The integration of an online learning environment with a traditional elementary school classroom would ideally combine all of the benefits of both modes of teaching. The traditional face-to-face elementary classroom imparts the social contact that children need to guide their learning while the online, or Web-based, learning environment offers flexibility and opportunities not possible in a traditional classroom. To create a learning environment using both modes to enhance the learning experiences of the students would provide the greatest benefit.
This dual mode, or blended learning environment, while increasingly more common in higher education and even some high schools, has not been readily embraced at the elementary (K-5) school level. Why not? Is it not feasible at the elementary level? I decided to find out.
I started by setting up an online extension of our classroom using Think.com. This environment already had everything I would need to set-up my online class, saving me many hours of work. With Think.com the teacher can quickly make learning objects using templates, store them, edit them, and publish them. It is password protected so only the students in my class are able to see what is happening on my page. I took advantage of a semester when I was out for maternity leave to set up the online class and act as the â€œdistanceâ€ teacher. Once a week I visited the class to discuss the activities from the previous week and the upcoming week, and to occasionally give questionnaires where I would collect information on their use, habits, and opinions regarding the online learning environment. By keeping in close contact with the class and the substitute I was able to collect information on the logistical feasibility of integrating the online with the traditional.
The Online Site
The site had several activities each week. One was a list of links to Internet sites related to the studentsâ€™ classroom studies for that week. There were always at least four different links that extended what was being covered in their subject areas. After exploring the links they voted on their favorite, and during my weekly visit I would show them which site won in the voting. (a function to which only I had access). Another weekly activity was our student of the week. Each week this student was in the â€œhot seat.â€ The other students would ask them questions such as â€œwhat is your favorite movie?â€ â€œWhere was your favorite vacation?â€ and the student of the week would answer the questions asynchronously. A question in a discussion thread related to the current math unit was also a regular feature. We supplemented these regular features with various activities that fit with a particular topic that week, and an ongoing geography unit. The geography unit had weekly assignments and downloadable forms posted for the students to access when they were ready to work on the project. So overall there were three different types of activities: the weekly regulars, the timely surprises that fit with a topic of study, and the geography unit.
We purposely set up the activities for each week so that the students could either do them quickly or with deeper thought, depending on their own interest in the topic and the amount of time available to them that week. I was impressed that as the semester went along the students became more willing to openly discuss areas of difficulty in math in the discussion area. In all areas the discussions and questions seemed to become more thoughtful as the students became what I could only describe as more comfortable with the site.
Screen shot from an early math discussion activity:
Did the students enjoy the online learning experience? I think that this is a key question because if the students do not enjoy it then they will not be motivated to use it. To answer this I looked not only at their own answer to the question, but also at their actionsâ€”do they log-on at home, do they continue to participate even after they donâ€™t â€œhave toâ€, and yes, do they say that they enjoy it? I had the students answer the question anonymously to try to get at their most honest responses. Most of the students (almost half of the responses) said that they â€œStrongly Agreeâ€ that they enjoy using Think.com (the home of our online environment and what we called it in class). But do their actions follow their words? In this case, yes. Most of the students log-on at least once a week from home, and explore beyond what they â€œhave toâ€ to complete the assignment.
Do students voluntarily increase their own teacher-to-student contact time by logging on to the online environment after school hours? Most of the students said they accessed the class site at home. Because of the large number of students with Internet access at home, this quickly became the main place for students to go online to complete the activities. The students also agree that they are spending more time thinking about their subject areas than if we did not have an online part of our class. They also reported spending more time than was necessary in an activity just because they enjoyed what they were doing. So we are able to see an increase in student-learning contact time as the students spend more time thinking about and exploring topics related to their schoolwork.
Perhaps the most important question one could ask revolves not around the students, but around the teacher. Is a blended learning environment logistically feasible in an elementary school classroom? If it adds to the work of the classroom teacher, the person who must create it, keep it running, and instill in the students the desire to use it, then it will never get used. The classroom teacher had to spend approximately a half hour every week on troubleshooting student problems (such as lost passwords). This is a time commitment that might diminish slightly in the future. The weekly updates required approximately one hour a week once all original setting up is complete and the teacher familiarized with the process. Is this extra hour and a half a week acceptable to the teacher? Of course it depends upon the individual, but is it feasible? Yes, it is. For twelve weeks, one fifth-grade classroom was able to successfully integrate the online with the face-to-face.
From the above discussion it can be seen that given the right circumstances online learning in the elementary school can be feasible, can be enjoyable, and can positively affect student thinking about their subject areas. Would it have been so feasible if the students did not have computers at home, or if the students were less computer experienced or were younger? This is the limitation of my experience; it speaks only of one group of students, in one grade, for one semester.
One question remains: does including an online component in the elementary classroom positively affect student-learning outcomes? My small experience did not endeavor to compare this class to another not using an online environment. A study of the effect upon student learning outcomes when a blended learning model is used in the elementary classroom is certainly a next step in determining if classroom online learning has a future place in elementary education.
Email: Lisa M. Abate