May 3, 2007

Astronauts or Teachers?

When I first put on my headphones and microphone and plugged into my laptop, I thought I might feel the same way astronauts must feel when they first put on a helmet for that first tour into outer space. Less than a year ago the notion of voyaging into cyberspace was as foreign to me as launching into orbit. Thank goodness that this teacher with over 30 years experience had a well-developed enough sense of adventure to accept the challenge of learning something so necessary and new (at least to my college) that resulted in professional rejuvenation.

In retrospect, learning the Horizon Wimba platform was relatively easy. I was lucky enough to be in a position to speak with people who had had extensive experience in using this software at the elementary and secondary levels. These individuals are responsible for writing and giving online synchronous courses and tutorials to hundreds of students, and so they were ready for many of the naïve questions that the uninitiated can ask. I certainly did ask a lot of questions, took a lot of notes, but ultimately I sat myself down in the backyard with my laptop, a pen, a pad of paper, and I experimented. After about an hour, I was comfortable enough with the tools to go online and try things out. That is not to say that I didn’t have my moments of frustration. Frustration and fear seem to be two of the emotions experienced by those with little history with technology. Fear and frustration aside, I could see that I was proud of conquering my technological demons especially after having taught for so many years.

The next step was to put my new found skills to some sort of practical use. I knew that there was a place for somehow getting extra help to some of my particularly “needy” ESL students. Many of the ones who needed extra help could be seen rushing out of class to their cars to get to work. Statistics show that 60% of students have a part-time job and 60% of these students work more than fifteen hours per week. (Passage secondaire-collegial: CARACTÉRISTIQUES ÉTUDIANTES ET RENDEMENT SCOLAIRE, Dix ans plus tard, Michèle Gingras, Ronald Terrill, SRAM, Service de la recherche)

I couldn’t necessarily count on visits to my office, the help center, or the language monitor if students weren’t in the building. Short of starting a car chase, I decided to pursue them in cyberspace. I knew that the vast majority had Internet access at home or at work. I assigned temporary usernames and passwords and made appointments or promised to be on line at specific times. This allowed me to work from my office or home. I soon realized that the key to making this sort of tutorial work is to keep it short. Students want to know that they can take 10 or 15 minutes to get an explanation and then get on with their work. And so my on-line tutorial project was launched!

My next adventure will involve a small group of GEEA (Gestion et exploitation d’entreprise agricole) students who will be doing apprenticeships on farms with English speaking managers. I have already met these students, assigned their user names and passwords, taken them on a tour of the platform and suggested that they do some archived lessons on specific grammatical points. I will be meeting them in a virtual classroom during the third week of April. At that time they will share their experiences and do their final presentations. It’s hard to believe that a full year will have elapsed since my initiation to online education! I have learned so much, and these experiences have given me the confidence to plan on using an ePortfolio with some of my students!

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