By: Peter Mysels, Secondary Social Studies Teacher
One of the mental hurdles many cyber school teachers need to overcome upon entering the field of cyber school teaching is removing the preconceived notion of…
“Will I be able use the same, projects, assignments, and methods I did in my traditional school, now that I am a cyber teacher?”
I'd like to challenge you: rather than, “Will I be able to?” I encourage you to consider, “How will I?”
Just as the avenues to instruct the upcoming generation of students have grown with the development of cyber schools and charter schools, so have the tools, programs, and pedagogical techniques used to teach them.
Interactive in-class group work is achievable. Engaging out-of-class group projects are achievable. Making assignments relevant to our students is achievable, as well. All it takes is a drive to bring the classroom to life for our students.
An excellent path to influence this student perception is through project-based learning. In project-based learning, students are encouraged to be inquisitive, to wonder, and to question. They work as a unit to come up with solutions to problems. And it doesn’t have to stop there! Independent project-based assignments can be just as effective for our students.
Whether the assignment involves groups or encourages independent work, project-based assignments are sure to yield awesome educational rewards. Below you will find a multitude of strategies on how to incorporate project-based assignments into your classrooms as well as examples.
So how do we achieve thoughtful, project-based learning in the cyber school setting?
Set the Standard Early:
If you want your students to work together, then set that standard early. On the first day of live class, design a lesson where students are encouraged to work as a team to solve a problem.
Split them into small groups, create a Jigsaw activity, or work as an entire class to solve the issue at hand related to the topic of the day in class. Try your best to set a standard early that your online class is an environment that promotes teamwork, peer collaboration, and quality discussion.
Example: Rapid Reporter – First Day Activity
Set Verbal and Written Expectations for Your Students:
Utilizing a live class session to go over the specific instructions and expectations for the students is imperative when presenting a project for the students to complete. Students benefit from the face-to-face instruction as it removes some of the nerves of completing a larger project.
Providing detailed guidelines and rubrics also provide additional clarification for students. Make the expectations clear for students and even give an example of a version that is completed.
Using Google Docs and making a completed version of a project or essay is a great way to show students what you expect them to produce when finished. I often use the comment tool in Google Docs to show students exactly why I wrote something or added something into my example.
Below is an example of a modelled discussion post for my Sociology students as a part of their “Life Happens: Budgeting Project" and another from the Letter to a Legislator project in U.S. Government.
Bring it to LIFE!
Engagement is by far one of the most essential elements of any classroom, cyber school or otherwise. Bringing the lesson to life by building connections between elements the students already understand to new ideas paves the way to true, higher-order understanding. If you make the project relevant to them, it becomes less of an “assignment” and a lot more fun!
Think: What do students in your age group like to do and what do they connect with? Social Media? Sports? Toys? Popular TV Shows? Is there an activity that would really bring this lesson to life for them?
Use this as an avenue to teach your students in a way that is relevant to them while still using the same standards and objectives you had planned for. You’ll be amazed at the feedback you get from the students and how high your assignment submissions are. Below are some examples.
Take the Students “Outside” of the Classroom:
How many times have you heard the question: “When are we ever going to use this outside of school?” Well not anymore!
By designing project-based assignments that bring your classroom concepts outside of those “four virtual walls”, you will answer that age old question while teaching your students real-world applicable skills.
Take those standards and objectives you are teaching and think of how you can arrange or present them in a way that will benefit our students in their futures.
In U.S. Government, my students learn the significance of voting and create advertisement videos to inform others on how to register and persuade to them to get out there and vote! They also write letters to their local representatives asking for support on an issue they are passionate about that is affecting their community or state.
We then send those letters out to the representatives and ask for responses. Sometimes we get letters back from the representatives discussing the idea! This brings the whole assignment to life when the students see that their idea could possibly turn into an actual bill in Congress.
The students are learning their civic responsibilities and applying them. Projects such as these allow students to see the relevance in their work, encouraging them to work hard on it and show interest in the task at hand.
How can you answer that age old question of “When are we going to use this outside of school?”
Think Outside the Box and Never Stop Learning!
Do not be held back by thinking that a project will not be successful in a cyber setting. Try it! Test it out with your fellow teachers. Ask them what they would do to make it more streamlined or successful. If you try it once and the project isn’t as effective as you anticipated, note what the complications or the issues were and correct them for the next time.
Stay up-to-date on new and effective online tools and programs that you can utilize in your classroom. Google Apps for Education can serve as the basis for many projects since students can collaborate or work independently. Other programs such as Animoto, Prezi, Powtoon, Piktochart, Nearpod, and Canva are great for project-based assignments as well. Not to mention – they’re free!
I love making templates for my students to use for culminating class projects. Google offers hundreds of Google Doc templates to start from. Take a look at one I designed below.
Example: Newspaper Template
Project-based learning is an important element of education to encourage our students to wonder, question, and analyze. Whether done collaboratively or independently, students who participate in project-based assignments are not just developing their understanding of the concepts at hand, but real-world applicable skills as well.
I encourage you to push your boundaries as a teacher and try techniques and ideas that you may not have attempted in your classrooms before. Your students will appreciate the increased variation in their classes as well as the unique take on learning that project-based assignments provide.