The following article–Create an Oasis of Virtual Learning: Seven Steps to Avoid the Mirage–appears in the latest issue of the TCEA TechEdge magazine. I hope you enjoy it! Special thanks to Diana Benner for sharing her course design chart!

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. 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://itls.saisd.net/km/uploads/moodle.

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.

Checklist: Components of a Comprehensive Course Syllabus

Developed by Diana Benner (diana.benner@gmail.com)
Course Name: ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Course URL: _____________________________________________________________________________________________
Course Developer’s Name: _________________________________________________ Date: ___________________________

Item
Yes
No
N/A
Comments
1
Basic Information

Name of School

Course Title, Number

Instructor Name

Instructor Contact Information

Office Hours

Office Location

Office Phone Number

Department/Office URL

Email Address

Fax Number

Times other than office hours when instructor can be reached
(Optional)

Instructor’s Website URL

Course Webpage URL

2
Course Description

Pre-Requisites

Prior Courses

Knowledge/Skills (needed to succeed in course)

Overview of Course

Course purpose/rationale

General topics or focus

Objectives

Competencies, skills, knowledge the student is expected to
demonstrate at end of course

Standards

TEKS and/or other standards

Method of Instruction

Discussion Forums, Activities, etc

3
Materials

Required Readings for the Course

Author and Title

Availability of electronic or alternative formats, for students with
disabilities

Supplemental or Optional Readings (Optional)

Websites and Links

Other Materials

Computer equipment, software, etc.

4
Requirements

Exams and Quizzes

How many and what kind (Multiple Choice, etc)

Type of knowledge and abilities tested

Dates

Assignments and Projects

General information on type, length, and when due

Clarify the relationship between the learning objectives and
assignments

Identify criteria for assessing student work

Indicate how students should submit their work (online or in what
format)

5
Policies

Grading Procedures

Describe how students will be graded

Clarify weighting of course components

Explain policies regarding incompletes, pass/not pass

Attendance

Participation

Missed assignments or late assignments/extensions

Reporting illness and family emergencies

Extra credit opportunities

Permissible and impermissible collaboration

Standards for academic honesty and penalties for infractions

6
Schedule

Tentative calendar of topics and readings

By week rather than by session

Firm dates for exams and written assignments

Dates of special events (holidays, etc.)

Last day to withdraw from the course

7
Resources

Tips for Success

How students might approach the material

How students can manage their time

Tips for studying, taking notes, preparing for exams

Common student mistakes or misconceptions

Copies of Model Student Projects (Optional)

Glossary of Technical Terms

Links to Appropriate Support Material on the Web (past student projects, web based resources, etc.)

Space for Students to Identify two or three Classmates’ Names and their Contact Information (in case they miss class or want to form a study group)

8
Statement on Accommodation

A Request that Students see the Instructor to Discuss Accommodations for physical disabilities, medical disabilities, orlearning disabilities

Statement on reasonable accommodation for students’ religious beliefs, observations, and practices

9
Evaluation

Student Feedback Strategies (other than quizzes and tests)

End-of-Course Evaluation Procedures

10
Rights

Statement of Students’ and Instructor’s Rights to Academic Freedom (respect the rights of others to express their points
of view)

Statement on Copyright Protection for the Contents of the Course, as appropriate

11
Safety Preparedness

What to do in case of other Emergency and Online Safety Precautions

12
Disclaimer

Syllabus/Schedule Subject to Change

Acknowledge Others, if any, whose syllabus or assignments you have used to create this course

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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