Covid pushed me to self-paced learning...and I'm keeping it next year

Prior to the shifts demanded by covid-19, I had a relatively standard classroom. I would demo concepts and sample projects and my students took those lessons and developed projects. My students were successful because they were talented, motivated kids. I could see the effort they put in and the research they had to do to complete each project. All of students spent a lot of time googling, watching YouTube and asking questions as they worked on their projects. My lessons were simply not that effective. If the kids could not immediately implement the lessons they learned then the lesson was essentially wasted. I had committed the cardinal sin of education. I "covered" the material but that didn't mean anyone understood it, mastered it, or understood how to implement those skills. I began shifting to Project Based Learning this year and found that incredibly successful (You can read about that shift in my other blog-posts). The other major shift I made was in dabbling in self-paced learning.

What is Self-Paced Learning?

Self-paced learning is students learning in their own time and pace. The way I view it is simple. Students learn the skills and content they need when they need those skills. Due to covid we had to alter the way we taught. The issues of technology and time pushed me to record all my lessons. I recorded or found a number of YouTube videos that taught the skills I wanted my students to learn. I essentially shifted ALL of my instruction to become asynchronous. Students viewed their videos at their convenience and had a resource to go back to when they needed a refresher.

What Did I Do During Class?

I used my class time for 1 on 1 and small group mentoring. I reviewed their current code, answered questions and gave feedback. I managed to give all of my students individually guided instruction every other cycle. The students loved this. My exit tickets this year were unanimous across all classes. Students loved the videos, they loved the individual attention and they loved working at their own pace. My students projects were just as strong as previous years, which given the state of instruction this year is very impressive. Students loved that they could view the lessons when they needed to for their projects. Students loved being able to go back to a lesson, they loved pausing the videos, they just loved the videos in general.

What's Next

When we return to normal this fall I will continue the style of instruction I adopted during the pandemic. I will still do mini lessons, introduce units, and course correct when I can see issues arriving across the class. The majority of instruction will now occur through self-paced videos. This system works well with project based learning as students can view the content videos when they reach problems in their project they do not know how to solve. My plan is to regularly introduce projects where the students decided what they are building within certain parameters, this is nothing knew. The difference is students will be choosing when they learn new content and skills based on critical points in their project.

For example, students in my advanced course will begin designing a fullstack project using NodeJS, MongoDB and Vue. They will only have experience in Vue and accessing databases by this point. As they design their project they will ask themselves key questions. "How do I design and authentication system", "how do I update data in my database" or "how do I know if a user is authenticated before accessing data?". The students can access the modules I have created that contain videos that teach these skills. My students will guide their own learning through solving problems they create.

Individualized Education

This approach allows me to make several other changes I have always wanted to implement. First, students in my introductory course will be given options or disciplines in the final third of the year. Students will all work towards mastering the same set of skills through the first 2/3's of the year. The goal is that in the final months of the year students can choose to go more in depth in areas that interest them as they continue to hone the skills that I deem essential. For example, students can opt to learn ThreeJS or complex animations using GSAP. Neither of these have been taught in my class before as they don't necessarily build onto the advanced course and are not interesting to every student. Since I am no longer the primary vehicle of instruction and the videos are recorded/exist already, I can allow multiple disciplines to exist in my course.

Different Standards

CS is especially interesting in that I have a number of students with prior experience, varied passions, and varied effort. By using Project-based learning and self-paced learning I can push different groups to learn additional skills or content. This year I had groups in my advanced class that adopted technologies not taught in my class. While this happened organically, I want to help push higher achieving students to continue to go beyond my class and push themselves to adopt technologies like TypeScript, ThreeJS and testing libraries. I will hold all students accountable for mastering what I consider the basics, but some students will be challenged to master additional skills that are emerging in the field of web development. This will be more prevalent in the advanced course but will come into play in the intro course as well.

Final Thoughts

Covid forced me to adopt major changes to my courses. This ended up pushing me to adopt some of the most effective practices of my career. I still have many questions for how I will implement this next year and I expect growing pains. I have no idea how to transition from teacher lessons to self-paced learning at the start of the year. I expect awkward classrooms early and puzzled students and guardians. Regardless, I feel incredibly strong about the future of my courses and my effectiveness as a teacher. The feedback this year was incredible. This is what my students want and I look forward to teaching them this way.