I think by creating a personalized learning environment within a learning management system, however sophisticated from D2L, and Moodle to something like Google Communities or more simply a webpage where students can access their course or course information, teachers can build an engaging course integrating cloud based tools, that allows students to demonstrate their learning in a host of creative ways. Tools such as Prezi, Google Apps, Pinterest or more specific learning programs like Khan's Academies that allow students an opportunity to practice and master certain skills. Other cloud based tools such as Google Communities, Twitter or Facebook, allow students a place to socialize or communicate online, these can also be utilized for educational purposes in order to further engage students. Earlier in my practice I started creating Facebook pages to distribute information for my basketball team and mountain bike club, as daily announcements seemed to be a less than effective method of conveying information to my players. This was so successful that I later created pages for my classes, where daily homework was posted. I have now replaced this with a rudimentary LMS, but I often wonder if perhaps Facebook was a more effective vehicle for reaching and engaging students.
I think the flexibility of being able to post so a broad range of content within an LMS, and the ability to offer a diversity of tools for students to engage with, makes a cloud based program much more capable of connecting with and inspiring students than a simple textbook. The ability to customize and modify cloud based programs allows teachers to provide a curriculum that can be so much richer and more diverse than a document that is potentially outdated by the time it reaches the hands of the students. By providing more options within a specific learning environment we increase the chances of inspiration.
In the past year I have attempted to adopt a paperless class in my F2F French second language and HIstory classes, by having students create online binders/portfolios using Weebly. As part of this project, students started by creating gmail accounts so they could have the ability to access Google Apps. Students have quickly traded Word for Google docs, for two main reasons. One the ability to access it from any device and secondly the ability to collaborate through the "share" feature. No more do I hear, "I can't do my project today because Johnny is sick and the project is on his account." In fact, in my experience students who are unable to attend school have a much easier time catching up and remaining successful, because they can access their course from home, and I no longer have to reproduce and inferior lesson for them when they return from their absence because it is now hosted online.
In terms of organization, when students post their work in a cloud environment, I am easily able to find it on their websites, or quickly remind them that it is not posted. The fact that this spells and end to, "I left it on your desk, maybe you lost it," is truly a blessing. Gone are the days of messy red scribbles on student work, as I am much happier to use a rubric with comments, paired with student self assessment.
As I've adopted this move to integrating cloud tools and an online environment, I sometimes feel like I'm becoming disconnected in some ways from my students. This transition has really put me in the role of "Guide on the side" vs "Sage on stage" Just this week, I had a colleague and parent of one of my students come and visit me. He wanted to talk about my new approach, as his daughter wasn't enjoying my class as much as she did when she took it with me 3 years earlier. As I explained my new approach and demonstrated the quality of work, organization and high degree of choice and personalization. While he was impressed with the obvious organization and quality of work, he maintained the bottom line is, "she misses the old you. The fun and crazy Mr. Mark, with stories and games and genuine student teacher engagement." I know as an educator when I'm on my game I have the ability to capture a student audience, use an anecdote to teach a lesson, and I suppose this is something I have left behind lately. It was a good reminder. Perhaps I need to incorporate online tools that recreate the same level of engagement and community, or perhaps online solutions will never be able to recreate the magic of that special spark that can occur in the F2F classroom?