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Posts Tagged ‘e-learning

This tweet is not just a funny play on “remotely”, it also reveals a fundamental difference between teaching in-person and online. You cannot simply transfer teaching skills and habits from a physical classroom to an online space and expect them to work. 

One reason why classroom humour does not work even in a setup like Zoom is that social presence is not just about immediacy. It is also about the fact that the participants microphones are often muted.

Furthermore, Zoom and other video conferencing software are often set up as turn-taking platforms, not mass audience venues. Even when there are Zoom-based seminars, the speakers often cannot see or hear from their audiences. 

So it is unreasonable to expect the same social effect or to complain about feeling disconnected. The tool simply does not work that way.

An educator who has to teach online needs to choose another tool, change expectations, and/or learn new skills. If getting immediate feedback is critical, then a platform like Twitch is an option. However, the feedback is largely text and emoji-based, and it can flow fast and furious. It takes much practice to quickly split attention between giving and getting.

This is just one of many professional development skills needed by educators who are serious about being online learning facilitators. Perhaps this is why schools and even entire ministries like our own MOE would rather avoid e-learning than embrace it.

They do this even though teachers would learn to teach better thanks to the constraints and opportunities of being online. This move is seriously no laughing matter.

Most people probably understand the rationale of fire drills even as they go through the motions of evacuating a building. They also have the hope — and perhaps the expectation — that the practice never becomes reality.

Something similar could be said about e-learning in Singapore before the current pandemic.

For over a decade, most schools and education institutes here have mandated at least one e-learning day (or even a week) under the guise of practice for shutdowns like the one we just experienced.

Unlike a relatively simple fire drill, people had to be prepared for the difficult design and implementation of e-learning. They were not and still are not. So like the fire drills, people did the bare minimum to adhere to policy, went through the motions, and continued with teaching normally when the drills were over.

I am fully aware of the pains of doing this not least because I was a participant of such drills. I had to facilitate such “initiatives”, and when I finally headed an e-learning department, did away with compulsory e-day or e-week.

Why remove them? People had lost sight of why they needed to do this, their efforts were minimal, and the infrastructure then could not handle a full shift online.

Instead, I tried to get my colleagues to design scenarios and solutions they thought met their needs and contexts. They could choose their own day or week, which took a load off the infrastructure. This ownership was slow to build, but I observed people taking things more seriously.

Then disaster struck — not as a pandemic but in the form of change in leadership-at-the-top. A core group of us left what seemed like sinking ship helmed by a team of leaders that had other priorities. Sadly, the empowered e-learning was not sustained.

The e-learning drills were not effective in the mainstream school system either. Why? Most schools transferred “e-learning” design and hosting to third-party vendors instead of learning how to deal with emergencies on their own.

It is easy to observe and make judgements in hindsight. It is much more difficult to eat humble pie and learn from the harsh lessons of not taking preparations seriously. Will we learn? I hope so, but I think not.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

If informed teachers, instructors, and facilitators could be frank about mandatory “online learning”, they might say this:

But logic and passion are up against the red tape and inertia of administrators who think they know better:

The ones who suffer the most from this learning war are the students. This war would not exist if administrators relearn their role — supporting and enabling, instead of standing in the way.

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 course modules 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.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition 4

I challenged my audience in 2013 with a series of slides led by the one above. My intent then was to provide a fourth element in a loose but critical scaffold for thinking about MOOCs.

Back then, I asked them if adopting platforms like Coursera would serve their underserved (they evidence then was that it would not). I challenged them to ask difficult questions like: What might the consequences be if they did not rely on evidence-based planning and approaches?

Today I position this questioning element in the context of emergency remote teaching. How do we respond to the fear of asking and getting answers to the following questions?

  • What mistakes did we make and what did we learn from them?
  • Why were we not better prepared? How might we be better prepared?
  • How do we level up our collective capacity towards seamless learning?

The last question might be informed with this useful framework from Scott McLeod.

The other questions require a brutal and honest look at ourselves. Will we remember enough and be brave enough to do that when we are on the other side of the COVID-19 curve?

The context for this slide: It was 2013 and I was presenting to an audience more used to US English spelling (hence the spelling of “decentralizing”). More importantly, I was on the same mission of advising people to not make the same unnecessary mistakes that others had already made.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition Part 3

The advice I gave was simple. A teaching solution that is often presented before considering the learning problem is a vendor-provided learning management system (LMS). This creates lock-ins of platforms and tools, pedagogy, and finances.

All three lock-ins can have hidden elements. For example, you might already be invested a particular tool but that same tool is not compatible with the LMS. If you wish to get the equivalent tool or a new one, this is likely to come with additional cost. In any case, the likely end result is teaching to the whims of the tool instead of letting good pedagogy lead.

Today, that same advice might be recontextualised to not relying almost solely on a content management system (CMS) like our Student Learning System (SLS) or a video conferencing platform like Zoom.

One fear of having multiple platforms and tools is the loss of administrative and IT systems control. This is the top-down approach which is largely non-consultative and does not create ownership or empowerment among its users.

To be fair, you can rationalise the need for such an approach because users might not know what to use in a situation like COVID-19 lockdowns and home-based learning (or more accurately, emergency remote teaching). Having just one (or very few) tools and platforms also allows for system managers to provide more focused support.

However, this presumes that teachers and student have no idea what to do and use. This is not the case. Practically any system has its technology leaders, laggards, and those somewhere in between. The first group is likely to already be using some technology tools without sanctioned support. This can be a boon or a bane depending on how it is planned and managed.

The recent phenomenon of zoom-bombing — trolls joining and disrupting Zoom-based video conference calls — could be used as evidence of why the command-and-control approach works. If people try different tools and managers know that some tools are better and safer than others, why let those people use inferior and unsafe tools?

However, that question is a flawed premise because a small group of administrators and IT folk do not and cannot know as much as a large group of users trying and testing different tools. If just a small portion of active users manages to identify flaws with a platform like Zoom (and there are many), they are a valuable source of testing and information. They could — and have — advised on NOT using Zoom in the first place.

Why rely on actual users instead of administrators and IT folk for testing, analysis, and critique? They are actual users who will use and “abuse” the tools for teaching, learning, and unanticipated ways. They will not think and operate along the lines of spreadsheets, policy, security, etc. They will use the tools authentically.

So the issue is not the loss of control in decentralising technology initiatives. It is the coordinated planning, evaluation, and sharing of such tools and their practices. The fear of losing control is misplaced and misguided. The energy that is wasted here could be channeled to coordinated decentralisation.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition Part 2

When I shared this idea at a conference in 2013, it was a call to be avoid being totally or blindly reliant on vendor-provided learning management systems (LMS). Right now the principle applies to emergency remote teaching: Do not be reliant on just one platform for video conferencing, e.g., Zoom. Why not? This is my Diigo archive for Zoom-related woes and alternatives.

Today, I would position this thought a bit differently. The closed system would not just be the LMS (which learners lose access to sooner than later), it would be about the closed professional development system.

Progressive schools see the value of mentoring new teachers and continuously developing the professional capacity of all teachers. They do so with events like internal sharing sessions and vendor-conducted workshops. If timely and relevant, these benefit the teachers in that school’s ecosystem.

However, some schools operate as closed systems, i.e., they do not share what they learn openly and regularly so that others outside their school may also learn. If other schools behave the same way, that school does not benefit from the mistakes, lessons, and ideas of the other schools.

It can be difficult to open up tightly closed systems. It might not be worth the trouble to do so given the many other things that teachers already need to do. Fortunately, there is an approximately decade-old solution — social media.

Teachers all over the world have shared their dos and their don’ts in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. They do this even though school conditions and contexts differ. Why? Teachers and teaching remain constant at their core — how to improve teaching so that students learn better.

If you need evidence, you need only trawl the last month’s edu-Twitter streams. Teachers all over the world freely and openly have shared their ideas on how to design and conduct emergency remote teaching, offered tips on synchronous and asynchronous lessons, outlined stay-at-home plans, and more.

There is still a fear that being so open is risky. But sharing your ideas with other teachers is not a zero-sum game. Giving ten ideas does not mean you lose those ten. In all likelihood you will receive the gratitude of other teachers, suggestions on how to improve your own ideas, and raise your reputational capital.

I say this to administrators, policymakers, or teachers who have Fear 2: You risk nurturing teachers who are risk-averse if you do not encourage them to share openly and responsibly. These teachers then cannot model similar behaviours for their students.

I was looking for an image in my Google Photo archive when I spotted an unrelated one (screenshot below). I revisited the resource of that screenshot and discovered that it was still relevant today.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition

In 2013, I was invited to give a talk about e-learning. The host had one main request: Focus on MOOCs (because they were still the flavour of the moment). MOOCs are passé now, but some overarching reminders about e-learning are pertinent as we head into an intense period home-based learning (HBL).

Our HBL is still largely emergency remote teaching and not quite the quality that e-learning can be. So I reorient the four ideas I shared in 2013 to the circumstances of 2020. In particular, I focus on how we might shape our thoughts before we emerge on the other side of COVID-19 isolations.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition 1

The first fear of e-learning is FOMO. This could include the fear on not having access to tools like Zoom or content repositories. (Side note: Zoom is not a good tool and there are several alternatives).

If actions belie thoughts, then the fear among planners and policymakers seems to be the availability on ready-made tools and resources. While we cannot ignore those, it relegates a more important factor. If there is a better fear, it should be: What if my teachers are not prepared to teach remotely?

Providing all the best tools and resource but not providing timely and relevant professional development is like giving ordinary drivers the best Formula 1 cars and tracks but not teaching them how to drive under those circumstances.

What superficially looks like “just driving” in every-day and Formula 1 surfaces could not be more wrong. The latter person is a high performance athlete with top conditioning, support, and pressure. Likewise, good e-learning is facilitated well only by a relative few who have studied and honed their craft.

We would not expect an ordinary driver to be comfortable with Formula 1 racing. Likewise, we should not expect classroom-bred teachers to take to online facilitation even in an emergency. If we recognise this gap in performance, then we are missing out on preparation on how to design and facilitate online sessions. Worry about that, too!

I continue with fear factor #2 tomorrow.

Have you survived the first week of home-based learning (HBL)?

For some this experiment to keep kids away from school one day a week has been disruptive.

Just imagine what the situation would be like if we were in total lockdown. Actually there is no need to imagine — just read about or ask our counterparts elsewhere in the world who are already experiencing this.

The news article chose to focus on woes of work-from-home caregivers. I choose to critique the actions of planners and administrators.

The article stated that “some schools chose to structure the home-based learning lessons around the pupils’ usual timetable”. Why insist on trying to conduct business-as-usual in unusual and challenging circumstance?

It should not have been a surprise to learn that IT systems were stretched because so many kids were trying to access the same set of resources all at once over the same period. Think of it as a benign Distributed Denial-of-Service attack on servers.

Anyone worth their e-learning consult salt would have advised planners to flatten the curve. We need to spread the COVID-19 infection rate over time to ensure that we do not overtax medical capacity. Likewise, we need strategies to prevent the taxing of human and IT capacity.

Even though parents might complain about the need for different platforms (e.g., Google Classroom, Zoom, SLS, and eZhishi) this was a good way to spread the load.

A bad strategy, however, was to try to stick to existing timetables and/or to simply recreate face-to-face experiences. This means doing things conventionally (e.g., waking up early, taking attendance, saying the pledge) instead of doing things differently.

Strategies that could work better are 1) to allow schools to decide which days to conduct HBL, and 2) rely on asynchronous modes of learning. Both reduce IT load and empower schools.

The first strategy could allow a school to decide which groups of staff and students to stay at home, e.g., lower academic levels on Tuesdays and upper levels on Thursdays. While this means that some people are still in school, it also means fewer are travelling and mixing while still benefitting from what schools do well.

Schools have their own overall timetables that incorporate non-lesson events like meetings, white spaces, and professional development. Letting schools decide which days (and perhaps reporting these days to higher-ups for accountability) reduces disruption and frustration from administrators and teachers alike.

Teaching and learning asynchronously means not recreating class periods. It means creating opportunities and resources that students can use at any time of the HBL day. Most schools already do this with dedicated “e-learning days”. These happen any day of the week, do not make peak demands on IT servers, and are already standard plays.

But I caution against just copy-and-pasting e-learning days. Asynchronous sessions are not simply hands-off sessions. They need to be carefully and meticulously designed so that students can manage semi-independently. They should be designed with at least one synchronous check-in or “office hour” consult.

The old adage is that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I say that if you fail to consult, you get that result. It is not as if we have not collectively tried new things or made mistakes. You need to consult people who have institutional memories and experiences to avoid repeating mistakes or taking missteps.


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