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Posts Tagged ‘learning

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.

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.

This tweet is a reminder in case you missed the memo on the challenges of designing for (and actually facilitating) online learning.

Teaching in person is already a complex skill set that can take years to be competent at. You never master teaching because the sand shifts under your feet — content evolves, learner expectations shift, technology brings change.

But teaching does not always ensure learning. Teaching should be a means to the learning end, but it can sometimes be a barrier.

You can bypass traditional teaching by focusing on how people learn. People might learn in the presence of more informed others, but they can also learn by observing, problem-solving, tinkering, etc. These other ways are more challenging to design and prepare for.

Non-educators whose only reference of teaching is their early schooling or higher education cannot see what it is like on the other side of the table. At best, they can only imagine the work and passion it takes.

Parents who had to monitor or supervise their children during COVID-19’s home-based schooling might have gained a small insight on what a teacher does. But they still do not have the full picture.

Likewise, teachers and administrators who only know the world of conventional teaching do not relate to what online facilitators experience. In case you missed it (ICYMI) read the tweet again.

I am glad that I am not the only one to notice this about alarm buttons in iOS.

A rise-and-shine alarm lets you stop or snooze it. The snooze button is large and orange (see example above on the right).

There is a similar interface for the countdown timer, but the prominent button is stops the alarm (see example above on the left).

What is the big deal, just tap the buttons, you say?

The affordance of a large, coloured button positioned in the middle over a small, dark button at the bottom is to draw attention to the first one. However, its function is inconsistent. In the alarm the main button extends the alarm, but in the timer you stop it.

I get that some people would rather snooze an alarm and a large button is helpful. But how about those who would rather stop the button? Alarms are by their nature jarring, and the instinct is to stop them from ringing continuously.

The superficial issue is visual design and the placement of the buttons. The deeper issue is providing users with the flexibility and choice. I would rather that both buttons be “stop”, but do not have that choice.

So why bring up this first world problem? There is a lesson for those of us in instructional design. Even the best designers, developers, and educators cannot think of every learning possibility. What we think is best might not be so for our learners. The trick is to provide choice which then powers agency. Our designs should not just set paths, they should also allow path making.

One of my takeaways from reading Alison Witherspoon’s review of literature was this pull quote:

…researchers often use student satisfaction or engagement as proxy measures. Factors that impact satisfaction may not clearly impact learning.

It might seem obvious that you cannot simply ask students whether they liked a lesson, and if they did, extrapolate that they learnt something.

Students are satisfied (or dissatisfied) with a lesson or course for an assortment of reasons: The environment, timing, instructor, strategies for teaching and assessment, etc.

Satisfaction might correlate to the degree of learning, but it does not guarantee or indicate it. Learning is about a worthwhile change of state: What can you do or believe in now that you did not before? How do you provide evidence of this? Why do you think that is important?

Those are the questions that provide insights into whether students have learnt anything of value. These are the difficult questions and this might be why they are not the focus of end-of-course surveys.

Video source

Jagger said he “can’t get no satisfaction”. I avoid pursuing it. I focus on the quality of learning and embrace the messiness, discomfort, and even pain of it all.

I would like to laugh along with the tweet and nod in agreement. Unfortunately, it misrepresents “studying”.

Just because you are together and in person does not mean that you are actually studying or learning. A lecture is a perfect place to be alone together because it is often a one-way street with the lecturer attempting to deliver information.

The “futuristic” Star Wars hologram was in a galaxy a long time ago. Even if we assume that lore to be real, both the face-to-face and distance set-ups can come across as lectures. Neither require learners to think actively or to apply what they think they know.

Studying often requires alone time for effort and reflection. Group study often involves a small number of learners discussing, debating, and negotiating. They are not staring off into space or standing in space.

I get why a satirical Twitter channel wants to critique what it thinks is online learning. The problem is that it perpetuates myth and misrepresentations. The humour makes it easy to swallow and uncritical audiences consume such misinformation with relish. So I call it out even though I follow that channel.

Remote teaching is not the same as online learning or distance learning.

Remote teaching is what many teachers had to resort to doing due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines. Those in the more connected world resorted to video conferencing to try to recreate what worked in classrooms.

Teachers complained that such teaching was inferior to teaching face-to-face. They probably do not realise that online teaching is not the same as online learning.

A J Juliani explained the differences as did Hodges et al at EduCause. Lisa Lane reflected on why comparisons are not legitimate and cited a review of literature by Alison Witherspoon on the efficacy of online learning.

I borrow ideas from Lane and elaborate on why complaints about online or remote teaching are misplaced. Classroom teaching is like being a train driver while online facilitation is like piloting a plane.

Moving a few hundred people on a train and a plane are similar in that both have passengers, fuel, refreshments, rules, and destinations. In educational terms, these could be equivalent to the learners, professional development, resources, standards, and outcomes respectively.

Both typically have set paths (instructional strategies), but a train travels in two dimensions while a plane operates in three dimensions. The latter is more complex. While content and pedagogical boundaries are clearer in a classroom, they can be more open online. Consider how learners have greater access to other resources online (Google, YouTube, WhatApp) than in a more regulated classroom. This makes teaching content more challenging online.

Online learners also need operate asynchronously and not see each other as much (or even at all). Navigating this lack of social presence is like flying a plane blind. An online facilitator has to learn how to create social presence or hyper develop other senses to compensate.

Juliani reflected on how much design effort goes into online learning modules. I can relate. Classroom performance might look like 10% preparation and 90% teaching. Online work is often the other way around — 90% preparation and 10% facilitation.

Teaching online is not the same as online learning. As much as teachers might have learnt from making mistakes during remote teaching, they do not have preparation to be online designers and facilitators. They might transfer some ideas and practices as classroom teachers into online environments, but that is like blindly pushing train engineers into plane cockpits and telling them to fly.

If you asked teachers and instructional designers to define blended learning, I wager most would say that it is the mixing or combination of face-to-face teaching and online learning.

There is more to blending than that — it is also about seamlessly reconstituting different content, pedagogies, strategies, technologies, and more.

The mixing should be so thorough that it might not be possible to label any particular observed process, e.g., was this coaching or content delivery, was that cooperative work or idea generation, was the content about english and mathematics?

I prefer to think of such seamless teaching and learning as a smoothie. All the ingredients are so blended that it is hard to tell what each was by looking through the glass.

All that said, a 99-part milk and 1-part banana smoothie still looks like a lot like milk. So it is possible to create a lot of noise, go through motions, and still end up with something that is technically blended but is actually relatively unchanged.

So when this CNA article reported how our Ministry of Education (MOE) will look into blending classroom practices with online learning, I gave pause.

I had questions that I wish the article answered. For example, our Minister for Education was quoted:

“Moving forward, there is a big review happening in MOE to see how we can better plan to blend the two. Not too far into the future, I think we want to do this quite soon, (we want to) blend the two so that we can harness the best of both worlds in a modern education system,” the minister said.

That is a worthy cause. But it is also a reminder that it is also possible to blend the worst of the two, e.g., isolation and being lectured to.

So what exactly counts as the “best of both worlds” and why are they considered the best?

I am not doubting that smoothie-based learning is healthy because I prescribe that every time I facilitate learning. But what is “best” often depends on context.

My second set of questions arose when I read this:

Because schools entered full home-based learning “at such a short notice”, there are still “many areas for improvement”, Mr Ong added.

So what are pitfalls MOE thinks it should avoid? What mistakes did schools make and learn from?

This might arguably be the more important of the two sets of questions I have. Since it is difficult to be sure what is best, why not focus on what has been tried but proven to be tired? Why make the same mistakes again?

For the sake of our teachers and students, I would like to see smoothie type learning that not the blending of the worst ingredients of schooling or the equivalent of 1:99 banana smoothie.

If you are a teacher who had to conduct remote teaching during lockdown, you might relate to the song featured in the video below.

Video source

I have the same reaction to those who confuse and conflate distance education and online learning with remote teaching. There are overlaps, but they are not the same things.

Recreating the face-to-face classroom in an online environment is not logical nor sustainable. It does not take into account the lack of immediacy and physicality. A teacher cannot use physical distancing to manage a class for instance. Constantly being on-call for synchronous video conferencing — student consultations, staff meetings — is draining.

Two recent articles have addressed both issues. The first was on emergency remote teaching and the second was about why Zoom meetings are tiring. The articles and my reflections offer design considerations for stepping around the pitfalls.

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

Video source

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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