can be leveraged for good. In particular, I think high schools can use digital technologies, like edX, to help create more time.

How online courses can help.

With online courses students can:

  • Explore content segments on their own so they can learn how to modulate their own learning. This enables them to ask better questions, and, in turn, help us as teachers better determine what they don’t know.
  • Pace themselves or speed up their learning, since not everyone learns at the same rate! Having the content online lets students re-watch or skim, according to their own needs.
  • Get instant feedback. The in-the-moment help can motivate students to tackle a challenging problem where they may otherwise give up. Instant feedback gives the student more information and more support. Knowing where they are making mistakes helps the student improve.

It’s not a replacement for the classroom.

Advancement in technologies doesn’t mean that technology becomes the teacher. It is simply a tool; one carefully crafted by a teacher who creates the content, determines the appropriate learning sequence, anticipates misconceptions, designs careful questions to elucidate where learners struggle, and more.

A successful online course is not built in a day and is not simply video lectures. Much time and effort must be invested to partner well with online course platforms. It requires a reimagining of content. Online is a completely new venue for interaction; it stands on its own, gives space for student constructed learning, and at the same time supports collaborative endeavors in the traditional classroom.

My experience creating a course.

Online learning and course building intrigued me so much that as a professional goal this year, I vowed to learn more. I embarked on this process, creating a course using the edX tools and platforms, as a novice, and I learned much along the way.

First, I looked to good examples. As an edX learner, I took a cue from the courses I have completed so far, HarvardXHealth in Numbers and Science and Cooking and MITX Introduction to Biology. I examined how the learning sequences were structured, what components the platform had to offer and how support could be given.

Next, I involved my students in these experiments with online learning. I needed to know how my diverse class of students would interact with this platform. So, instead of delivering content in the classroom traditionally, I organized mini-lessons students could watch on their own time in my tenth grade biology class.

These videos integrated with a few check-in questions changed both class time and homework. I could now use class time to walk them through the application of the content they reviewed the night before better armed with knowledge about where they were struggling. I could try a lab that we typically wouldn’t have time for and give them time to collaborate on a more challenging problem. Many of the students commented on the added freedom this kind of homework gave them. They could watch and re-watch the video as needed and they got instant feedback on the check-in questions.

Word about edX caught on. When my school district asked me to create a Ramp Up for the AP Biology course, I had some idea of the task I was taking on. The goal of the project was to create a summer online learning module that would better support the students and thus encourage more of them to take on the challenge of an AP class. Currently, it only tackles content related to a few of the AP Biology labs, but it’s a great start.

Using this new digital technology requires an investment of time and resources, but it also has clear benefits for both teachers and students. First, it is an eternal resource that has growing potential. Unlike paper references, such as a textbook, these online modules can be customized, updated, and expanded as needed.

Second, students are given ownership of their learning process, deciding when to review and when to challenge themselves. Even if they did not take advantage of this option during the summer, they can reference it when the material comes up in class throughout the school year. And third, it allows the instructor to gain insights too. What students completed in this online module in the summer can provide a window into the dynamics and their background knowledge of an AP Biology class in September.

The bottom line is that incorporating this innovative technology may not change the way classes are taught this year, but it has started a revolution in how learning and teaching are being conceptualized. I’m excited to see what is to come for both students and teachers.

By Rachel Lapal, edX Communications Manager

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