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February 13, 2012 Creating the Digital Substitute, Part 1 By Jeremy Rinkel
Grades 6–8, 9–12

    One of the greatest concerns I have when I can’t be at school is the lost learning opportunity for my students. Though it doesn’t have to be a lost opportunity, in many classrooms across our nation, very few plans are made in preparation of being gone. Sure, teachers will do their best in leaving “busy work” for the students, but how meaningful is this? In a lot of cases, the worksheets will be collected and never seen again. The worksheets served their purpose. The students were halfway engaged — or at least one of them was engaged and the rest were engaged in copying the worksheets. How can a teacher be sure students are engaged and learning while they are gone? Continue reading for ideas on creating a digital substitute.


    What Is a Digital Substitute?

    What is a digital substitute? A robot? A digital representation of you? Some avatar pretending to be you? The digital substitute is a digital lesson that allows your class to go on in your absence. This digital lesson can be created in a multitude of waudacityays. I'll describe some briefly below.


    The simplest way to create a digital substitute is to simply design a presentation the substitute teacher can go through with your students. The presentation can cover basic material, which you can explain further upon your return. 

    Audio Podcast

    A podcast is another way to create the digital substitute. Creating an audio podcast is relatively simple. With the free application Audacity, you can create and save an audio file in MP3 format. The substitute can play the file and require the students to take notes.

    Video Lecture

    The best, but most-time consuming digital substitute is a video lecture incorporating a slide show. The key to the digital substitute is requiring students to complete an activity that goes with your presentation and shows that they paid attention and learned the material. Remember to always follow up and hold the students accountable for their work.


    Rationale for the Digital Substitute

    Perspective of a Former Student

    empty chair I’ll admit it has been a few years since I’ve had a substitute teacher, but I can remember the huge stacks of worksheets we would receive. The assignments were pointless. Very rarely were the worksheets ever addressed by the teacher. If I remember correctly, two or three students would do the work while most people talked. When they finished, their worksheets were copied by the rest of the students.

    What is the value of most students copying someone else’s worksheets? Yeah, it gave me a severe case of writer’s cramp, but do I remember anything from the worksheets? No! I knew they didn’t matter. It was busy work designed to keep us working on something while the substitute teacher was in the room. I wanted to see how the assignments would or could relate to the real world. The last thing I wanted to do with my day was fill in bubbles on a multiple choice worksheet about something the teacher would never discuss. 

    Perspective of a Former Substitute Teacher

    As a former substitute teacher, I see great value in the concept of a digital substitute. I heard the same complaints as I walked into every podcast screen shotsubstitute job: “Why do we have to do those worksheets? She (the teacher) never grades them anyway!” “These worksheets have nothing to do with what we are studying now.” “Man, you killed a lot of trees, Mr. Rinkel.” OK, so maybe the last one I made up, but that is my feeling about inundating students with worksheets. There are many meaningful ways to keep students engaged with a substitute besides busy work. They do not like it, and I don’t believe it is the best use of their time.


    Plan an Activity

    I’m not saying that the lecture/video mode is the ultimate best use of students’ time. I am saying that in addition to providing a brief lecture, you can ask students to respond by creating or writing something. Students are capable of producing creative projects. For example, students can produce posters, brochures, podcasts, and videos. Most prefer and are looking for ways to be creative in the classroom. Worksheets do very little to bring out students' creative side. If you prepare these activities in advance and make sure students understand your expectations, the digital substitute will keep you from losing a learning opportunity when you can't be in class. 

    For more on the subject, continue on to part 2 of "Creating the Digital Substitute." 


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