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John Krasinski is an actor from the USA. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he was inspired to focus on Some Good News (SGN) instead of the usual fare.


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His latest episode focused on how an online community sprung up from his initiative and offered a glimpse into what other SGNs shows looked like (start at this timestamp).

Krasinski’s efforts remind me of the importance of being open in education and empowering learners. Setting this expectation releases resources and ideas from the shackles of outdated policy and unnecessary administration. Giving permission provides learners and educators with the freedom and responsibility to create, share and learn.

If there is something I would like to emerge after the pandemic dust settles, it is mindsets and behaviours that showcase openness and empowerment. I bet that the joy and creativity that these unleash will help us deal with the next obstacle thrown our way.

This is unsolicited advice that I offer to institutes of higher learning (IHLs) that rely heavily on the standard lecture-tutorial system even after COVID-19 lockdowns ease. I reflect on some planning considerations before a new semester starts.

Assuming that we can return to campus, I suggest some reductions for practical and pedagogical reasons.

Reduce or remove lectures. The halls cannot hold everyone if social distancing standards are to be maintained. Create or curate videos instead. This will have the long term benefit of shifting away from lectures as we know them.

Reduce tutorial class sizes. Like the note on lectures, this reduces human density. If a class is 30-strong, reduce it to 15 or 20. Why meet for tutorials? They (should) focus on learning content, not (re)teaching it. Tutorials offer social immediacy for the negotiation of information so that it becomes constructed knowledge.

Having smaller classes means faculty need to teach one class twice or there must be more faculty to handle the higher teaching load. Local IHLs have enough time and money to make this a priority. Making this move is a return to what makes makes an IHL valuable to society — a focus on the close nurturing of young adults.

I think of this nurturing like a hen brooding her eggs. There is only so many that one chicken can sit on and look after. Stuff any more under her and the eggs do not hatch.
 

 
Reduce face-to-face time by flipping the classroom (change what happens where) and flipping the learning (change who does what). The differences between the two are important, but the first lowers the need for face-to-face time and the second empowers the learner.

Reduce barriers to change. The barriers are not the ones already mentioned, i.e., requiring standard lectures before tutorials or large class sizes. They are also about mindsets about how an IHL educates.

One hidden barrier might be the focus on content delivery and the assumption that only experts should do this. Experts do not always make the best educators. They might need professional development on how to be instructional designers, facilitators, mentors, and evaluators.

One barrier that must be worn down is the operating model of in-person classes. While valuable, such a mode is not always necessary for consultative or cooperative learning. One need only deconstruct the efforts of online choirs to suggest what transfers to higher education.


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Even the worst experiences of emergency remote teaching will likely have taught teachers and educators something about the value of proper online classes.

These lessons should inform the design of courses moving forward. If we do not change, we waste the time and effort of teaching and learning in lockdown. If we do not change, we risk making the same mistakes when another lockdown happens.

This might seem trite, but it needs to be said anyway: Individuals tend to not think systemically, they think only for themselves.

Take this tweet from just over a month ago showing our residents descending upon an IKEA store just before out lockdown.

Now consider something a bit more recent and further away. Protesters in the USA demanded their rights while conveniently forgetting their responsibilities.

Why don’t individuals think more systemically? Perhaps they do not have accurate or timely information. But even if they have that information, they might not be able to analyse it meaningfully.

In the current COVID-19 context, most people do not understand how graphs both show and hide information (see video below). They may not have read or understood why we have specific distances to stay physically apart. They cannot distinguish the value of anecdotal findings vs peer reviewed articles.


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Then again, even analysis is subject to rationalisation. You can give two people the same dataset and they can arrive at different conclusions.

This article in The Atlantic provided more insights. The short version: We tend to have short, narrow, and singular vision. We need to learn how to see long, broad, and complex.

Excerpt from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/

Learning how to see, think, and act more systemically starts first by bursting one’s own bubble. To gain a broader perspective, one first needs access to information, and then the ability to critically process that information.

If I had a wish on how schooling would change, it would be that subjects not be taught in silos and that students learn to make connections between disciplines. The learning would not just be about content (learning about), but also about being a better thinker and person (learning to be).

Are tests in school necessary evils? Or are they just evil?

I think that what is evil is how we have been brainwashed to think that they are acceptable measures of ability and worth.

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I would like a semester to go by in which I do not encounter a case of academic plagiarism. But that might be wishful thinking.
 

 
I work with various institutes of higher learning (IHLs) and here is how they typically handle plagiarism by graduate students. The two broad approaches are prevention (before it happens) and intervention (after it does).

The preventative formula is uncannily similar. It is almost as if a cabal sat together to discuss a common approach — require students to read some material and take a quiz. The latter needs a high pass, e.g., 75 to 80%, to qualify as a prerequisite for other graduate courses.

The formula might also include constant (some say oppressive) reminders from instructors to students not to plagiarise. This message is sometimes conflated with matching scores in systems like Turnitin and I have written about why this is bad practice.

What is not clear in the formula is whether a) the student is writing academic papers at the time of taking the quiz, and b) the student’s supervisor is providing advice on such matters. Both are important if the learning is to be meaningful.

I am painfully aware of how some students take the quiz as quickly as they can without fully internalising the different aspects of plagiarism. I recall one student who insisted that citing a reference but copying paragraphs wholesale from that reference was not plagiarism.

The interventions seem to differ slightly. Most graduate programmes seem to have the equivalent of software terms and conditions that students have to sign. These are long contract-like statements that stipulate the consequences of plagiarism.

In one IHL, the intervention is largely based on counselling. If a student is caught plagiarising, they meet with a writing advisor so that they understand how and why this is wrong. In another IHL, the penalties are wielded more quickly, e.g., no/fail grade for the essay.

I would err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt. I wager that most are not familiar with academic integrity in writing even after passing the quiz. After all, their schooling and/or their workplaces might use press articles and popular media artefacts liberally and without attribution. They are doing what they were inevitably taught.

A compulsory consumption of resources and taking a test on plagiarism is not wrong. But it comes across as just one more administrative hurdle to jump over quickly. The process is done without meaning and/or loses its intent.

The deliver-and-test model of anti-plagiarism might seem efficient, but it is not effective if does not change mindsets and behaviours of all students. Yes, ALL. Not just, say, 75 to 80% of them. If even a sliver of students squeaks past this filter without changing, they go on to cheat. This tarnishes the name of the IHL.

As an adjunct now, I interact with hundreds of students. Anecdotally, many tell me that their supervisors do not actively teach them how to write. If supervisors do not do this, I do not know how they might teach their students about writing integrity. Plagiarising is a conscious human decision, so fighting against it requires the human effort of positive role-modelling and mentoring. A shortcut quiz is not going to cut it.

One of the reading methods I adopted from my days as a graduate student and then an academic were to read the synopsis, introduction, and conclusion of an article first.

I practice this particularly with opinion pieces in the press. I modify the method by examining who wrote the article and I try to unpack why. Take this “commentary” that proclaims that “It is time to rethink how we do online education”.

You need only to scroll to the end of the article to find that the author is the regional director of a learning management system (LMS) provider. Scroll to the middle and the largest chunk of the article is about (surprise, surprise) the the virtues of adopting an LMS.

An institutional LMS has its uses. But it also has its abuses, so I counter some claims (copied from the article and pasted in italics). At this point, I should mention that I am making some assumptions based on my professional experience of working with such vendors. I need to make assumptions because the statements in the article are either so general as to be vague or are claims without cited and linked evidence.

LMSs are used to create and deliver curriculums that students can follow both online and offline.

Offline? An LMS is online. The whole point is to access it anywhere you have a reliable Internet connection. Some tools have an offline mode, but you need to periodically go online to get updates.

An offline service that delivers material might look like the postal service. But even that has online components, e.g., tracking packages. So I do not know how an “offline” LMS is supposed to create and deliver curricula without strategically going online.

It is secure, easily accessible and allows for student-teacher interaction.

Claims of security should always be questioned. An LMS is only as “secure” as the log-in system of an institution and the user behaviours.

The ease of accessibility might rest on the platform each user has. Internet access being equal, LMS tend to be more “accessible” on laptops and desktops than on smaller mobile devices, e.g., phones. The latter typically require specific apps because LMS tend to not be built with mobile-first principles. Such apps are lite versions of full LMS, so users can forget about, say, submitting essays for plagiarism checks before revising and resubmitting on mobile.

As for “student-teacher” interaction, don’t get me started. Correspondence courses of old were secure as the postal service, accessible to anyone with an address, and allowed student-teacher interaction.

For starters, all users are authenticated before they are granted access.

Yes, with a standard username and password combo, preferably linked to a school’s or university’s single sign-on (SSO) system. I do not know of any SSO that requires two-factor authentication that is tied to a person’s identity. This means that a student can share log-in information with someone else to access materials or to take a quiz.

Authentication is not the same as identity confirmation. The latter is what is required for strict access to materials or the taking of critical tests or exams. Is our PSLE or GCE assessments online? No, because while authentication is possible, identity confirmation is not.

A reliable LMS uses cryptographic protocols and encryption to ensure the confidentiality and security of user data.

Good news, right? At no point did the author say where the data is stored (the company’s servers) or what happens to that data (it should be in Terms and Conditions; data could be anonymised and repackaged for the company or third parties to use).

With standard compliance regulations for data integrity and confidentiality in place, institutions can opt for certified LMS service providers for maximum security.

See my comment on anonymisation of data. Providers use student and teacher data. There are legitimate uses like improving services, but there are less clear cut uses too.

Data integrity, confidentiality, and security are important, but they should not be conflated. For example, if data is kept purely intact, it cannot be anonymised for confidentiality. If it cannot be anonymised, it should be used for other purposes.

Some LMSs integrate live streaming capability in a seamless manner.

As do other platforms, mobile or desktop. YouTube and Twitch can also do this more efficiently and effectively than university lecture capture systems. But such systems are not in walled gardens like LMS (which could be a plus) and such capture systems tend to be fire-and-forget for lecturers (another plus).

All that said, the seamlessness might be convenient, but this also means that teachers and lecturers do not learn the skills of how to do such work themselves. This has been and continues to be evident whenever e-learning days or a lockdown like the current one places pressure on content delivery.

The LMS market is already booming.

So is the market for fast foods. This does not mean that they have products that are good for their consumers/users, or processes that are good for the environment/education system.

The regional market here might be “booming”, but that does not mean the same is happening elsewhere. Anyone thinking of buying into an LMS should investigate why it might be waning elsewhere before subscribing to a service that creates dependence.

According to a report by Market Research, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to be the fastest-growing LMS market in the coming years…

This might be true depending on your sources. It is a trend that might last a while. Why? Decisions to buy into LMS are made my policymakers and administrators, not educators and students. The latter groups are rarely consulted, if at all. If they were, I bet on the trend bucking.

Increasing computing power and rich features on these devices make for a dynamic and holistic learning experience.

This was in reference to mobile devices like phones. Despite their increased power, they still deliver subpar experiences compared to devices with larger screens and multitasking.

The one size fits all approach that has dominated education for so long does not work anymore.

How ironic. An LMS is designed to fit many tools into one container.

The diversification of tools and platforms based on context and need should drive adoption and innovation. When you buy into an LMS, you get a walled-off area but you trade it with practices that are constrained by tools that might not suit your needs.

Consider the oft dreaded threaded discussion forum. It is the go-to tool for interaction because thoughts are externalised, captured, and sometimes graded. Discussion threads can get so long and confusing that they put off discussion to all but the most persistent.

Users need to be taught new and more disciplined ways to discuss online. This is not a bad thing, but the structure can be off-putting or unnatural. Instead, users might prefer to share their thoughts on Twitter, Instragram, or some other social platform. However, an LMS cannot integrate every possible tool, be it designed for education or for general use.
 

 
I called the article an insidious LMS advertisement (and titled my reflection so) because a respectable news agency saw it fit to pass a long advertisement off as an article. It was a piece that was not challenged for evidence or subject to critique. Caveat emptor.

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The comic and video below is funny because they are true to teachers. In those truths come hidden lessons if we bother to look.
 


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No, I am not talking about learning how to mute everyone in Zoom or how to improvise camera stands for sharing written work.

The comic and video capture attempts to replicate classroom practices. When pushed online, we call these synchronous teaching and learning activities. Such activities are the focus of the comic and video because that is what most people seem to think teaching looks like online. This is only half the picture.

The hidden lesson is about designing for asynchronous and more inclusive learning. The design and facilitation of such learning are not obvious or glamorous. It is neither easy nor interesting to capture the process of combining educational psychology, content knowledge, pedagogical savvy, technical skills, learner empathy, and evaluation principles.

The design of asynchronous learning is about teaching that ensures learning without the constant and immediate presence of the teacher. This is NOT about taking the teacher out from the teaching-learning equation. It is about a shift in focus and effort — understanding the processes of learning and meeting the needs of learners asynchronously.

Inclusive education, be it online or offline, is about including the quieter learners so that they express themselves (there are other types of disadvantaged learners, but this group is easily overlooked). Reticent students are already reluctant to speak up in class. Instead of replicating such conditions online, we might design and facilitate experiences that focus on deeper, nuanced, or reflective thinking.

Is designing for asynchronous and more inclusive learning more difficult? Definitely. This is why teachers and educators who only know how to teach in classrooms, labs, and studios need new mind and skill sets if emergency remote teaching is to actually become meaningful and powerful online learning.

The good news is that teachers do not have to start from scratch. They might be able to transfer some skills and practices (e.g., active listening and wait time) to the design of online experiences. However, the same skills might have to be tweaked or revised to account for the lack of immediate social cues and a shared physical environment. Using the examples, active listening might be replaced by anticipatory scaffolds from the teacher and active reflection for the learner; wait time might be translated to longer or negotiated deadlines.

The bad news is that teachers might not see the point of adopting new mindsets and learning new skills. If the lockdown now and possibly ones in the future are relatively short and transient, why should they change? They might consider this: The applications online of psychology, pedagogy, technology, and evaluation can make them better teachers overall. If that is not relevant and continuous professional development, I do not know what is.


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