Today is the first day of the pilot of our newest online course, “Teaching Advanced High School Math with Sketchpad.” This is the eighth online course we’ve developed at Key Curriculum, and like all of our courses, the primary focus is to explore rich mathematics using our software. While learning how to use our software is part of the course, our online courses are developed to be powerful learning experiences about mathematics, pedagogy, and technology as a vehicle for meaningful student learning.
When I began at Key, one of my first projects was creating our first online course, “Teaching Geometry with Sketchpad.” At the time I remember taking a mental inventory of all the professional development I’d experienced during my 13 years of teaching. There had been a couple of gems, but I’d also had plenty of PD experiences that truly felt like a waste of time. The crucial difference was the degree to which the PD had been mathematically engaging, as the more engaging it was to me, the more I could translate that engagement to my classroom. I vowed to myself to create an online course that teachers would universally describe as an engaging experience in the exploration of mathematics, one that pushed them mathematically beyond what they already understood or had thought about.
Each of our courses has an evaluation at the end, and I have reviewed those evaluations regularly over the years, especially each time we create a new course. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: after hundreds of courses and thousands of participants, we continue to get 95% to 100% of participants claiming that the quality of their online learning experience is either excellent or good, and with only a smattering of exceptions over the seven years, we usually get a 100% yes response to the question, “Would you recommend this course to other colleagues?”
So here are some of the features of our courses that make them valuable PD experiences for teachers. Each course includes videos of how to use the software as well as interview videos of teachers describing how they use the software in the classroom. Then participants work through activities using well-designed student worksheets. The idea of having teacher participants work through the same activities they might then assign to students was very deliberate. Once a teacher has completed an activity, she or he will feel much more comfortable assigning that activity to their classes. Finally, participants have to complete a project that requires application of the concepts and techniques from that week in a novel and compelling way. Throughout all this, there are active discussions in the weekly discussion forum, as well as a private journal entry at the end of each week.
This model has worked very well for us. Each of our courses runs for six weeks—long enough to truly get immersed in the subject area and the technology, but not so long that it becomes a long-term burden for very busy teachers. And while teachers have flexibility during each week as to when they will work on course activities, the courses are not self-paced—each week begins on a Monday and ends the following Sunday.
Also, the courses are moderated by one of our many expert users. This means there is a person available to support you throughout the course. I remember seeing some automated, tutorial-based online courses when I first started doing research on other online courses, and felt like this would not lead to an engaging learning experience. Good discussion and meaningful feedback requires a good teacher. Also, rather than distracting the moderator with the busywork of accounting for assignment completion, we decided to make assignment completion a self-reported task and elevated the weekly project to the primary assessment task, the one that moderators carefully review and provide detailed feedback on to participants.
So if you have never taken one of our online courses, I highly encourage you to take one. Go to our website and look at the offerings, which span from elementary school through college level courses. And if you have already taken one of our online courses, I’d love it if you would leave a comment here about the quality of the learning experience that you received through our online PD program.