Having entered week 7 of online learning there has been a lot of lessons learned. The constantly changing scenario has required a lot of flexibility from both staff and students as the educational world has never undertaken an online experiment of the magnitude of this. The frantic rush to find suitable learning platform and process to accommodate the needs of teachers and students began quickly but required research. Finding something that allowed teachers to set work, students to upload, teachers to feedback and students to respond, all while having a user-friendly interface took time. And patience.
In China, we have been the guinea pigs to this online experiment, so all parties have had to start from scratch and its certainly been a learning experience. None of us has ever done something like this to such a scale. I doubt many educators around the world could say they have. This is not simply a case of setting some online homework like you might do on a regular basis. The ongoing changing situation has meant that the methods used in week 1 (and the panic of how do can do this?) have evolved over time to try and ensure quality learning while maintaining some kind of work life balance. As it has continued further thought has had to be given to wellbeing of both staff and students and this too has resulted in a constantly changing landscape.
As a teacher the early weeks saw us having to deal with a range of considerations such as internet access, time zones for those working around the world and the lack of resources depending where we found ourselves when the school closure arose (we were on holidays and the school closure came out of the blue). Then came the realisation that the very problems we were having to consider were the same as those experienced by much of the student body.
Challenge and Progress
Once you get past the simple practicalities of online learning your mind moves on to the bigger questions. How much work is enough? Do you set so much work that no student could ever run out? Do you set a minimal amount ensuring everyone can be certain to complete? Is there a happy medium? The answer is (drumroll) there isn't necessarily a happy medium. Expectation of students, teachers, management and parents are going to vary greatly and that’s to be expected. Whatever you do will never satisfy 100% of the people involved, 100% of the time. Eventually you come to a realisation that that is perfectly fine. If not, you’re unlikely to survive online learning.
I am a teacher who wants a “buzzy” classroom with a lot of discussion, in fact I rely on it. Is it that I love the sound of my own voice? Maybe somewhat. But my lessons largely revolve around teasing ideas out through discussion. How do you do this with students in isolation, without interaction with their peers or teachers? This was now entering a scary unknown. In some ways it was like being a first-year teacher all over again.
The only way to do this was through feedback and clearly the effectiveness of this is limited if students don’t respond. There’s not much you can do about this. As the weeks progressed my school has progressed from the setting of online tasks, to video introductions and explanations and to live video lessons with shared screens. Each has brought with it its own challenges. You have to move pretty quickly past the what do I wear/where do I film? It’s been great to see students faces again and to interact through something other than marking and it’s made me realise how much I miss the classroom. I’ve also learnt not to hate the sound of my recorded voice and have moved on to detesting it. I hope I don’t umm and ahh as much in the classroom as I do on video.
The challenges brought by online learning have been pretty significant. Going from teaching in a classroom where everything you need is at hand, to a hotel room with nothing but a laptop, to a balcony in Thailand, to complete isolation for 14 days at home has meant a need to improvise and adapt. But this is what teachers do every day. It’s made me reflect and hopefully in some way I’m better for it. I will also never return to a place where my marking of homework isn’t done online and through voice recordings. So that’s a win. Hopefully we will all look back on this one day (maybe not with fondness) and realise we were part of the biggest educational experiment in history and all from the comfort of our sofas. And we survived.
My top 6 lessons for teachers:
DON’T BE A SLAVE TO THE SCREEN
Work-life balance is hugely important. There were days where I was beside my laptop for 15+ hours a day as I wanted to stop my inbox from piling up. And at times I was receiving 30+ emails an hour. This is unsustainable. Try to keep a regular routine.
ACCEPT THAT NOT ALL STUDENTS WERE MADE EQUAL
Like us, students are coming at this from a range of circumstances. Some will struggle, some will fly. Give consideration to this and be flexible with deadlines and expectations. In saying this there has to be a limit. I can’t now be marking work from weeks ago and I’ve been clear about this.
PLAN A VARIETY OF TASKS
Some of the best work I have received in 15 years of teaching has been during the closure when I have set tasks where I thought students needed a break from writing. I’ve had some revision videos made by students which easily surpass anything being marketed by the major educational companies. A video debate on the dropping of the atomic bomb presented in the style of world series poker is about the best thing I’ve ever received. Student creativity has blown me away.
REACH OUT TO OTHER TEACHERS
I was fortunate enough to spend some of the past 7 weeks in the company of other teachers going through the same situation. It proved a healthy outlet to vent on the frustrations as well as sharing what was working. There are currently more teachers trying to cope with this situation around the world than we could ever imagine.
SHOW STUDENTS THEIR WORK MATTERS
Not every piece of work requires detailed feedback. But it’s simply not always a case of tick and flick. The best uptake by students has been after feedback has been given or contact made with home, (both good and bad). Students will get bored of online learning but I’ve found they stay engaged the more feedback I give. Just like the classroom.
SEE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY
How many times in your life have you wished for more time to do something? We are all guilty of this. Well now you have it. There will be times that you feel you have much, much less. But as you become better accustomed to the situation it becomes easier. I promise. Ensure a reasonable amount of time every day for yourself and your family (Teacher parents I salute you).
My top 5 lessons for students:
THIS IS NOT A COMPETITION
Without all the opportunities provided in a classroom it’s easy to fall behind or struggle to maintain the workload. At times you will fall behind or struggle with something. Others might not. Just work through what you can and get in contact with teachers if there are problems.
HELP IS ONLY AN EMAIL AWAY
While you don’t want to flood your teachers email inbox with questions you could answer yourself with a bit of thought/research don’t sit feeling helpless if there is something you don’t understand. If you find an activity or feedback useful then let your teacher know or say thank you.
STAY IN TOUCH
It’s really easy to feel isolated at this time when you are starved of time with your friends or simply the world outside your four walls. Keep in contact with your friends. You’re all in this together and can help each other through any difficulties.
THERE’S MANY WAYS TO LEARN
Tired of reading textbooks? Writing essays? Find a documentary. Watch a TEDtalk. Listen to a podcast. Phone a friend. Ask a family member. There’s a whole world out there to learn from.
SEE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY
How many times in your life have you wished for more time to do something? Well now you have it. Read a book. Watch a movie. Learn how to juggle. Bake a cake. Speak to someone you haven’t spoken to recently. Write a letter to a relative (they’re isolated too). Just remember that you have to have a life away from the schoolwork and you should enjoy it despite having some limitations on how you can do that.
Written by Luke Fisher.