The Kairos Classroom Spotlight

English Online:

Where "New and Improved" Really Means Something

"New and Improved" Really Means Something
Concerns of Pedagogy and Design
Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?

by David Schelle
Hotchkiss High School

When I tell my high school senior students every fall that my class is "new and improved," it isn't just an advertising scheme to get their attention. Technology has allowed my classroom to be an ever-changing experience for my students. It has also given me a new arena to sharpen my old skills and develop new ones.

As a high school teacher of four years, I became interested in the internet as a teaching tool in the summer of 1995. I participated in US WEST's and University of Northern Colorado's Teacher Network Project, which teaches educators around Colorado to use the internet, email and basic HTML.

Since I teach two sections of Honors English, a senior composition class that offers freshman composition credit through Mesa State College, I want my students to be prepared for college writing. This led to my introduction of hypertext in the classroom. My first project for high school seniors was to develop webfolios or electronic writing portfolios. I began teaching with a SimpleText template, and for those who did not know HTML, I encouraged them to cut and paste document names and text.

At the end of each school year, I upload students' webfolio onto Hotchkiss High School's English Department site. By making students' essays public, I believe that students are motivated to take more care with their writing. While I continue to struggle with the benefits of spending class time teaching technology, I believe the benefits of audience are too important to ignore. My article for The Well-Connected Educator, "Webfolios: Writing Projects That Enhance and Improve Student Writing" explains why I continue to use this project with senior composition students, and how to reproduce the project in another classroom.

Through the generosity of Delta County School District, I no longer scratch HTML commands on the blackboard. I now use a projection panel and World Wide Web Weaver to assist students in building their webfolios. I have also put my composition class online.

An Online Class for High School Writers

In the summer of 1997, I created Honors English Online, a stand-alone internet-based class, designed with both asynchronous and synchronous support. My primary motivation for doing this was based on the belief that other students in the area, who don't have the opportunity to take a composition class for college credit, should have that chance. Consequently, my target audience for the class was to be concurrently enrolled high school seniors who desired college credit.

As I developed the class and learned about the components of quality online classes, I wrote an article titled "Developing an Online Composition Class: Concerns of Pedagogy and Design." It basically explains to other educators how to put a class online, starting from scratch, with little technological support.

Class Organization

The basics of my online class include two semesters with four major essays each semester, a writing journal and weekly reading and writing assignments. Depending on the knowledge level of the students in HTML, I may also require that the students build their own webfolio.

I require a variety of types of essays for both semesters, so the fall semester is not necessarily a prerequisite for the spring semester. This variety includes the informal essay, an analysis essay, a descriptive essay and an argumentative essay. At the high school level, I've found that the informal essay rough drafts usually require that I stress beginnings and endings, paragraphing and mechanics. The analysis and argumentative essays that are submitted as drafts usually require attention to textual and bibliographic citations, logical fallacies, tone and audience awareness. To facilitate the teaching of these concepts, I use Paradigm Online Writing Assistant and University of Victoria's Writer's Guide.

I ask that the student submit a rough draft to me and to the other students in the class. We all edit the essays for both successful areas and areas for improvement. The student then submits a revision as a final draft. If the student receives a grade of a 'C' or below, I allow them to rewrite the essay again for a higher grade.

Students are asked to join E-COMP, and COMP, two composition Listservs. My rationale for this is that they will have the opportunity to lurk or communicate with professionals and other students discussing the practice and discipline of writing. I also use Listserv threads as fodder for journal writing and Chat.

Class "Lessons"

Teaching a high school class online has been a challenging experience! I've had to advertise and promote the class in the district and community to get a minimum number of students (four for fall semester and two in the spring). These small numbers make it difficult, though certainly not impossible, to carry on peer editing of drafts, and to conduct meaningful chat discussion. Consistent access to an internet-connected computer at the high school level has also been a challenge, since students usually use a teacher's computer. This restricts their access to an hour a day and means they can't work on material that requires internet access at night or on the weekend.

I've also discovered that most students who take the class are not really interested in college credit; rather, they wish to graduate a semester early from high school. Therefore, some students are more focused on completing the work than improving their writing through revision. In other words, the students aren't as motivated by grades as they are by completion credit. Part of this problem stems from the fact that the students have already been accepted to college, and the School District pays their spring semester tuition if they graduate a semester early. While I'm sure all online classes have these sorts of drawbacks, only two or three students magnify the problems. To read more about these problems I've encountered, and the solutions I'm attempting to implement, go to my article titled, "A High School Composition Class: Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?"

One aspect of teaching an online class that seems to be particularly effective for high school students is the control I have to individualize instruction on a regular basis. What this means is that my weekly assignments can be altered and updated, according to the needs of each learner. My draft for the fifteen weeks of the fall semester is always a work in progress, tailored to address each student's strengths and weaknesses. Conclusion For the right student, my online class has the potential to be more effective than my classroom course. However, I believe much of the class's effectiveness is less dependent on my teaching skills than on the individual student's ability and ambition. Although my online high school composition class is not for everyone, I do feel as if I am meeting a need of young learners in my geographic area.

The experiences I've had combining teaching with technology have certainly helped me to be a better teacher. Applying my pedagogy to a virtual classroom has allowed me to become more adept at focusing on the many and varied needs of the learner, whether my students are in front of me or at the reaches of the keyboard. I feel as if I've expanded my understanding of what it means to be a "good teacher" and what it means to manage an effective classroom. This has indeed allowed my classroom to be "new and improved."

email david schelle