Our classes are filled to the brim nowadays and they have never been more diverse. In one class period, I have students from different cultures, with different learning styles, educational experiences, reading abilities, problem-solving abilities, life experiences…the list truly goes on and on. So, direct teaching just doesn’t fit well all the time anymore. Teachers are savvy beings and most have figured this out already! In this post, I am going to share how I structure my technology class (and how the techniques can be generalized to core content areas) to create an engaging and individualized self-paced learning environment.

Why Self-Paced?

I will definitely not side step the fact that building self-paced activities, lessons, and units is a considerable amount of work upfront. You have to build the ENTIRE activity, start to finish, introduction to reflection, before the students ever begin. This means that you have to think ahead to potential challenges and questions your students might have. You have to word and structure directions so that it is manageable and easy to follow for your students.

I generally can’t fully integrate self-paced learning into my classes until about 6 weeks into the school year. In that time, I do a considerable about of direct teaching, data collection, and informal observations as I get to know my students (all 300). Armed with that knowledge, I am able to build lessons that are flexible enough to meet all of my students’ needs and build upon my students’ strengths.

This is a ton of work and careful planning. Trial and error as I learn about my students. Meticulously planned out instructions, covering as many challenges as I can.

So, why do this to myself?

Because, by creating a self-paced learning environment in my classroom, I get to work more closely with my students. I know this sounds counter intuitive. Stay with me here. Hear me out.

While students are working on their own, I am able to work one-on-one and with small groups who need extra support. I am also able to have incredible conversations with more of my students more often. I have gotten to share and explore my interest in coding with kids who have finished lessons early. Often, a student will call me over to share a connection with what they are learning or ask a deeply thoughtful question that likely would not have even come to mind for them if they had not had some time to mull over the information.

Self-paced learning gives me so many more opportunities to learn about and FROM my students!

My Set Up: 1-to-1

I teach 6th grade Technology Applications. My curriculum breakdown is about:

  • 25% Digital Citizenship
  • 10% Typing
  • 25% Google Apps
  • 25% Computer Science Principles
  • 15% College and Career Readiness

My classroom is a computer lab with 28 computers, so each student has their own computer every day in my class. This definitely makes implementing the self-paced eLearning that is the foundation of my class, but being a 1-to-1 class is definitely not required to make this work. Along the way, I’ll add ways to implement this system in different situations.

Technology & eLearning

Obviously, I teach a technology class, so I use technology every single day in my class. However, when I taught English and Reading, I was a tech-nerd even then and integrated technology any time it enhanced or supported what I was teaching.

Technology REALLY makes the self-paced learning easier to implement. The automation and infinitive resources alone are amazing, but the possibilities when it comes to data collection and analysis are fantastic. With 300 students, data collection and analysis can be very time-consuming and miles deep. Many of the tools that I use collect the data for me and offer robust data analysis that influences how I build learning opportunities.

Regularly, I use Google Classroom, Moodle, Google Apps, and EdPuzzle. I also use a variety of “add-on” tools like Wizer.me, Peergrade.io, and Class-Tools.net, to name a few. I like using EdPuzzle for “direct” teaching with videos and Google Slides for step-by-step instructions. Google Classroom and Moodle are my favorite ways to have students turn in work. I could talk at length about how exactly I use each of these tools, but those require their own post entirely!

Almost all of my lessons include, at the very least:

  • Video(s) using EdPuzzle-you can prevent skipping ahead and automatically stop the video to ask questions/boost engagement.
  • Google Slides for Instructions-using slides “chunks” instructions nicely and doesn’t look quite as daunting as a huge document with a ton of steps. It is also really simple to add and edit screenshots and diagrams with Google Slides.
  • A self-assessment/reflection turn-in form for the student to fill out.

Problem Solving and Triage: Tech Support

In the first six weeks of school, I build a classroom culture of independence, problem solving, and help each other. Once we start our self-paced learning, I assign a small group of students to be our “Tech Support.” The Tech Support team helps me get to all the smaller questions students have so that I can focus on the bigger questions/work with students individually.

There are guidelines for being and requesting help from Tech Support. Here is what I tell my students:

I have found that MOST questions students ask while working are about the directions, and the answer to their question is generally written in the instructions and they just need it to be pointed out. Tech Support is GREAT for these problems.

The kids love coming to class and finding out that they are Tech Support. With all the different experiences and interests, every kid has a chance and the potential to be tech support!

What About Classroom Management and Due Dates?

How the heck do I manage a classroom of kids working at different paces, some getting up to help others, and stick to traditional 6-week grading periods? It is easier than it sounds and, on the classroom management front, it’s mostly about psychology.

As I mentioned, the first six weeks is about setting the tone and culture of our classroom. I tell them about the self-paced learning they will do and how mature they have to be to do it! Coming from elementary, 6th graders are so ready to prove they are big kids. Six weeks of pumping them up and talking about maturity, honesty, integrity, and being a “real middle schooler,” mostly does the trick. There are, of course, a few who simply don’t buy it, but once I get them going on the self-paced work, I can focus more closely with those guys and find a connection to get them on board.

The chance of becoming Tech Support also really appeals to them; so when they are chosen, they really WANT to do a great job and keep our class in line.

Now. Due Dates. I have to work within our 6-week grading periods. In order to allow my students the freedom of being able to learn at their own pace, hold them accountable for their work, AND meet my deadlines, I have flexible due dates.

Each assignment has two due dates: a “priority” due date and a “final” due date.

The priority due date is the date/time I’d like them to finish and turn in the assignment, but it is not considered “late” if not turned in by that day/time. I also offer them an incentive for turning in work by the priority due date (think treasure chest, class economy money, raffle tickets).

The final due date is set 2-4 class days after the priority due date and is the “traditional” deadline. After the final due date, the assignment is considered late and falls within our late work policy.

For a typical lesson/assignment, I provide class time for the activity. The priority due date is the end of class on the last class day dedicated to the assignment. And the final due date is set a few days later so that anyone who didn’t finish in class can complete the work for homework or come see me in tutorials.

It is not a perfect system, but it really works well for me. The kids who consistently turn in work by the priority due date are rewarded for their efforts and all kids feel a little less pressure of having the one, set-in-stone, due date to work with.

Learn More

Self-paced learning allows me to spend more time and work individually with my students. Technology is a huge part of my class and helps me create this self-paced environment. I simply couldn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked to in one post. Think of this as an overview. I and working on detailed posts about each element of my self-paced eLearning classroom to share with you, so keep an eye out for them!

Self-Paced eLearning in a Middle School Classroom

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