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Posts Tagged ‘online

Like some educators, I have been facilitating lessons exclusively online for the last two years because of the current pandemic. Unlike my fellows, I have experience during my graduate student years and the last seven consulting years of teaching online. 

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One classroom practice is getting a sense of one’s students. The collective persona they possess can make or break a teaching-learning relationship.

Even though most teachers would prefer going back to face-to-face classrooms, I see the value of online ones. One plus of an online-only class is how more immediately I can get a sense of who my students are even without the social immediacy of meeting face-to-face.

One of my standard practices is sending my students an online poll one or two weeks before our first session. Whatever the course I facilitate, I collect some basic demographics, learner experiences, and learner expectations. This is part of my getting-to-know-you process.

Another part of sensing my learners is how quickly they respond. I am already quite impressed by my incoming batch of students. I sent a poll out in the wee hours of Monday morning. By lunch time of the same day, just over a third of the class had already responded. This is a good sign!

The sensing does not end there. They still need to complete their asynchronous work and respond to my feedback. We still need to video conference during our synchronous sessions. A few will invariably stay back to chat.

But this fact remains: I get a head start in sensing who my learners are before we meet. I get to know them not just in the normal face-to-face way. I gain insights online that I would unlikely get if I relied on the normal way of doing things.

If ever there was an article that focused on the OR argument instead of AND, this might be it.

Grocery shopping, going to school, or meeting new people used to exclusively be face-to-face (FTF) events. We now have the option to do these online. But this does not mean we abandon one for the other based on nostalgia. We need to be more rational than that.

We need to recognise that while FTF grocery shopping gives you the opportunity to feel and choose what you buy, it also exposes you to crowds. FTF school is great for immediacy, but that does not necessarily favour a more reflective or shy student.

Going to work in an office does not guarantee that you are more productive nor does it ensure that team members actually get on. Taking a course online does not necessarily nurture a more disciplined or independent student.

Writing about FTF versus online and espousing the former while only focusing on the negatives of the latter is irresponsible. It ignores how some customers benefit from getting groceries online, e.g., they might not be mobile or they could be ill. Likewise, declaring that schooling is defined by a building ignores different teacher abilities and how diverse learners learn.

Arguing that FTF grocery shopping or FTF schooling is always better is not just living in the past and whitewashing what was negative about that. It is also ignoring context — what is needed, what is available, what is prudent, what is wise.

We need to rise above the OR narrative. We need to focus on AND in contexts we have now. We need to stop romanticising FTF practices because they are familiar or comfortable. If we do not change, we miss the opportunities to learn what lies on the other side of AND. 

There is a long-standing argument that has been pushed to the front during the current pandemic: Should schools and universities conduct classes face-to-face (FTF) vs or go online (e.g., home-based learning or HBL)?

It is simplistic to just focus on the mode of teaching and learning, and then take one side or the other. A lesson can be simultaneously both, e.g., teachers and students can be in classroom using online tools. To avoid either label, someone called that blended. 

Neither mode is necessarily better than the other in every possible context. Both can share the same weaknesses, e.g., teacher talk can dominate in a FTF and an online classroom, and this can stifle student voice and choice. 

Being FTF provides immediacy, but this might also push slow reflection out the window. Being online requires greater discipline and independence, but this is not optimal for those that need more guidance or those with special needs.

A FTF classroom might favour the socially dominant or comfortable. An online classroom might enable social wallflowers to bloom. So what logic is there to first define classrooms like this and then choose between the two or force one mode to operate like the other?

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FTF vs online is a false dichotomy because they are facets of a complex object we call teaching and learning. You can try to force other facets into either FTF or online, but you will find elements that fit both, e.g., teacher talk, learner indifference.

The actual dichotomy is an inflexible vs a flexible mindset. The former seeks neat but lazy concepts. The latter embraces nuance and stays open to critical ideas.

A flexible and logical mind can see how being FTF and online operate in the same single reality we call modern teaching and learning. It is not an argument of one or the other. It is about leveraging on both.

I could not have said this any better, so I am sharing what a fellow educator said about the pointless dichotomy of in-person vs online lessons.

The misplaced argument misses the larger point — the design of lessons and how they are facilitated. The debate also distracts from an opportunity to rethink what online teaching entails.

Teaching online might not look like you are teaching IN-PERSON, you are still teaching A PERSON. Very likely a lot of persons. And by this I do not mean mass lectures.

No, teaching online is reaching learners where they are and taking advantage of the contexts they are in. This means courses that are not only pedagogically sound, but also driven by empathy. And that starts with learning to teach a person.

One critical practice of facilitating online learning is monitoring learners and learning. If online facilitators do not know where their students are, how are they supposed to meet them there?

I use Padlet and Google Docs as staples. Both provide me with alerts so that I can take actions if necessary.

Screenshot of Padlet banner alerts in macOS.

In the case of Padlet, I get pop-up banner alerts in the macOS Notification Centre (see image above). This is because I have given Google Chrome permission to monitor Padlet updates and send me alerts.

In the case of Google Docs, I refrain from getting alerts every time someone accesses or edits their document. There would be too many notifications I went this way. 

Screenshot of Google Docs list in GDrive. The "last modified" dates indicate if students have opened and edited their assigned documents.

Instead, I visit the folder which holds the documents of individuals or groups, and I look for changes to the “last modified” date/time. The arrows in the screenshot above indicate students whose documents have not been opened by them. This is how I know who has attempted the assigned work.

Both these forms of coarse monitoring give me a sense of the effort that my students are putting into their work. In a normal classroom, I can gauge this by observing them. I can also do the same during a synchronous online session.

But these online tools allow me to monitor behaviours outside a ‘live’ session. It might help to think of this as knowing who is doing their homework or who is putting in the effort to learn. Such monitoring is not oppressive to my students nor does it take a disproportionate amount of effort from me. What is not good about that?

This tweet and its embedded article gave me reason to revisit my pivot.

It offered some reasons why schools should reopen for kids to resume in person classes. Among them were:

  • School closures had “significant” impact on “skills attainment and earning prospects…  physical and mental health” (no evidence, just statement of presumed fact)
  • Access to online learning is uneven (true in many SE Asian contexts, less so here)
  • There were “increases in anxiety, depression and self-harm” and “increased loneliness, difficulty concentrating” and “poor eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns” and “increased the risk of domestic violence” and “more screen time has exacerbated the risks of online harm” (again all stated as evidence without giving any)

In short, this was a list that the Pessimists Archive would have a field day with. It included tired reasons for reopening in-person schools and vilifying online education.

There is just one thing I fully agree with about this tweeted headline. Online learning is no substitute, but not for the reasons spelt out in the op piece.

Online education is not yet a common substitute because it is: 

  • called upon mostly in emergencies like a fire extinguisher would
  • relegated to the exception instead of integrated as part of a norm
  • held to the standards of what is possible or desirable in-person instead of evaluated on its own merits

I am not saying that schools should not reopen when they can. They should because they serve critical societal and economic functions. And since I work mostly from home, I would like my wife (a teacher) and my son to give me my work space back. 😉

I am saying that we should not vilify online education when you have not given it a chance to bloom, cross fertilise, and create newer and better versions of itself. This is, after all, what we did with schooling. 

Video source

This video on student “hacks” and tips on doing assignments, homework, and online learning will upset some teachers the wrong way and other teachers the right way.

The wrong way to get upset is to be defensive about current teaching practices and to push against what some students are already doing.

The right way to get upset is to reflect on our collective practices and to adapt to what is possible. This is not a war between teacher and learners. It is an opportunity for teachers to learn from their students. 

There were are two news reports released at the end of 2020 about the impact of edtech in Singapore schooling in 2021. I focus on one today.

It is important to read all of both articles. It is also important to highlight segments that might need scrutiny instead of glossing them over.

From the CNA article:

HBL (home-based learning) days will also be less structured than a typical day in school to allow students to exercise initiative in learning. Students who require closer supervision and those who lack a home environment conducive for learning, or need access to certain school facilities may return to school on HBL…

If the intent of HBL is to get students to develop “mindsets and habits for self-directed learning”, then call it that instead of HBL since self-directed learning can take place anywhere. Confusing it with what happens at home (or what should happen there but cannot) makes HBL a misnomer. Independent and self-directed learning can take place anywhere. It is not place dependent.

Mine is not an argument about semantics. Yes, the words we use hold meaning — we need to say what we mean and mean what we say. But consider how “HBL” or “independent” might be questioned when practiced. If a child is supposed to participate in HBL but goes to school instead, why call it home-based? If the activities designed by teachers are over-scaffolded or the students are not empowered with choice, how is it independent?

The article also reports conflates HBL with blended learning. Most teachers seem to understand this as combining face-to-face and online teaching. Do they also know that blending should include the seamless integration of content areas and learning (not just teaching) strategies? More of my distillations of blended learning are listed here.

Do not get me wrong. I like the fact that COVID lockdowns have pushed us to make more independent and online learning a habit or even a norm. According to the report, this will:

… account for about 10 per cent of curriculum time at secondary schools and up to 20 per cent at junior colleges and Millennia Institute… This translates to around once a fortnight across terms, excluding examination periods.

I fear the repeating of mistakes from the past when numbers like 10% and 20% of curricula or curricula time were used to determine what e-learning materials should be created from conventional materials. This was an issue we failed miserably with in the late 90s and early noughts because we built up repositories but not changes in pedagogies or expectations.

All that said, I am glad that the MOE is ensuring that:

All secondary school students will own a personal learning device by the end of 2021, under the National Digital Literacy Programme…. This will be rolled out in two phases, with 86 schools receiving the devices by Term 2 of 2021 in the first phase, and 66 schools receiving the devices by Term 3 in the second phase…

But having a personal learning device without a suitably fast and reliable Internet connection is like having a car without fuel. Neither student nor driver is going anywhere. Thankfully, a strategy similar to the one used in lockdown will be employed again, namely:

The ministry is also working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to provide subsidised broadband access for students from lower-income households…

Even with the car and fuel, a driver needs to operate the vehicle responsibly. We have driving school and road rules to shape this mindset and skillset. I am sure that schools will do the equivalent for online learning. But I wonder just how heavy handed the regulations will be:

To ensure that the devices are an “enabler for learning” rather than a distraction, device management applications will be installed in each device to “provide a safe and more regulated digital environment”…

To suggest any specifics now is speculation. But users of most work or school-provided devices might know the pains of locked down devices. While this is understandable in a few circumstances, e.g., security or secret work, this is not always a good blanket rule.

There are several schools that take a different route. They require students to purchase their own devices and teach them how to use them responsibly. The lock down is not an administrative or technical one. It is a continuous lesson in personal responsibility.

I am glad that our new Minister for Education and the MOE are taking the locked down schooling experiments in their stride. I hope that administrators and teachers do not respond with a locked down mentality. This is a wonderful opportunity to free our collective pedagogy from the shackles of the past. If we want independent learners, we need independent thinking adults as well.

 
The best bit of this article might have been left for last. People still conflate (and confuse) modality with pedagogy.

To quote the article: “…online learning is often accused of being passive, and face-to-face learning is described as being dynamic. However, large, lecture-based, on-campus courses can also be passive, and small, online seminar courses can be dynamic and engaging”.

Much depends on the pedagogical design and implementation of each modality. The author advised readers to consider flexible learning, flipped learning, and inquiry-based learning (IBL) from a pedagogical point of view instead of a modal one. She dedicated a paragraph on the brief history of each approach.

My critiques: Having researched and practiced them, I found the flipped and inquiry approaches lacking in detail.

  • The “flipped learning” description focused on the early iterations of flipping classroom practice (where things happen) instead of actually flipping the learning (who does what).
  • The IBL paragraph did not explore its roots in science education and the thinking that drives it, i.e., learning-to-be and learning-about.

That said, I found the brief review on open pedagogy, open educational practices, OER, and the like useful. There is just as much confusion about what these as the previous issues on modality.

I liked that the author avoided defending one term over another and instead stuck to basic principles: Define every term you use so that others understand you. This is not about sounding high and mighty. It is about basic communication.

 
Today I continue with my notes on yesterday’s article.

The other half of the article started with a rather optimistic “shifts from old-fashioned binary thinking” of face-to-face vs online. IMHO, reality bites hard and people still operate by that binary, e.g., face-to-face is better.

Thankfully, it focused on more nuanced terms like emergency remote teaching (my reflection) as something that resulted from an urgent situation (COVID-19 lockdowns) and unprepared teachers (low digital literacy). This distinction is important — emergency remote teaching is not the same as online learning which had decades of practice and research to back it up.

The author then returned to redefining “online learning”. She used three previously described design elements — modality, pedagogy, and course access — as defining blocks of online learning.

Building on an example she cited, a more precise description of an “online” course might read:

  • Modality: A synchronous, video-enabled seminars…
  • Pedagogy: …based on existing lecture series…
  • Access: … available only by registration on XYZ learning management system.

The author warned of vague terms like online, blended, and hybrid. These should raise alarms in anyone reading these in course descriptions because these terms can immediately be followed with the question “What do you mean by…?” (I would add a few more equally vague but commonly used terms like interactive, engage, and lifelong.)

Before focusing on pedagogy, the author reminded the reader of the importance of shared meanings. If we use the same terms but mean different things, we risk creating misunderstandings professionally as researchers and practitioners.

I save the focus on pedagogy in my next reflection.


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