How to launch an online teaching project? This is what I did and what I learned
Last year, I hoped to spend more time with my child, travel and bust out of the classroom, so I launched an online teaching project. I did this while single parenting, holding a job and working freelance teaching gigs. It was a busy year.
I ran a Homeschooling cooperative for many years, studied education and was well-versed in old-fashioned schooling. However, I knew very little about online education. I was a typical small town, organic Luddite. I taught in a lovely school where we avoided technology as if it were a sinister demon, ready to pluck the souls from our children, leaving them mindless carcasses who dream only of video games. I barely had a Facebook page and had almost no knowledge of Social Media. I did not know how to make a video, take a screen shot, create a web page, or run an online class. I had intended to run the program through e-mail attachments.
Chris Dawson, who worked for WizIQ, lived nearby. He heard of the project and told me to check out WizIQ. We had a couple of online meetings and I began to see some of the possibilities for my own program.
A handful of people enrolled their children to study in my course and a school was born. The curriculum was solid, even when my technological savvy was not.
The Curriculum – What worked and what did not
The Year Long Project: I used to lead children through year-long studies by creating projects that were applicable to the subject matter, and carrying them through the year. This year, I was having the kids create their own Utopian world. You can read about the Utopia Project here and how I used WizIQ to help the students create model communities here. I translated this project into an online format by introducing ideas in the online classroom and then using Canvas and WizIQ to provide supplemental learning materials to my students.
My students created large bodies of work that they were proud of. They have many essays, a model of their Utopian world, art work and diagrams that elucidate the world that they want to live in. Here are pictures of some of them presenting their work.
While I am proud of the work that the students did, sustaining their attention for the entire year when I only met with them online once a week was difficult. Sometimes, the energy lagged. Next year, I will do three smaller projects. Also, mid-year, potential students inquired about the program but could not effectively participate as the project was already underway. When working with homeschoolers, shorter, more intense, independent sessions are preferable to longer projects. There is more flexibility for students to begin and end their studies.
Weekly Writing: The students wrote an essay every week. I read their essays and commented upon them. Then they did a final draft. Initially, I had trouble helping them improve their writing. Most kids do not revise their work unless they have someone looking over their shoulder. They need a lot of coaching as they write. In my brick and mortar classroom, I modeled how to revise and then they worked on their pieces during class. This did not seem like a good use of the online class time, as we had so little time together and I wasn’t sure how to monitor their work. Soon I realized that it was necessary and useful to have them write and revise during class. I assigned each of my students to a breakout room and they worked on the white board. I rotated through the breakout rooms to check in and coach them. I was trained in the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop method, where children are always working and the teachers stop by to confer. This style of teaching is very effective in the online classroom. Next year, I will have a writing workshop session with 6 students at a time, where we will have conferences to work on writing skills.
Early in the year, I could not engage students in conversation about complex ideas. They had no models of what scholarly conversations could look like. Then I discovered VoiceThread. With VoiceThread, I could actually read important passages to the students and talk about the strategies that good readers use to make sense of complicated texts. I could model dialog. With VoiceThread, the students can comment on the passage and on each other’s comments. Students love it. It is the best way to help children have conversations and look carefully at a topic that I know of. My students were able to engage with ideas and with each other. VoiceThread is, for some students, even better than an old fashioned face to face conversation, because they are able to reflect upon their words, make several recordings, and make sure that they are happy with the presentation of their ideas before they share them with their classmates.
I made a profit! Not enough to live on, but not bad for a first year business. I certainly will continue the business next year. I have essentially pieced together enough gigs, teaching, tutoring and writing jobs to pay the bills with a reasonable amount of freedom. Online teaching is a substantial piece of the freelance puzzle.
I was able to do some exciting things, like quit my day job, travel to Nicaragua while working, and spend a lot of time with my daughter and her friends.
What Skills I learned
I learned more than I could have imagined. These are some of the things that I can do now, that I couldn’t do a year ago:
-Run an online class
-Adapt curriculum for an online classroom
-Use Facebook, Twitter and Reddit as marketing tool
-Imagine the potential for online classes
-Store educational materials in WizIQ and in Canvas
Successful online teachers create original materials, host dynamic and engaging Facebook pages and market themselves. Freelance teachers, for Homeschooling populations, Secondary School or ESL, all are in competition with huge curriculum companies who can create flashy material and interactive experiences. However, these big companies lack vibrant and kind human beings who actually want to spend time with learners.
If I want my business to grow, I am going to have to become more active on Facebook, Twitter, and spend more time on the creation of educational materials. I have discovered, though that after an initial period of exasperation, most of this technology is easy.