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Posts Tagged ‘online

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I am already thinking about how I might start and end a workshop on the design of online learning. The workshop is months down the road.

I might use the portion of the clip above that features Gromit (of Wallace and Gromit fame) frantically laying train tracks as he needed them.

Why use this clip?

I sense that teachers do not plan as far ahead or with enough depth when they are tasked to conduct online lessons. Gromit’s tracks are like readymade resources prepared by someone else and their use is reactionary. This leads to failed or unpleasant experiences for both them and their students. 

For online learning to be effective, one design practice is to prepare well in advance. Such preparation is about preempting and preventing instead of reacting and firefighting. Roughly speaking, the preparation to implementation time might follow a 90:10 rule, i.e., 90% preparation, 10% implementation. 

Most teachers are probably not used to doing this. They might prefer to put their 90% into live instruction instead. However, doing this is an attempt to force a face-to-face practice into an online context.

The switch in environment necessitates change because the affordances and expectations are different. Not changing is like a human refusing to learn how to breathe under water with new tools and techniques. That person would likely drown. 

In the space of about a week, I read two reflections that challenged the narrative of “online = bad, face to face = good”.

The first was a tweet thread by Tim Fawns:

Fawn’s main points seemed to be:

  • It is not logical or possible to compare “face-to-face learning” and “online learning” because each is not just one method, environment, or resource.
  • Even if you compare just one method, e.g., online lectures and in-person lectures, or online group work vs face-to-face group work, how well each approach worked would depend on a host of other factors such as “how well each approach was done, how well it suited students, how well students engaged with it, relationships between teachers & student, infrastructure & support for each approach, surrounding circumstances, what else students did”.
  • The either/or argument is counterproductive. Students already do both, both teachers and students have strategies that work well for them, and much of teaching and learning is already blended in terms of environments and methods.
  • Labelling all online learning as bad probably stems from a bad experience, but this does not make all online learning bad. One rotten apple does not mean that all other apples are bad.

The second resource — good online learning – group work — was from Martin Weller. Citing previous research and practice, Weller stated that there are “well established model(s) to help you construct online interaction in a way that is different from face to face”.

Specifically, he suggested Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework (see condensed version of four categories of activities and five media forms here) and Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage e-moderating model.

Then he summed up what research has uncovered on online learning and group work. In plain speak, he suggested that we:

  • Clearly differentiate synchronous vs asynchronous activities
  • Include a lot more time for activities to be conducted and completed
  • Engage in careful design when planning, and provide detailed instructions and guidance when facilitating 
  • Take advantage of pre-existing learner expectations and behaviours about operating online
  • Establish social connections early in an online course: It is the glue that holds people together
  • Leverage on asynchronous work to not just provide flexibility of time for all but also reassurance for the socially awkward
  • Monitor and deal with behaviours that are counterproductive to online learning and cooperation
  • Not simply transfer face-to-face group work designs to online experiences without redesign or greater support

Rising above, these two gents provided precursors for a masterclass on the design of online learning experiences. I have a Masters and Ph.D. for studies relevant in this field and have taught online since 2001. But I am still learning how to do this. So I appreciate the pearls of wisdom they threw online. Oink!

This tweet thread and the ensuing conversation needs to be a blog post.

Distilling the wisdom from the tweets, effective online design and implementation could result from:

  • Sufficient time to practice (≈ two years)
  • The intrinsic desire to improve by learning from successes and failures
  • Getting academic qualifications for instructional design (ID) of online courses
  • Providing online facilitators with the resources they need (not what administrators or vendors want them to use)

The two-year tinkering and improving period sounds reasonable if the online educator is new to teaching. After all, we would not expect a beginning classroom teacher be exemplary from the start.

Getting a Masters in ID (mentioned in one conversation) might be too much to ask of faculty who already have their research, service, and content focus. But I do not think that it is unreasonable for leaders to enable professional development opportunities so that their teaching staff are better at facilitating learning online.

The final bullet point is about support from management and leadership. Instead of planning with spreadsheets and increasing class sizes, they could find out what teaching staff actually need.

I argue that they do not need clunky LMS designed by programmers and bean counters. The Apples and Googles of the world listen to and work with educators, and provide simple and intuitive tools, e.g., Google Sites, Google Classroom.

The point is not to reward vendors for feature bloat or pedagogical incompetence. Listen to your educators and partner with those who also listen to them.

Don’t paint online learning as bad and with the brush you used when you were a student and there was no pandemic. Try the broad strategies outlined above and then evaluate the quality of your online courses.

This critique by Martin Weller on why “education secretaries hate online learning” does not apply only to politicians. Other stakeholders like administrators, teachers, and parents can be just as misguided.

Weller offered possible reasons for why these folk might portray “online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse”. Among them are these gems.

There is…

Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latindiscipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

Combined with…

Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.

Take any complex phenomenon, try to reduce it to a soundbite by combining anecdotal generalisation and wilful ignorance, and you get oversimplification and a standstill.

The oversimplification is that online learning is cheaper because it is more efficient and lazy because you do not have to show up in a classroom or because you can reuse resources.

The design, development, evaluation, and revision of online learning experiences is not cheaper than face-to-face. Factor in the time and effort to create a short YouTube video that is not just a talking head. Heck, consider what it even takes to make a talking head video good with proper script writing, camera work, sound, lighting, backgrounding, illustrating, editing, etc.!

Now consider how online learning might comprise asynchronous tasks. This could mean that learners do not Zoom or otherwise meet ‘live’ by other means like text chat or audio exchange. This is an intentional design element to take advantage of self-managed and dispersed individual time (over shared and limited classroom time) as well as reflective and investigative space (over immediate  or superficial talk). How is this lazy?

If a policymaker has only seen teaching from the student side of the desk, s/he cannot possibly empathise with what a teacher experiences. If a teacher has not designed lessons specifically with online affordances and limitations before, or not been given professional development to teach online, they cannot make comparisons or put online learning down.

To move forward, we need to learn from the pandemic pivot to online teaching and learning. Both successful and failed attempts offer lessons and ideas for education as a whole. We lose if stakeholders make uninformed judgements and throw away the gem in their hands only because it was not polished.

The statistics claimed in this tweet and embedded video are stark. They seemed to indicate that there has been an acceptance of remote work (colloquially known as work from home or WFH here). The video interview also illustrated how much better WFH was.

Much of my work has been remote since going independent in 2014. I have been open with its pluses AND minuses. The video anecdote in the tweet only highlighted the best case of multiple revenue streams, flexible and efficient hours, and lifestyle alignment.

The tweeted narrative is selective because large swings grab eyeballs more than nuanced views. The statistic and anecdote provide an important story element, but it does not tell the whole story. A tweeted story does not have to, of course, but this stance misrepresents WFH.

That said, the statistic was remarkable (assuming it was accurate). It showed how an external pressure like the current pandemic pushes the levers of change. What might start as a necessity and evolved to be independent and effective work might eventually be adopted by employers as a norm.

Sadly, the same might not be said about online learning in school and universities. Why? I would argue that stakeholders still conflate emergency remote teaching with online learning. The tweet below highlights a general distinction between the two.

Emergency remote teaching is often a rushed and desperate attempt to recreate a physical classroom experience online. Well-designed online learning, on the other hand, factors in limitations and affordances of reduced social presence.

Neither the second tweet nor my short reflection tells the story of effective online learning. But every educator who has tried something online has a paragraph or chapter worth sharing. For example, I have shared my design plans with, use of, and reflections on Zoom.

These are stories of lessons from failures and successes during the pandemic pivot. The stories are worth telling not just because they are instructive, they also provide a counter narrative to the sensational swings presented by those making judgements from the outside.

Ugly Christmas lights.

I took this snapshot of the Xmas lights that the residential committee (RC) installed in my housing area. I am guessing that they engaged the same vendor who was responsible for ugly lunar new year lights earlier this year. 

Both the RC and the lighting provider seem to believe that more colours is better. More is not always better. The riot of colours is an eyesore. To make matters worse, the housing estate across the road also seems to have been inspired by my estate’s RC. They might be competing for an unofficial Ugliest Christmas Decorations contest. 

More is also not better when designing learning experiences. This is an approach that applies to lessons face-to-face and fully online. “More” complicates things. “More” confuses learners. “More” can overwhelm. Allow this Christmas grinch to offer an old present: KISS, or keep it simple, stupid.

Only better is better. We get better by not repeating emergency remote teaching mistakes. We become better when we design from a place of empathy, critical reflection, and informed pedagogy.

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. 

Photo by u5468 u5eb7 on

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?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

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.


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