On-Line Learning: Three questions to answer

Disclaimer: I am no on-line learning expert; indeed, I am no learning expert. In fact my teaching timetable would be described as light even by the more charitable of my colleagues.

That said I am leaping in where angels fear to tread.

Muddling through Moodle

It has been a fascinating shift from classroom to on-line learning. I am surprised by how quickly, and in many cases effectively, the educational industry has been able to make the jump from four walls to 4G.

Like the rest of my colleagues I have muddled through Moodle, suffered the indignity of recording myself (and the agony of watching it back), while Zooming between meetings all within the comfort of my own home. As evidenced from the clip below it’s been a learning curve for teachers.

Teaching from home: A learning curve for teachers

The hardest thing has been the lack of interaction with students. In a virtual world its hard to gauge engagement. Teaching a lesson is a bit like the opening night of a West End show without the audience. Worse than that, it’s playing the lead role with no supporting cast, delivering lines into the void. No matter how brilliant, without some two-way dialogue, it just falls flat.

Some psychologists I have spoken to have told me that they largely insist on a video call for on-line consultation, as opposed to purely audio. This assists them to gauge response and reaction through facial expression. Even then they say it’s just not the same as an in-person appointment. Body language, tone, and other cues that a psychologist would usually pick up on, go unnoticed. Technology is just too crude a tool for those sorts of subtleties. I think this is true for teaching too.

“Teacher-based instruction enhanced by technology is better than technology-based instruction enhanced by a teacher.”

Of course, the fact we can have the conversation about the effectiveness of technology in teaching is testament to how far we have come. If this had happened during my own school days we would have had to rely on centralised television and radio broadcasts, material delivered in the post and perhaps the odd phone call. Today, through on-line learning systems, teachers can deliver live lessons to specified classes, post material and resources for students to download, who in turn upload their work for the teacher to view. You can even get your marking done for you if you set the task up correctly, something that I will be taking full advantage of.

A new learning environment

No doubt some students (and staff) will thrive in cyber space. Despite this it seems to me that while technology is fantastic for enhancing teaching and learning in a school-based environment, it comes up short when it becomes the learning environment. Put another way, teacher-based instruction enhanced by technology is better than technology-based instruction enhanced by a teacher.

The virtual classroom is a pale imitation of the face to face instruction that a good teacher provides and the classroom dynamic that goes with it. Like trying to fill the void left by the English Premier League by playing FIFA on X-Box, great for filling the gaps but not the real thing.

“Even if teaching on-line is not as effective as traditional teaching it does not meant that it is not effective at all.”

Three questions that need answering

Nevertheless, it is what we must work with. Even if teaching on-line is not as effective as traditional teaching it does not mean that it is not effective at all. Provided we do it right. With our campuses closed how do we ensure virtual schooling is virtually as effective? The debate seems to centre around three focal points.

  1. Should learning be synchronous or asynchronous?

Synchronistic learning involves running a virtual school day, often without deviation from the timetable. A feature of this is often ‘live lessons’, where students are expected to log in simultaneously with their classmates for a real time lesson, complete with discussion and work to be completed. This is contrasted with an asynchronistic approach where tasks are set for, say the week, and resources provides by the teacher (recorded lessons, worksheets etc) for the students to work through at their own pace.

2. Do we lower or maintain expectations?

Do we maintain the same requirements as when students physically attend school, or lower expectations to take account of the complex strain students face? A combination of lock down and on-line learning creates certain demands while excessive screen time also raises issues for mental and physical health. There is debate too about the school’s role in continuing sporting, cultural and other extra mural programmes. How much commitment should schools realistically expect from their pupils at this time? What can staff manage?

3. How do we continue community?

With the absence of classroom interaction, I think we are all missing, and appreciating, the relational element of teaching (who knew). Relationships are hard when teaching is remote. The interactive nature of classrooms through active learning, discussion and collaboration is hard to replace. How do we keep each other close when learning is distant?

Coming up

Over the next few posts, I will be exploring some of these issues and trying to ascertain principles for effective on-line learning. Fortunately for you (and me) I will be relying on those with significant experience and expertise in this field so that we can make some headway through this internet imbroglio.

One comment

  1. […] Bruce Collins is the Director of Member Engagement at the International Boys’ Schools Coalition. In this post, having canvased educators from around the world, Bruce shares three principles that can guide schools in the shift to on-line learning. He also reminds us to keep people at the centre of what we do . This is the second in a series on learning on-line. Read Part 1 here. […]


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