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Posts Tagged ‘redesign

The last year has seen the rise of Zoom for teaching and learning. It has also seen proponents of faceless Zoom.

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Faceless Zoom is allowing students to not have their cameras on. A teacher might do this is to respect the privacy of his/her students. 

Zoom captures what happens in the students’ backgrounds. Since some students might not have conducive learning environments outside the classroom, what happens in the background could become distracting to everyone. These backgrounds also provide insights on the students’ socioeconomic statuses and these can heighten divides.

One way to mitigate this issue is for students to use artificial backgrounds or to blur their backgrounds in Zoom. However, these backgrounds interfere with movements or demonstrations on camera. Video algorithms attempt to hide anything that is not a relatively still head and shoulder, so anything that you or your students hold up will get blurred or hidden.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

This is another reason for faceless Zoom. Stanford reported four factors that could contribute to Zoom fatigue (my summary). One possible contributing factor was seeing so many faces so much of the time. The same article went into why this might be psychologically and physiologically tiring.

But I counter with this: If you are only conducting classes online where faces are optional, you might be doing it wrong. 

When are faces optional? When you do not really need them, e.g., teacher-centred and non-interrupted lectures. What is wrong with such lectures? See the image quote below.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

Zoom need not and should not be faceless. As educators, we should create the need and desire to see and work with others. 

This goes beyond the technological mitigation of replacing real backgrounds with digital ones. Such a strategy is quick and convenient — some old-school folks might call this technical savvy — but it does not address the desire to remain faceless.

Students can remain faceless in a large Zoom class or lecture. They have no incentive to show their faces because they are talked to but not listened to. They are not asked for comments, questions, or feedback. If they are, such interventions are so sporadic as to not require constant face time.

Lectures are not just teacher-centric because they focus on the one-way flow of information. They can be teacher-centric in Zoom if the teacher insists on seeing student faces just to get affirmation, e.g., nodding heads.

But even the best lecturer will subject students to Zoom fatigue of a different sort — one lecture after another. You might as well rely on a playlist YouTube videos instead. Then students can watch asynchronously at least.

We can avoid lectures and faceless Zoom with pedagogical redesign. I do not mean lesson designs that require students to show presence. This is administrative attendance taking or gamified being-there. I am about lessons that are designed for being present.

What circumstances require students to be present? Lessons that value their queries and inputs. Classes that are dominated by cooperation or collaboration. Sessions that are driven by problem-seeking, problem-solving, peer teaching, and meaningful project work.

The easiest thing to do is identifying sessions where these approaches can lead lesson design. The most difficult is changing teacher mindsets towards taking that first easy step.

I was intrigued by the video below that suggested how we might reimagine workflows and buildings post-COVID-19.

Video source

The video started with the redesign of a hospital and then moved on to a small campus and office spaces. It suggested not only more airflow but also more sustainable efforts.

The latter efforts come not just with architectural design but also with changes in workflow expectations. For example, working in-person only for creative tasks and spending more time alone on mundane or repetitive tasks.

I wonder if designers of mainstream schools are thinking of similar principles. I know of concept schools that already exist, but these tend to be the exception instead of the rule. I had the privilege of visiting one a decade ago.

Video source

Perhaps the pandemic might push us to think outside the building box and factory workflows. Perhaps.

I would wager that most institutes of higher education (IHLs) worldwide now have a semester or two of managing continuity during the pandemic.

Those in Singapore are no exception, but we have had a less challenging time. If I had to rank the reasons for this, my top pick would be how we are more compliant about wearing masks. As a result, we wait with bated (and masked) breath on when Phase 3 will start.

But we do not need to wait for government agencies to provide exact details for every rule and policy. They cannot because contexts in each IHL are different.

For example, one department in an IHL might have typical a tutorial class size of 50 while another might only average 15. The number of students is not the issue, the other contextual elements are:

  • The class of 50 might be in a room for 200 while the 15 might be in a space for 20.
  • The 50 might be indoors with unmodified air-conditioning while the 15 suffer/enjoy a humid outdoor studio.
  • One class might involve more student-centric methods (and thus more social interaction) while the other is didactic.

Context matters.

So what is an outfit that provides professional development do when challenged to run courses for future instructors/facilitators?

One agency I work with desperately jumped on Zoom but chose not to record videos of the online sessions. This meant that absentees could not watch recorded sessions as part of a make-up lesson. They had to be catered to individually and this was costly in terms of time, effort, and money.

Another agency I know locked down its methodology by converting workshop sessions to lecture groups. This reduced interactivity and modelled the wrong way of reacting to a pandemic.

Both agencies had decently long enough runways to prepare and change, but both opted not to try strategies like:

Reducing class sizes
Both agencies had tutorial class sizes of 30. This seems to be a magic administrative number that is tied to financial turnover and the physical size of existing classrooms.

How about reducing each class size to 15 instead and have two runs of each? This reduces the density of students while balancing the opposing needs of physical distancing and social interaction.

Take one agency’s classroom for example. Students sit in groups of 5 or 6 at group tables. Consider how these tables could station just 3 students with halved class sizes.

Each table in the example I gave could be equipped with Plexiglas (or equivalent) barriers so that masked students can communicate with group mates. Such tables-as-stations would allow a variety of instructional strategies such as peer teaching, think-pair (now trio)-share, jigsaw, etc.

A barrier to such a move is a failure to imagine possibilities or to consult with pedagogues. Another barrier is various costs.

The cost of barriers is a one-time financial investment. But there are other costs like paying a set of facilitators to teach more often, or recruiting more staff to teach extra sessions.

There is also the cost of time and effort to redesign content, strategies, and assessment, as well as to make revisions from inevitable hiccups or failures.

There is no avoiding such costs. The financial cost is actually easier to overcome because it is relatively easy to rationalise a temporary increase in spending. Any administrator worth their salt knows how to ethically and legally shift funds from one pot to another. The problem is that administrators might not wish or dare to do this. They would rather manage from a spreadsheet or play it safe.

The cost of redesigning and revising might be harder to justify because it is not as tangible as class sizes, grades, or cohorts. However, there is an administrative approach to enabling this — document everything. Write proposals, present research, record class sessions, collect feedback, craft after-action reports, etc.

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell

We can either withdraw from the challenge of a pandemic or rise up to it. If we do the latter, I say we do the right things the right way. And we know we are on the right path when we focus on what is best for learning and learners, not what is comfortable for administrators or instructors.

This month I focus on redesigning face-to-face modules for online facilitation. I have many ideas, but they will be guided by a few principles:

  1. simplify
  2. provide choices
  3. leverage on prior experiences

The overall design will not be to simply recreate a classroom experience online. This is not logical or feasible given how much I rely on and manipulate the social dynamic in class.

Instead, I intend to redesign for independent and asynchronous work. That design has been the mainstay of distance and online learning for decades.

This is a reflection on yesterday’s reflection about doing less but better.

I took this photo in the restroom of a London eatery in 2015. It includes an oft cited quote that “less is more”.

Quote on the mirror at Zizzi, Little Venice (London, 2015).

I studied under two notable distance and online educators. One of them liked to say this: Less is less, more is more. It was his way of saying that preparing and conducting online courses was a lot more work than people bargained for.

I agree. I experienced that myself as a designer and creator of online content and as a facilitator of online professional development and courses. The more is more principle was true whether I was operating in the USA or in Singapore.

A low estimate for how long it takes to simply convert an hour-long face-to-face session is about 20 hours. So converting one university in-person class that is three hours long might take about 60 hours of preparatory, facilitative, and follow up work.

Is this 1:20 ratio realistic? Just consider the preparatory work: Planning, re-reading existing material and/or reading new material for relevance, learning new technical skills, creating new artefacts like audio, animations, or video, etc. If you do not do this by yourself, you need to include the time invested by those you work with. The 1:20 ratio might start to look unrealistic only because you need more than 20 hours!

The ratio is just for converting a course so that it is suitable for basic online consumption. Imagine if you want to design and implement something transformative. For example, you might decide that information delivery is not sufficient for adult learners and that leveraging on their experiences matters. Simply finding out what matters to such learners is an investment of time and effort. Now factor in the design and implementation of learning experiences that require sharing, peer teaching, critiquing, etc.

So trying to redesign for simplified remote teaching — doing less but better — takes more work. But the opposite can also happen. Someone who puts in little design effort might create busy work for learners. Busy work is the equivalent of checking off tasks in chores or shopping list instead of participating in meaningful learning and reflective thinking.

The sad fact is that it is easier to do less but worse. And even if you put in a lot of effort, your rewards are not guaranteed. The tweet below illustrates that pictorially.

If there is anything we might learn from emergency remote teaching it is this: We will realise who we are, what we value, and how we respond in a crisis. Some will choose to do as little as possible to the detriment of their stakeholders. Others will put in earnest effort in redesigning and implementing emergency remote lessons, while little actually pans out as expected. Even fewer will learn from those failures or succeed at first try.

That last group will do more in their bid to do less but better or to learn from their mistakes. They are the ones we should appreciate and learn from. Will we?

I am in a committee that is redesigning the ICT course for teacher trainees here in NIE.

I dislike the word “committee” as it has a heavy administrative tone to it. I’d rather we be known as a group of concerned, informed, adaptable, and experienced group of teacher educators. Is that too much to ask? I guess “ICT curriculum committee” is just shorter.

What’s going to change? The title of the course for one, from “ICT for Engaged Learning” to “ICT for Meaningful Learning.” A single word change that I was not made aware of until just last week because adminstrators did it without my knowledge. But I have no objections because my blog posts are littered with exhortations to integrate technology so that learning is meaningful and powerful.

The assignments will change. Sort of. The group will have to toe some lines, but I hope that we will be able to design more meaningful assignments, and in the process, model the meaningful aspect ourselves!

I am taking the lead in the first of two assignments. It still has to be individually submitted and now has to reflect two key themes in the new course: self-directed learning and collaborative learning. I want to build in something that we have barely dealt with in the course and that is cyberwellness. (Who else better than the Learning Sciences and Technologies group to deal with this topic?)

As much as we tout the affordances of technology, it is not without its dark side. Granted, the technology itself is not evil and it is people that determine how it is used. ICT is a sociotechnical system and we must educate all new teachers on this aspect. They must know what to do when confronted with issues like cyberbullying, bad netiquette, undesirable Web elements, etc.

But not everyone agrees with me. So my battle begins…


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