Teachers want to build an online environment for their classroom but they don't know where to begin. It's an overwhelming task considering how much technology has changed in the last two or three years. But you have to start somewhere, and you need to start NOW. Here are six steps for you to begin moving forward.
First, choose a Learning Management System (LMS). Blackboard is what you probably think of when you hear "LMS", but there are many other choices that have many of the same features, are easier to use, and are also free. Schoology is my personal favorite because it has some of the best communication features like wall posts (similar to Facebook), text messages, and a classroom calendar. It also contains offers a well-organized classroom environment to place your assignments, videos, discussion boards, and presentations. Schoology also integrates with Google Docs and Khan Academy. Other very good LMS choices include Edmodo, CourseSites, OpenClass, and Haiku.
Second, get all of your current classroom materials online. For most people, this will mean scanning all of their documents into PDF format and posting them on their LMS, which is fine for your first year of going towards a digital environment. The PDF format is great for viewing a document because you can view it on a PC, Mac, tablet, iPad, or cell phone. The drawback is that most users will not be able to type or write on it without some form of conversion or software. At some point you are going to have to answer a very serious question - are you ready to convert all your documents to something else like Google Docs? Until you are ready to ask that question of yourself, just get your things online so your students can access them.
Third, find the best resources to supplement and expand your instruction. The fact is, everything you teach is being taught by someone else, and they can probably say it or explain it better than you. Find videos, lessons, activities and games created by others that support what you teach. Khan Academy has thousands of videos but they focus mainly on math and science. YouTube has excellent videos if you can sort through the clutter of baby videos, pet videos, rambling video blogs, and 10,000 renditions of Gotye's Someone That I Used To Know. A new site to consider is Sophia which has instructional modules for students and also for teachers' professional development.
Fourth, decide if you are going to use a textbook as the main source of information, as a supplemental resource, or not at all. Once you make that decision you will be able to decide how much of your students' reading will be online. Start by contacting the textbook company and see if they are willing to provide you with an electronic version of your current book. Some of them will do so for free. If you are looking for a new textbook, consider sources such as CK12 which creates actual classroom textbooks for free in a digital format. Another option is browsing the iTunes U catalog to see if another teacher has created a book or a course that your students could use.
Fifth, choose sites, materials, and software that are free, Internet-based, and work on multiple devices. Evernote is an example of this. It is a powerful online notebook that can be used with your computer, tablet, or cell phone. Free materials and apps allows your classroom to become a model for other teachers, and choosing resources that can be used on most devices allows all students regardless of location or income to access your lessons. What is the importance of being accessible on multiple devices? Well, look at what you currently own. I use a computer at work, a tablet on the couch, and a cell phone on the go. We own different devices, and nothing is more frustrating than having access to data on one device but not another. Also, you have no control over what your students will bring to school. Students will bring every device ever made, and you have a responsibility to make sure your materials and assignments are available to the widest audience possible.
Sixth, expect to tear your site apart and start over next year. For every assignment posted on your site, you need to ask yourself, "Is this really what I want my students to do with their time?" The answer is usually, "no." You will slowly get away from worksheets and readings and move more towards discussions, videos, and collaborative assignments where students create new bodies of information and share it with the world. You might even move towards a flipped classroom model (search flipped classroom, Jon Bergmann, or Ramsay Musallam). A traditional classroom involves a teacher providing instruction during class time, and then students practice their work at home without the benefit of a teacher to guide them. A flipped classroom involves providing as much instruction as possible online through videos and other means which allows you to use classroom time for guided practice.
Your students are going to love your new classroom, but it takes time. A lot of time. Today is the day you should get started.