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In December 2020, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in a press release that it would build on the home-based learning experience — made mandatory due to our COVID-19 lockdown — by “making Blended Learning a key feature of the schooling experience”. 

The MOE defined blended learning (point 4 of the press release) as “a mix of home-based and in-school activities, and leverage both online and offline approaches to learning”. This definition is limited to modality: Outside and inside school, offline and online.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I have critiqued this approach before because it limits the scope of blending to just one aspect. As my thoughts were scattered over several reflections, I summarise some key ideas in point form. Blended learning: 

  1. requires a clear and shared meaning, otherwise some people will just do the same old thing differently
  2. focuses on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching, i.e., do not confuse blended teaching with blended learning
  3. can be about skilfully mixing different strategies, content, contexts, timeframes, tools, evaluations, etc.
  4. is about providing learners with seamless experiences, i.e., the differences above are not obvious to the learner (like a smoothie)
  5. is about the long tail, not the short game

The rollout of the exact nature of blended learning is left to schools and this is an excellent strategy. The annex to the press release states that the frequency of such blended learning is once a fortnight.

The MOE has mandated that secondary-and-above students experience this by Term 3 of 2021. This means that school personnel have started their planning. So I offer some unsolicited advice on how to approach the design of blended learning.

Address the low bar of continuity 
The blended learning initiatives might absorb the schools’ e-learning days or stand alone from them. Either way, it cannot run away from the fact that we need to keep preparing for the next lockdown, be that due to another pandemic or something short of an apocalypse. 

The key question to answer is: How do we continue with near business-as-usual in terms of curricula and schemes of work without resorting to make up sessions when everyone returns to school?

Address the meaningful bar of context 
The unstated beauty of the mandate is that each school needs to devise its own plan. This means that each school can take into account its overall profile of its students. 

This means that a school with students from lower-income groups who have just received devices and dongles can have a programme that is different from one that competes with the best on the world stage. This should be the case.

The key design question is: What is best for my learners over this period of time?

Design beyond modality and synchronicity 
The idea that blended learning is limited only to mixing the “traditional” with the “technological” is not only passé, it is harmful. It limits what teachers can design for their students.

In my third summary point on blended learning, I mentioned several things that can be seamlessly blended. For example, teachers from different academic departments could co-design a common project for students that addresses different content areas and standards.

Such cross or inter-disciplinary content design not only helps students see how different subjects work together, it also prevents teachers from designing in isolation. The latter design results in multiple tasks that all seem urgent to students. This results in stress and resentment of “blended learning” days.

The guiding design question might be: What else can be blended to create a learning smoothie?

Start simple
One principle I share with teachers and graduate students alike is this: Start simple because things will get complicated.

Do not be over-ambitious with the design of learning tasks. What seems easy and obvious to you as a teacher is not so to a student. Practice empathetic design.

One question to keep asking during planning: How can this be further simplified without compromising on quality or challenge? 

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Again, this is unsolicited advice and limited only to overall approaches, not specific strategies. I have called on my previous experience of providing consultations with teacher educators and university faculty on all manner of blended designs. You can take it or leave it.

I prepared seven slides as part of a preparatory briefing for a group of students. Instead of attending a face-to-face class, they need to go online as a COVID-19 precaution.

As some might not have done this before, I decided to return to basics. I share the slides under Creative Commons license: CC-BY-SA-NC.

Note: I created the slides with Google Presentations and used the flash cards template. I modified the content of each template slide to fit the theme of each online conferencing tip.

 
I will be facilitating a synchronous online portion of a class next Saturday. We will be using Zoom.

I am recycling some tips I have for video conferencing. I have added to my list following this excellent piece from Beth Kanter.

  1. Use headphones/earphones, preferably with a built-in microphone. This will prevent the audio feedback that creates echoes during the session.
  2. Mute your microphone (via Zoom software) when you are not using it. This prevents audio leaks which might interrupt the session.
  3. Use the texting tool as a communication backup.
  4. Choose a quiet place with strong and reliable Internet connection. Refrain from relying on a library or coffee shop.
  5. Set the physical space up so that you are not interrupted. It might help to create a sign for the door to inform other occupants of a shared space. Make your physical space comfortable for a few hours.
  6. Be camera ready if you are to appear video. You might be at home, but you are still attending a class in a social setting.
  7. Do not multitask. Stay on task whether it is asynchronous or synchronous. Use the suggested time-on-task in the instructions to guide your effort.

As I have the benefit of meeting the class in person this week, I intend to dedicate about an hour of our session to prepare for the Zoom-enabled class. We will:

  1. Download the Zoom client.
  2. Install the Zoom client.
  3. Join the Test Session.
  4. Use reactions* (e.g., thumbs up).
  5. Test the text chat.
  6. Set up your video* camera and audio.
  7. Test the breakout rooms (small groups) and screen sharing.

*Note: Might be disabled by the institute’s IT administrator

I heard a few questions from new faculty at a recent pre-semester meeting. The questions revealed how much I take for granted and how much the new folk need to level up.
 

 
One person confused academic integrity with general integrity. Academic integrity is normally about how one writes essays and reports research. We want individuals who are models of overall integrity, of course. But when we focus on assignments and reports, we zoom in on specific aspects of academic integrity like citing, attributing, and not plagiarising.

Another person brought up how students might be confused as to why they had to cooperate in class activities (e.g., co-editing Google Docs) but could not do the same with most summative assignments. While such students bring up a valid argument, we should counter that with accountability. We focus on group accountability with shared documents, but we determine individual accountability with end-of-course essays.

I was glad to hear how a few faculty had started using mobile apps to quiz their students. However, I was dismayed that they focused on the bells and whistles instead of the praxis of feedback or assessment. Such application of educational theory could be the need to monitor learning and/or to provide formative feedback. It should not be about a timer counting down or background music adding tension.

All three examples bring up the importance of being an academic who is literate in pedagogical theory and research. Being a good instructor and facilitator is not just about knowing what works. It is also about knowing why it works.

I only realised how noisy Singapore was when I returned from living in the USA. Despite being back for just over 15 years, I still find it too noisy. This is the main reason I invest in noise-reducing headphones and earphones.


Video source

According to research summarised in the video above, noise can have negative cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects.

I see my purchases as an investment in health. Plus they help me ignore touts and promoters that litter our walkways and malls!

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I close my unsolicited five-part series about being an independent worker with this question:

Why do you want to do this?

This is the most important question. You need a strong answer before you take the plunge.

Are you running away from something or heading towards a goal? The first might be about fear, but the second is about hope.

Are you leaving mainstream work because you cannot cut it? If you cannot handle that sort of work, what makes you think you can survive in a less supported environment?

That said, there is value is walking away from some situations. Your current work might be a threat to your principles, health, or personal development. My point that your decision should be driven by investigation and reflection, and not by fear or imagination.

You need to know what you want out of leaving full-time work. This might be more time with your family, regaining your sanity, or pursuing a new challenge. This makes the move goal-driven and planned instead of reactionary and rushed.

Pursuing one or more life goals is like preparing for a journey. The pathways of independent workers and freelancers are often not well-trodden and so you must prepare your mind, portfolio, finances, and loved ones.

The paths are not easy, but they can be scenic. You are likely to learn more about the world around you and about yourself. Your path might lead back to full-time work and there is no shame in that. But if you choose to walk that path, it is better to be walking towards something than to be chased by fear.

This is the second-last part of my answers to five questions on being an independent worker.
 

 
Your portfolio: What is in it, where is it, and how do people find it/you?

If you do not already have a portfolio, here is an alternate question: How large is your network or how extensive are your connections?

Even if you have a list of potential clients and partners, do not expect them to be loyal to you. Departments whose responsibility it is train or provide professional development seem to have budgets that shrink every year.

You need to advertise yourself to agencies that do not already know you. You need a portfolio. People need to find out what you do, what value you offer them, how to contact you, and what your fees are.

Mine is this blog and its various sections (see the navigation bar for the desktop browser or the drop down in the mobile browser). I do not claim to have exemplary practice. I only claim to share openly when I can.

The people who are looking have a problem that needs solving. You need to be the piece(s) in the puzzle that helps them see the whole picture. You will likely have encouraging conversations with such people because you will probably think alike.

Unfortunately, these people will hand the next phase of information gathering and negotiation to an administrative group of people. The latter group tends to only see in numbers, e.g., total cost, number of participants, cost per head, how many sessions, etc. Oh, and can you do a followup or two for free?

If you reveal your fees too quickly in your portfolio or initial communications, expect to not hear from the administrative person again.

Sorry, I got distracted. Back to the portfolio.

Your portfolio should showcase not just your experience and accomplishments but also your worth to others. I do this by reflecting on how my workshops or session went in daily musings. This might help others get inside my head and to figure out if they want to work with me.

While I behave professionally, I pull no punches. I am blunt with what I can do, can not do, and will not do. I am also open with the way I do things — I do not wish to compromise why pedagogy or my principles.

As a consultant or independent worker, you need to figure out what you are comfortable with sharing, but share you must. If you are smart about it, you might appear at or near the top of Google searches. That is how new people find you. But to do that, you must have a platform to share from and something worth sharing.

Today I continue my unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or independent worker.
 

 
How comfortable are you with discomfort? (Or: What do you think being an independent worker is like?)

Being an independent worker might seem freeing. I am guilty of reinforcing that stereotype when making small talk. I often say that I do not have to attend pointless meetings and I work only with people I want to work with. Who does not want that?

Making the choice to be a freelancer or independent worker has consequences. I highlighted the health insurance and personal finances issues previously. There are other sources of discomfort.

You might face lean earning weeks or even months. To tide these over, you might take the advice I mentioned in Part 2. You can also tighten your belt and live more simply.

I have cut down of extravagances. I used to upgrade my iPhone regularly; now I still have my iPhone 7 even though the 11 is currently available. This does not mean that I will not get the 11 or 12. It means I put some purchases off until I think I can reward myself.

I used to pay for extra utilities that I did not use, e.g., TV channels. These were the easiest to cut off. I found more economical phone plans for my family. We travel less, but we still eat out occasionally.

Belt-tightening aside, you need to embrace being and doing different. Most people will not understand how and why you work that way. They will likely be quick to make demands and slow to pay. You do not get bonuses or promotions. You can demand fees at current market rates, but this will not be heard by those living in the cocoons of the past.

The people you meet are not cruel (at least, I hope they are not). They are ignorant because they cannot empathise with you and they are not living your work life. So you have to keep communicating uncomfortable issues and educating them on change whether you want to or not. (Side bar: You might not help yourself, but you might pave the way for the next person.)

Being in full-time employment, particularly in the civil service in Singapore, can make you lazy. So much is done for you and you can be rewarded whether you deserve it or not. If you choose to freelance, expect people to ask you to work for free. If you wish to be an independent worker, prepare to be practically self-sufficient.

You might be financially prepared to cast off full-time work. But you are not likely to be prepared for the discomfort of dissonance and different approaches to doing the same things.

You have to jump into the pool to learn to swim. Likewise only plunging into the world of independent work will teach you how to do it. I hope that the three questions so far help you do so with your eyes open.

Coming up next: Advertising yourself with your portfolio.

This is Part 2 of a five-part Q&A on whether or not to be an independent worker.
 

 
What is your backup plan?

There might be push and/or pull factors that make you think about leaving full-time employment. Look before you leap.

A backup plan might take the form of a stash of cash you can reach for occasionally, the option to work part-time, or the capacity to return to full-time work.

Your savings are critical because you might face lean months or choose not to work for whatever reason. If you have people to take care of, your responsibility is compounded.

I recommend maintaining two bank accounts: One for regular work and bill payments, and the other for a nest-egg. I keep an eye on the first account to make sure that it does not fall below a certain level. I do not touch the second except to ensure that it is making money off a reliable investment.

Your current employer might be able to replace your full-time position with a part-time one. Alternatively, you might find some reliable partners to work with to ensure a minimum inward cash flow. Both give you some independence while not threatening to bankrupt you.

Finally, you might maintain a good network of friends, partners, and ex-colleagues so that you can find your way back to full-time employment if you find the wilderness too harsh. This was my initial plan — to work independently for six months to a year — but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed.

A backup plan can cushion a bad fall. Being an independent consultant is not all it is cracked up to be. I address that in the next question.

I have a fortnight of intense grading (I am handling 40% of a cohort) and another of performance assessment. So I need to keep my head down, grit my teeth, and write some blog entries in advance.

I mentioned on Saturday that I would share some unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or an independent worker. This is Q&A 1.
 

 
Do you need to take care of anyone other than yourself?

Do you have a family? Do you or a family member have a chronic health issue? Are you the sole earner in your household?

If so, you might think twice about leaving full-time employment. Your employer might already offer a good health insurance plan. They might even pay for it in part or in full.

If you go independent, you have to get your own plan. In Singapore, it is also compulsory to top up your Medisave account in one lump sum every year or in monthly instalments. This can be a strain if you do not have a regular flow of income.

Those considerations apply whether you only need to support yourself or if you have others to take care of. If you are the sole earner in the family, bump those factors up by each person you need to cover.

In short, if you have others to take care of and are thinking of flying solo for work, seriously consider grounding your plans for the sake of those you love. Take flight only if you have a considerable nest egg (see next question).


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