Here is an article submission I wrote for TCEA TechEdge earlier this evening, but I’m not sure if it’s going to find its way since it’s a third article submission…”a third wheel,” so to speak. It’s also a quick way to capture some of the new things I learned on a site visit to Northside ISD in San Antonio, Tx. It is a bit of an adaptation from an article I wrote for publication for onCUE, but the whole oasis thing is new, as are some of the 7 steps. If I were rewriting this article for a longer piece, I’d flesh out those 7 steps more but space and time did not allow (the deadline was yesterday).

Creating an Oasis of Virtual Learning: 7 Steps to Avoiding the Mirage
by Miguel Guhlin – mguhlin@gmail.com

An oasis is a fertile spot in the middle of a desert,” shares WiseGeek, “an island of life in an ocean of temperature extremes. Any oasis always contains one or more springs. Oases make it possible to survive long treks through the desert. In large deserts such as the Sahara, towns cluster around sources of water such as oases and rivers.” I often imagine that Moodle course management systems serve as oasis where learners cluster together to find nourishment and sustenance in an Internet desert teeming with life, albeit harsh conditions. It is for that reason that I embarked on a learning journey to find more about using Moodle to impact professional learning in my district.

Having built my professional learning network–composed of a global education community that reached as far as Spain, New Zealand, Australia using tools like Twitter and my blog–I was able to rely on the help of many who have gone before. Doing this kind of work is nerve-wracking, because you are facing the equivalent of a “blank slate.” You simply don’t know what you don’t know.

Like any wanderer knows, straying from the beaten path can be all too easy and the consequences dire. The water holes are clearly marked and if you walk away from them, you are taking your professional career in your hands. The power of the network enables us to take chances we would not otherwise take. It is critical we learn to rely on each other so that we might arrive at our final destination, whether that be a professional learning community or a more enriched learning experience for learners, whether they be adult or K-12. Helping each other connect with one another

In a recent MIT Press report, the following quote underscores the importance of building professional learning networks that employ easy to use technologies:

“New technologies allow for small groups whose members are at physical distance to each other to learn collaboratively together, and from each other; but they also enable larger, more anonymous yet equally productive interactions.”
Source: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg

Moodle is one of those new technologies that enables teachers hoping to facilitate online learning to learn together and from each other. The exact logistics of accomplishing that facilitation, though, caused me some angst early on. It became apparent–due to our lack of knowledge about online learning–that the desire to teach online would require some serious deliberation and consideration. To that end, I turned to my team of talented professionals, begging them to join me in my effort to learn how to facilitate professional learning in my urban, inner-city school district.

In retrospect, I would recommend a different series of steps, such as the ones below:

  1. Establish a team of professional learning facilitators who will commit to learning how to design online classes and facilitate online courses. My team of one coordinator and four facilitators–all past classroom teachers who work in Instructional Technology–can boast various online learning certifications. For them, building online professional learning is about continuous improvement. For example, my team began with PBS TeacherLine courses and is now moving to get certified by the State Education Agency in facilitating online learning for students (http://txvsn.org). These individuals do a lot more than just sit around and design online courses. However, we all made a commitment to learn how to do this together and then, to do it.
  2. Create your own online courses about a week in duration to start with and then grow from there. Pick out the top five to six courses that you think will be worthwhile for your teachers and then go for it. Design of a week-long course takes about 20-25 hours of work. Thankfully, using Moodle, you are able to easily structure learning activities that can engage your learners in ways that simply posting information online could not. Diana Benner, a fellow virtual voyager, shares her checklist for designing a comprehensive course syllabus in a sidebar.
  3. Purchase courses–such as from PBS TeacherLine or LOTI Connection–that address content you do not know how to organize for online learning. This allows you to learn the structure and content of a course and then to create your own course using Creative Commons Copyrighted materials available via the Web. Or, your district may have purchased books that can be used.
  4. Collaborate with District Stakeholders, such as administration and Information Technology colleagues* and give them time to learn how to best support your Moodle. For example, Northside ISD has at least two people providing technical support needed to ensure success…and that does not even include those managing the Moodle to ensure implementation is successful, working with teachers to establish Moodle Mentor programs, and modeling content development with tools such as Xertes (http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/xerte), which is a free, open source course content creation tool.
  5. Map out all possible uses of Moodle* and identify who your target audience is, who will be using the Moodle as a teaching tool, as a learning tool, the purpose of the Moodle, what kind of access is required (such as via LDAP authentication or external database), and who in your District will be responsible for it.
  6. Create a Moodle Tools Inventory* that maps out all activities–such as new modules you may have added to enhance your Moodle–available to those in your organization using Moodle as a teaching tool. Such an inventory could include a list of activities, types of activities, assessment, and gradebook integration, to mention a few. 
  7. Standardize on your Moodle Activities, including modules and blocks, and try them out in a “sandbox” environment to ensure they work well before moving on.

*Thanks to Northside ISD in San Antonio, Texas for sharing their tips on Moodle implementation. This short article cannot do justice to all they shared.

The biggest mistake I made in our first year of designing online professional learning opportunities was that I tried to jumpstart the process by buying commercial offerings. Instead, we were better served by developing a rubric or template for what a course we wanted to teach should include. The next draft of our course design will match our work to iNACOL’s (http://www.inacol.org/). From that point we developed the course as a team, moving forward together and buliding clarity about the common elements and structure. You can find some of our early work–including Moodle courses you can download–online at http://sn.im/saelearning.

CONCLUSION
Online learning design has been a most exhilirating experience, sparking new growth for myself and my team. While teachers are locked away in their classrooms, in boxes locked tight by federal and state expectations, using Moodle to build online learning communities has had a profound impact. The impact has been on those of us who design and facilitate virtual learning experiences, but also on teachers who thought they had forgotten how to learn, who never imagined their district had the wherewithal to craft engaging, authentic, high-tech professional learning. I invite you to join us, not as expert designers of online learning, but as voyagers sharing life-giving learning in the virtual oasis that Moodle provides.

NOTE: The table included in this article does not appear here.


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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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