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2016 Kodiak Island Virtual, STEM Learning Conference

March 2, 2016

2016 Kodiak Island Virtual, STEM Learning Conference set for June 6-8 — Keynote speaker: Dr. Lee Graham
By Noelle H. Lowery

Calling all educators with an interest in virtual, distance or STEM learning!

The Kodiak Island Borough School District and AKTEACH have set the date for the 2016 Kodiak Island Virtual and STEM Learning Conference: June 6-8.

This year’s theme is simple: “Make and Play.” The conference will incorporate a mini-maker fair and a focus on advanced paper circuitry. The keynote speaker and feature workshop presenter is the ASTE 2015 Teacher of the Year and Coordinator for the Learning Design and Technology Program at the University of Alaska Southeast Dr. Lee Graham. 

According to Nicole Fuerst, Dr. Graham has revolutionized the Educational Technology Masters Degree Program at UAS. “She has brought in fresh ideas, challenged teachers to stretch themselves and been a mentor and example for many educators,” says Fuerst, the Statewide Distance Learning Professional Development Coordinator for AKTEACH and the conference coordinator. “She is an early adopter of STEM education trends and keeps her finger on the pulse of education trends. The experience she provides to her graduate students is practical, meaningful and engaging.”

Graham received her Ph.D. in Educational Technology from Mississippi State University in 1999, and has been teaching online for 20 years. Her research has focused on innovative and emerging pedagogy in online instruction. Last year, Graham published “Impact of an Open Online Course on the Connectivist Behaviors of Alaska Teachers” in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, and her article “Certification in Distance Learning for Online Instructors: Exploration of the Creation of an Organic Model for a Research-Based State Institution” was published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration in 2011.

During the conference, Graham will be focusing on the creation of learning spaces at a distance for allowing students to use current tools — a topic she knows more about than almost anyone else in her field. Even in her early years as a sixth-grade teacher in the 1990s, Graham was looking to the power of an internet connection to open up a student’s educational experience. In fact back then, she used her my own home internet connection to help students communicate with holocaust survivors during an Anne Frank unit using LISTSERV.

“I saw the power of technology in the classroom, even once removed,” she explains. “I wanted to have a role in bringing it more broadly into student learning experiences.”

Following Graham discusses the concept of distance learning and how it has evolved over the last two decades, how STEM is incorporated, and how distance learning fits into Alaska’s educational landscape.

KIBSD: Define distance learning.

Graham: I have a very broad view of distance learning that doesn't involve a student per se or teacher per se, but more appropriately is made up of a community of people who would like to learn about a topic and do so in their own locations. In my definition of distance learning, we alternate as teachers and learners. We share and negotiate knowledge, and together work to fulfill individual goals and requirements.

KIBSD: How has distance learning evolved in your 20 years of experience in the field?

Graham: Well, consider that when I started in this field, distance learning was correspondence courses which used video or paper-based materials. There was no community approach. The last 20 years have seen technological and pedagogical advances that have allowed us to more fully understand and implement constructivist learning in the classroom. Constructivism requires many, many resources and a social element to allow us to maximize the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD; Vygotsky). Many of us have taken that approach since the beginning...and Web 2.0 was not really 2.0 to us because we wanted to use the internet for collaboration, learning and communication. The evolution from simple discussion boards and text-based resources to blogs and twitter and interactive human-based resources has allowed distance learning to become far more personalized and individual but also continues to emphasize the human aspect of learning.

KIBSD: What is the importance of distance learning in the 21st century classroom?

Graham: It isn't reasonable to keep learning within four walls. That is exactly what I was struggling against in my own middle school classroom. Learning is a natural process and a natural state of being. To me, distance learning and blended learning allow us to learn subjects naturally in the same way we learn to talk and learn to walk (and, some would argue, learn to read). Distance learning is important of course to bring resources to rural and remote areas, but it has become so much more than that! Some would argue it is a way to allow any students to interact with the world and to frame their thoughts based on a diversity of ideas. This is vital.

KIBSD: What are the benefits of distance learning? Why would a student choose distance learning?

Graham: Well certainly the anytime, anywhere benefits of distance learning are always cited here. That is one benefit of distance learning. I would say distance learning done well is an opportunity for personal growth beyond the academic. It is a way to create learning relationships that can persist beyond a class. It is a way to experiment with your own learning styles and preferences and learn to manage those in a way that will benefit you far beyond the class.

KIBSD: How is STEM being incorporated into the distance learning classroom, and why is this important to today’s students?

Graham: There are some ways that STEM is incorporated into the classroom through virtual labs and interactive dissections. Many of those experiences, though, focus on a traditional method of show, show, show then test. In terms of the interactive experiences, these support the knowledge development, and allow students to experience concrete manipulation of things that would otherwise have been abstract. I'd like to move beyond that, and many people have through the virtual makerspace. A virtual makerspace can allow people to build social relationships, to take turns as teachers and learners and of course to build knowledge and skills in content, such as logic, electronic currents, robotics, just any number of things. So I am not belittling virtual labs or interactive experiences. Those certainly have their place. I am just more enamored of the social, human learning experiences that can be facilitated by technology and build skills beyond the academic (persistence, resilience, self-efficacy, etc.).

KIBSD: What is the current state of distance learning in Alaska? Are teachers plugging in, and is it working? If not, why aren’t they plugging in?

Graham: I think that right now teachers who teach at a distance are plugging in. Teachers, however, who teach in small traditional classrooms too often are not plugging in and are not allowing their students the benefit of technology-facilitated learning. Part of the issue is time. Many districts have purchased what I would call "canned" programs to teach reading or math and to track student progress in these areas. Low technology teachers will use these programs because they do allow you to score and to grade and diagnose where students need help, but there is a need to integrate beyond these skills-based programs. 

The art of teaching with technology is much like the art of teaching in person, and we have an opportunity now to allow students to live outside of their villages for a bit of time each week. They can talk with scientists. They can make things with people in another village or around the world. They can begin to create their own learning communities online that could benefit them for many many years to come. I think when we ignore the human capital and focus instead on constant hammering skills and practice we take much of the natural motivation out of learning. We also ignore theory that guides much of today's learning curriculum.

KIBSD: What challenges are faced in the distance learning classroom, and how can they be overcome?

Graham: The challenges are much like those of the traditional classroom. Challenges of capturing and maintaining student interest are primary. Challenges of keeping students on-task are significant. Challenges of providing hands-on help when at a distance can be significant. Challenges of technology and access can be significant at some of our more rural and isolated schools, and in all honesty, even those schools who aren't rural and isolated often suffer from network or infrastructure issues that can interfere with a scheduled distance learning time.
Beyond the technological issues, which can only be solved through better internet speeds, appropriate network setup and allocation and mindful use of internet blockers, we have the issues of the students themselves accessing information from the teacher in a way that maintains their interest.

These can be overcome through presenting students with compelling problems or challenges and giving them the time and support to work through them. It's the natural state of the human brain that it wishes to make sense of things. If we are given a puzzle, it's our natural inclination to try to solve it. I believe that students will learn if they are given a problem that they find interesting and are then given the tools and support to solve that problem. It's tricky because if we give too much support, we take away the motivation. Too little, and we create frustration which can lead to resistance to the task. It's important to create multiple levels of support — teacher, peer, resources — and then also to make certain that we have patience and time to allow students to work through the problem.

Finally — and maybe most relevant and certainly what I will be focusing on at the conference — we need to create a learning space that allows students to take risks, to fail, to try again and to realize all of this is a part of the process. At any point in this process, you won't get a number between 0-100 that represents you. This is one big process that one gets credit for by engaging in. If you fail during the process, that was the First Attempt In Learning, and we expect that. At that point, you pick up and try again because that is the process. Yes, we will have to give students a number at the end of this, and that number will represent how far they came with this challenge. But this number is not a monument to their learning. It's a road sign that demonstrates where they currently are and where they need to go now because learning is never really “done," is it? I can't think of an age where I was "done" with learning. It continues even now, and no matter how many times I have done it, some aspects of it are always a struggle. I have learned that if I continue in the process that I can achieve beyond the struggle. That is what we want students to embrace. We push on. We don't give up, and in order to personally do this, we need a problem, a real challenge — one that matters to us.

KIBSD: How do you win over skeptics of distance learning?

Graham: I don’t. I have come to realize that not everyone will embrace distance learning, and I have come to believe that not everyone should. People who can see the potential are my people. People who can’t, they have a place in education. It just isn't in teaching at a distance. I have seen people who didn't like distance learning or understand it at all become proponents of it — rarely. I think as people learn what distance learning is, as they take part in it, they can make an informed decision of whether it is something they'd like to be engaged in. If it isn’t, that's okay.

KIBSD: How does one construct and implement a successful distance learning program?

Graham: The distance learning programs that I have created are in higher education, but I believe the principles will be the same:

1. Know your population. Know the access they have, their values and their preferences. Know what is important to them as a community. Find out as much as possible about the way that they learn. This will allow you to create a framework for the courses you offer at a distance. If your population is artisan, and you want to offer Literature, you should find a way to integrate the strengths of the artisan into these classes. This "scaffolding" can help the population feel successful and will allow a feeling of familiarity. It also, of course, supports the learning of unfamiliar concepts through support of familiar concepts.

2. Know your standards. Once you know the population, you now outline the standards you must reach. How can you use the strengths of this population to meet the standards? How can you ensure these standards make sense in a context that the population can relate to? Create assessments to meet the standards. Standards and assessments will facilitate creation of the activities within the curriculum.

3. Create your curriculum to meet the technology standard of the lowest common denominator. If your curriculum is being delivered to an area with only dialup access and very low internet speeds, you will be depending a great deal on text. There are of course options — for instance a dial-in number for conferencing — but streaming video will not be a part of this curriculum, nor should it be. Technology should always enhance the learning experience, not detract.

4. Determine the characteristics and qualifications of the faculty you need. Create a training for faculty so that they may be oriented to what you now know about the population, about access to technology and about learning styles and community norms. Be certain faculty go through this training before starting their class.

5. Pilot and be ready to change the curriculum if things don't work. It's best to always have a plan B in place, even if this means having a paper-based version of the curriculum (and that telephone conferencing number). You will not change the curriculum in the middle of a class, nor should you have to if you've done your research well. But, at the end of the first offering of each class, a review of the curriculum should be done, and where necessary, it should be changed based on what you have learned from this iteration. Once this revision is done, the curriculum should be set aside and delivered as is then reviewed for updates at a set interval (i.e. every three years).

Interested in learning more from Dr. Graham? Want to attend the 2016 Kodiak Island Virtual and STEM Learning Conference in June? Contact Fuerst at 907-942-0537 or via email at