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Building the Virtual Classroom on Wikispace

Yesterday I delivered a CPD session on 'The Virtual Classroom', introducing some of the key principles of blended learning and sharing my experience of creating a virtual classroom in A-Level Religious Studies (Philosophy and Ethics). I was speaking to a mixed audience of senior leaders, department heads and first-year teachers. All left enthused. Senior leaders discussed how they could better embed technology across the academy trust and the need for further investment. Departments Heads saw the potential of the different technologies that I discussed, Wikispace, Office Mix and Google Classroom, in their respective subjects. New teachers embraced the challenge of 'flipping' one lesson.


What is blended learning?


Blended Learning is a combination of face-to-face and online learning. It includes a continuum of various models, among which is the Flipped Classroom, in which the bulk of content is delivered online, leaving classroom time for projects. Regardless of what form it takes, there are four defining characteristics common to all models: i) time - learning is not restricted to the school day ii) place - learning is not restricted to the classroom walls iii) path - learning is not restricted to the pedagogy used by the teacher and iv) pace - learning is not restricted to the pace of the class.


Philosophy and Ethics


I think the virtual classroom has a special role in Philosophy and Ethics.

Philosophical and theological texts are dense, but if students are to reach the highest grades, and if we are to take seriously our responsibility to prepare students for undergraduate study, and not simply become exam factories, it is imperative that we move beyond the textbook and expose students to such texts. The course website has allowed me to upload short academic readings and give students the opportunity to read and wrestle it at their own pace, freed from the restrictions of the 60 minute lesson.

Another challenge for new students is developing the ability to sustain and justify an argument in response to others. The course site allows me to post questions on an online forum where students can post their responses. Again, this has freed students from the limitations of the classroom debate in which more reticent students will sit out. The result has been that they can discuss more thoughtfully, as they have more time to think, and can test out ideas and draw connections between topics in a safe environment.

Finally the course site has allowed me to deliver the content through a multimedia approach, through the embedding of videos. In Philosophy and Ethics we are dealing with abstract concepts that again takes time for students to grasp, and so the use of video to turn the abstract into something concrete is enormously beneficial.


Challenges


Creating a virtual classroom in Philosophy and Ethics has not been without its challenges, not least getting students to engage and complete the work in the virtual environment. However, with the SAMR model in mind, we as teachers can increase the chances of success if we communicate to our students why we are using the technology. If we are using the technology simply to substitute what could be done non-digitally, inevitably student motivation will be low. However if we are using technology to redefine and achieve tasks that were previously inconceivable, then through persistence and practice students will get on board.



Besides the potential that technology has to advance our students' learning and digital literacies, technology can also be transformative for us as teachers. Through trial and error, it forces us to look at our subjects with fresh eyes and ask ourselves how we can make the content more engaging and more rigorous. That is equally valuable.

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