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When people I have not previously met ask me what I do, I sometimes joke that I am a professional troublemaker. It is my way of saying that I think and operate differently.

I have not done this for a long time since I choose who I work with and they value “different”. However, I recently precipitated an uncomfortable conversation with work partners about designing for online learning.

What happened? In a nutshell, a group of administrators made executive decisions without consulting a partner I work with. One fundamental issue was that courses designed as face-to-face sessions would be delivered online instead.

What is the problem with that? For a start, the environments, conditions, and expectations for teaching and learning are different in each mode. There are overlaps, of course, but they are different enough to warrant the redesign of face-to-face modules to suit online spaces.

When I sighed yesterday, this was largely because our systems have had years of “e-learning” days and months-long runways to redesign courses, but nothing happens until there is an e-for-emergency learning crisis. What looks like change during desperate times dissipates and things return to normal.

Not wanting history to repeat itself, I contacted my work partner to state my plans and share the cost for redesign. My partner saw the logic of my argument and pushed it up the food chain. This precipitated an on-going discussion between two sides which have wildly differing opinions. I give credit to my work partner for sticking to its principles and supporting my stance.

I made trouble not to be a pain. These conversations might be uncomfortable, but at the same time are essential. I stand by doing what is best for our learners, not what is best for the status quo, policy, or budget.

If you are not part of the solution, you might be part of the problem.

I am offering what I know to be a better way forward. What we design for online learning can inform and improve face-to-face instruction. I am offering a solution, not creating a problem.

I sigh not with relief but with disappointment. Why? I see bad history repeating itself.

When schools or universities do not change their efforts to provide better learning experiences in the COVID-19 era, I sigh because I know we can do better. And I mean better experiences with online learning, not just equivalent-to-classroom experiences.

I am talking about redesigned and better facilitated experiences for students that go beyond engagement to empowerment. See the second column of the tweet below for what these might look like.

These better experiences work face-to-face or online, but are particularly important online given this is a prime opportunity for individualisation, more flexible timelines, and independent work.

How do I know that we can do better? We are supposed to have been preparing with sanctioned e-learning days in schools and institutes of higher learning (IHLs). We have had years to prepare by tinkering, making mistakes, and emerging stronger.

Instead it took a worldwide disaster to slam the brakes on most processes. Then when told to go, most schools and IHLs struggled to restart. When they did, they did the equivalent of abandoning their cars, donning spacesuits, and piloting cardboard rockets.

That is my way of saying that most resorted to emergency remote teaching, mislabelled that as online learning, and wished only to return to old ways of doing things.

Why? There are many factors, but this reluctance to change ultimately boils down to a lack of leadership and unimaginative administration. If leaders see no other way, they will propose journeys that take old paths. Administrative bodies gladly reinforce these ruts because fixed pathways are easy.

The problem with that mindset is the practice that results. Educators are not challenged to facilitate learning, and students are not nurtured to learning more independently, reflectively, and contextually.

I sigh because I saw all this when I was within the system and now again when I am outside it. But I do not sigh as long or as deep because I do see almost imperceptible changes. These are like plants that somehow find footholds on buildings.

COVID-19 is creating conditions e-learning. Initially this looks like emergency learning. With good planning and management, this might become everyone, everytime, and everywhere learning.

To get there, I would ask the same questions I used to ask: What are we doing differently? Why is this difference better? How do we know this is better? How do we sustain our efforts?

Now I sigh sadly because I know there will be leaders and administrators who will not choose to ask such questions. I hope to sigh with relief because a few enlightened ones realise they need to gain a foothold in a landscape reshaped by the coronavirus.

Today I reflect on how the reporting of some news is similar to the application of research in schooling and education. Both have questionable practices.

A person I follow on Twitter shared and later deleted this CNN article on how some people were supposedly organising and attending coronavirus parties in the USA. Attendees reportedly put money in a pot and the first to get infected got the prize.

Then a Wired writer countered that report by arguing how even reputable media outlets did not check on original sources of information. Bottomline: The coronavirus parties were not as common as the news implied.

To substantiate rumours that such parties actually happen, investigators need to ask critical questions. At the minimum, they need to ask:

  • Do such coronavirus parties actually happen?
  • If they do or do not, how do we know for sure?
  • Just how widespread are these events if they do happen?

The problem is that it is difficult to get the data to answer the questions. So people rely on guesses, hearsay, or conjecture. In the case of coronavirus parties, the reports could have started with public officials who made statements to the press without clear evidence. The press did not dig deeper, took the word of officials as fact, and propagated unsubstantiated information.

What does this have to do with schooling and education? Lots. There is so much “knowledge” about how teachers should teach and how students purportedly learn based on the uncritical sharing and perpetuating of bad information.

I have lamented on some of these pseudo-science and barely psychology theories before, but here is a short list.

  1. Digital natives
  2. Learning styles
  3. Bloom’s Taxonomy (as prescription)
  4. The Myers-Briggs type indicator (psychological types)

The first assumes that students are somehow able to use current technology, but this does not mean they can do so well or wisely [1].

The second assumes that addressing supposed styles will optimise learning when more recent research counters such thinking [2].

Using BT as a prescriptive tool instead of a descriptive tool leads teachers to assume that delivering information to generate knowledge is always first and foundational. However, learning does not have to follow a strict sequence [3].

The MBTI was created by two individuals who had no psychology background and the inventory has been roundly critiqued [4]. However, it is sold as the basis of career guidance programmes in some schools.

The fallacy of coronavirus parties is easier to spot because the public eye casts a bright light. But the theories and practices of teaching are the domain of a smaller group that does not necessarily understand or conduct educational research. This means that pseudo-science goes unchecked.

If the theory seems believable at face value and is attractive because it is easy to understand, it might be snake oil. Such theories lack nuance and ignore scrutiny.

Coronavirus parties, if they happen, might infect bodies. Theories based on pseudo-science infect the mind. It is far easier to cure the body than to rid the mind of misplaced principles.

As good as this opinion piece was, it did not fully address one of its central arguments. It described the purposes of grades, but not quite why such grading did “none of them well”.

So this is my attempt to address that fill in some blanks. But first, I paraphrase what the author wrote about why we have grades:

  • Motivate students by competition
  • Reward the talented or hardworking, and punish those less capable or less inclined
  • Rate and communicate performance to students and other stakeholders
  • Provide feedback to students

The problem with motivating, rewarding, and punishing students with grades is shared — it relies on extrinsic incentivisation or disincentivisation. This approach leaves agency largely in the hands of the teacher to engage, instead of in the heads and hearts of the learner to be empowered to learn.

In practice, we use both sources of motivation, but grading does not serve us well when it tips the balance to the extrinsic and makes students dependent on incentives.

The problem with using grades to rate and communicate performance as well as provide feedback is that they are potentially demoralising and reductionist. A grade does not adequately capture the variety of learning processes — it reduces a person’s effort to a letter or number — nor can it provide sufficient detail for improvement.

Grades are recorded and leave a paper trail. We all make mistakes. Some are big and others are small. Some mistakes are inconsequential while others have impact in the short and long term. We still have agencies that look primarily at paper qualifications instead of the whole person because evaluating grades is easy. Good grades tell stakeholders that the test takers were good at taking tests, nothing more.

While a grade might be administratively convenient and efficient (e.g., for sorting), grades are often tied to a student’s self worth. In the best case, a bad grade demoralises a student. In the worst case, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I am not good at…” or “I am too stupid”.

In short, what we need to go beyond grades. The “ungrading” movement probably has this as its central tenet:

That working principle is an ideal but abstract idea. What concrete action can we take? The better question might be: What action have a few progressives already taken as a viable alternative?

See my tweet: Student portfolios. This is what I have curated on the topic of e-portfolios for several years. Depending on where you look, there are at least three types of portfolios: showcase (product-focused, static), working/developmental (process-oriented, living), and assessment (a record of one’s achievements).

The best portfolios are probably hybrids of the different types. These combo portfolios provide qualitative information to quantitative grades. A good portfolio is an extension of the person who maintains it, illustrates that person’s growth, and his/her worth to a new school or workplace.

How might I link an opinion piece that I read…

… with the distilled wisdom of this tweet?

My thoughts are a-quacking and I need to get my ducks in a row. Perhaps by tomorrow.

Be the best that you can be. That is what we urge our kids, right? But as they grow up, they learn through social interaction, societal pressure, and schooling that “best” is a result of competition.

Now competition itself is not bad. It can bring out the best in us. But it can also bring out the worst. One bad consequence is the focus on what others think or say.

Getting feedback by listening to or observing others is not a bad way to learn, but there can also be demoralising talk and bad models of behaviour. So the sooner a child learns to self-evaluate by critical and objective reflection, the sooner they gain confidence in their own abilities.

When compared to others, they might not be the best. But they learn to gauge what their current best is, look forward to improving, and celebrate both.

A recent tweet from Malala Yousafzai gave me pause to reflect.

Here is a challenge: Ask any one in a local school how students are prepared to deal with misinformation and disinformation. You might be told that there are “cyber wellness” programmes or that information literacy is built into curricula.

But this is the rub. Misinformation and disinformation are not just cognitive challenges. They are emotional ones too. The video in the tweet highlights how they might very well be emotional challenges first.

The programmes and curricula might try to prepare the head. But how do they attempt to prepare the heart?

A teacher knows what the following are:

  • Schemes of work
  • Curricula
  • Attendance sheets
  • Teaching resources
  • Tests
  • Classes and courses

These products contribute to learning, but they sometimes get in the way of it.

Learning is combination of many processes. These might be relatively simple (like maintaining attention) or complex (like perspective-taking).

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Learning might result from teaching, but the latter does not guarantee the former. Learning is messy. Teaching is neat.

Learning is not a product you can easily package. Anyone who thinks or says that needs to unlearn that perspective.

If I had to choose a video conferencing platform for education, I would stick with Google’s offerings. Why? It has a better track record in education and privacy policies for learners [1] [2] [3] compared to Zoom.

I have been forced to use Zoom before, and while the tool was convenient, the company’s statements and claims did not create confidence. It was also designed to work in the office space and not the classroom, so its privacy policies and user protections are barely in place.

Unfortunately, Google Meet languished even when emergency remote teaching was in full swing. So when someone tweeted some upcoming changes to Meet, I was excited.

But the same person did not provide a link to an official source of this information. This was not a responsible move.

About 10 days later, Google officially announced several of the changes represented in the tweet. Google clarified that features like attendance tracking, polling, and breakout groups were only for G Suite Enterprise for Education customers.

Changes to GSuite Enterprise for Education customers: Attendance tracking, polling, breakout groups.

The background blur and/or replace feature is an example of empathetic design. It recognises that students might not be comfortable showing their home environments.

Whiteboarding? Sigh. That is a classroom relic brought into the online space. They are clunky at best — writing and drawing are still not as immediate and easy.

Meeting moderation and attendance taking. This should make administrators, policymakers, and parents happy. But they recreate what Zoom already does and create unnecessary busy work for an online educator.

Consider how an attendance list is something learners can sign on their own time (even as the class is in session). Online attendance and being corralled in a waiting area requires someone to check each student and permit them to enter the online classroom. This is administrative busy work that should be done by an adjunct or a member of support staff.

An educator has already enough to do. An administrator might be worried about physically getting bums on seats and they transfer that worry online. But an educator recognises that physical or online attendance does not mean that the student is also there mentally. S/He would rather focus on the teaching and learning, not the attendance taking.

But I digress.

Hand-raising, polling, breakout groups? These also recreate what happens in the classroom. But they are good for interrupting teaching so that learning can happen, i.e., get the teacher’s attention, taking a pitstop to gauge progress, and provide opportunities to negotiate meaning.

I look forward to the upcoming changes in Google Meet. Unfortunately, I will not get to use all of them (or at all) since many of the agencies I work with have been seduced by the popularity of Zoom.

I do what I can to educate my parters, but if they choose not to listen to me, they get a harsher teacher — Miss Takes. She might offer painful lessons, but they are effective.

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During the COVID-19 lockdown, people seemed to ask: When are things going to return to normal?

I, for one, do not want things to return to normal if normal means:

  • still being selfish and inconsiderate.
  • being wasteful of time and resources.
  • forgetting how even emergency remote teaching might improve classroom practice.

Oh, and please do not spout “the new normal” if this is just old packaged as new. That phrase is as overused and meaningless as “unprecedented”. Even a casual examination of recent history and a cursory study of systems will reveal that little has never happened before and that norms take a long time to establish. By the time norms establish, they are not new any more.


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