The Future of Online Learning
Gavin Dudeney - Director of Technology - TCE
Gavin is Director of Technology for TheConsultants-E, working in online training and consultancy in EdTech. You can find out more about him here: https://www.theconsultants-e.com/director-gavin-dudeney/
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“Teach online? Oh no, I could never do that. It’s just not the same as being in the room with everyone.”
Until very recently this was a phrase I’d heard more times than I could count, right through my twenty-five years of helping teachers to use technology. Because although using technology in class and for homework has become quite normal over the past few years, the last barricade has failed to fall and resistance to online teaching has remained as high – generally speaking – as it always has been. At least in my experience.
And yet, only six short weeks ago, I found myself commenting ruefully on Facebook that Covid-19 had had a bigger impact on online teaching in two weeks than I had managed to have in seventeen years of trying to persuade teachers to at least take a closer look at it. But it still seems to me, after eight weeks of lockdown, that what is actually happening in most parts of the education world is not so much online teaching, but online crisis control or disaster mitigation, and many teachers are caught in a limbo into which they have been cast, mostly, by administrators and governments who simply want to be seen to be ‘doing something’. It is painfully obvious to most of us that the great majority of teachers worldwide were unprepared for this move, untrained, unsupported and alone – suddenly locked down at home with their laptops and their mobiles. Quite literally left to their own devices.
For the first few weeks my social media feeds were full of worried, stressed teachers trying to work out how to use Zoom, how to actually reach their students. And these same teachers were often being criticised by long-term advocates of technology in education for their unsophisticated approach to the crisis. “You can’t just do what you usually do. Online teaching is much more complicated than that. It’s different.” And I didn’t think this “I told you so” attitude was contributing overly to what was already a highly charged situation globally. It prompted me to write my most liked, shared and commented-on Facebook post ever (https://bit.ly/2LsflaJ), in which I agreed that online teaching was a different beast, but that teachers should concentrate, for the time being, on simply being with their students in a very challenging time:
“Teachers are being told that they can’t just do it – there are experts who work in this field. It’s not the same as teaching face-to-face. You can’t just do what you’ve always done. But, see… the thing is, you can (at least for the moment), and you probably actually should. Because your students need a teacher at the moment, not someone carrying out hurried experiments.”
Now is not the time to be widening our repertoire of tools and approaches, now is the time to simply teach – and I’ve seen some great examples of that in the past few weeks – teachers using their living room walls as whiteboards, teachers taking their students virtually into their kitchens to do a cooking class live (huge hat tip to Nicola Field of International House Toruń for this activity – read more here: https://bit.ly/2X8wonV) and countless other examples. Teachers have stepped up, embraced the challenge and got on with what they do best – helping people communicate. We’re at an interesting point in the process now – most teachers have discovered that you can, in fact, teach languages online. Some people have grown to love what they’re doing, some merely tolerate it, but we are where we are (as they say in the media) and now is the time to think about where we’re going. In that same Facebook post, I added the following to my ‘just get teaching’ exhortation:
“Online teaching IS different, and in time you may well want to do a course or get some more skills. And these may make you a better online teacher for as long as it’s needed. With some training you’ll acquire new skills and work out how to combine asynchronous tools with synchronous tools, how to plan an online course, how to moderate an online course, how to support and mentor people online.”
And it is true – a few Zoom classes do not make for a rounded online learning experience, and, as we head towards the summer break (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), we may have some time to think about the future and how we are going to deal with it. I should point out, at this stage, that I come at language education largely from a private language school (PLS) standpoint, and have little experience of the state sector, so much of what follows will be most relevant to my sector, though some of the over-arching strategies pertain to state education, too.
At the moment we are all, perhaps, waiting for a vaccine. This would be the single most useful innovation, and one which would allow us, at least theoretically, to ‘get back to normal’ in what we do. We know, however, that such a development is extremely unlikely in this calendar year, and that we are faced with the uncertainty of infection throughout this period.
For physical teaching, then, there are a variety of challenges – reduced class sizes with social distancing are merely the starting point. Even assuming schools could operate financially on, say, 30% occupancy, they have to get students there (travel restrictions), get them into class (obligatory quarantine on arrival), keep them safe, provide socially-distanced routes into and out of school and class, provide safe catering, safe host families and a whole raft of other things which, at least on paper, look to be both insurmountable and not at all feasible for the bottom line. Some of these factors will not affect PLSs operating with local clients in many countries, but for those operating in markets such as the UK, etc., even getting students into the country may be a challenge too far for the foreseeable future. These centres may need to explore longer term options, some of which may include improving their online offer, devising courses which allow for a restricted number of people in the physical class combined with others online, moving to a more premium model which allows for smaller class sizes, or others. Like most other people in the profession currently, I don’t have a magic wand for this. Or a crystal ball.
State schools, by contrast, will probably be obliged to take back their students as quickly as possible, and many of these challenges will be out of the hands of school leaders and teachers. Even here, though, the immediate future is not overly appealing. See this famous (at least at time of writing) photo of a school playground in France as one example of how stressful this may turn out to be: https://bit.ly/3fR9REG .
Our future, at the moment, is beset with obstacles and challenges, but we are over the panic that ensued when teachers were told to go home on Friday and not come back on Monday and “just teach all your classes on Zoom” and now is the time to plan for a future which, almost certainly, will see us in a similar situation at some point. If Covid-19 does go away, or is vanquished, it is not unreasonable to expect similar pandemics to present as we continue to disrupt the delicate ecosystem that is our planet. The difference next time is that we can be better prepared.
So, what do we do? I think the first thing to note is that you don’t make a well-rounded online course simply by offering live sessions in Zoom, however amazing and inventive those sessions may be. A good course will also involve an element of asynchronous (i.e. not in real time) instruction based in a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle (https://bit.ly/2LsSRq4) or Edmodo or any other platform which supports asynchronous activity.
A platform gives teachers a place to structure a course, a place to hang elements of the course, a space to allow for more considered discussion and reflection, and a place to measure and assess learning and progress (these last two are on the minds of many teachers currently teaching live in Zoom). A platform takes the place of a physical classroom – it’s where you store and mould and structure things so that they make sense to both teachers and learners.
A series of Zoom sessions is difficult to perceive as a ‘rounded whole’. Learners may enjoy them but they may also find them disconnected and disjointed in terms of measuring their progress through a syllabus or curriculum. They may not be able to accurately perceive why things are being done, and what they mean for them in the bigger picture. A good online course needs structure, and that structure can serve to provide a learning continuum: do this in the VLE before we meet, then we’ll get together and do this, and afterwards you can go back to the platform to do this. People will try to sell you ‘Blended Learning’ or the ‘Flipped Classroom’ but these are simply obfuscatory terms designed to confuse and induce panic. Key things teachers need to know are the following:
- How do I structure an online course?
- How do I moderate an online course?
- How do I use a platform successfully?
- How do I manage live online classes?
At TCE, my business partner Nicky and I have been inundated with requests in the past three months. Many of them have been for short-term fixes (“can you help my teachers use Zoom?”), but some of them – notably larger chains of schools or loose-knit collectives – are thinking bigger and more long-term and are arranging for their teachers to get this kind of training: training in online course design, training in e-Moderation, training in managing live online classes, and more. I think they’re wise to do so, because even when Covid-19 goes away, we’ll still be open to similar disruptions in the future, and those schools and organisations who can switch their operations as quickly and efficiently as possible, will be the ones that survive.