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The Great Onlining – What we have learned about Remote Learning

14 Apr

While questions of giving teachers and students technological access has been important, as Morrow (2007) has pointed out, the majority of students have formal access to school, but lack epistemological access – access to adequate knowledge. When schools were closed and the country went into lock-down shortly afterwards, the twin tiers of our unequal education system became terrifying visible. State schools and universities by and large went on early holiday, and little remote education was possible given the huge deficit in access to suitable devices, data or even electricity. As the lock-down continues, there seems to be little wriggle room around onlining education rather than keeping the schools closed and making up time later in the year by cancelling further holidays. On the other hand more privileged state and private schools went online, with varying degrees of success and were able to keep the school calendar intact. While there were challenges in getting devices and/or data to all teachers and students, much of the focus was on technical questions around which platforms to use to teach online rather than on access alone. This was a sine qua non. I am not convinced that all families had sufficient technological capital to cope with teaching and learning online. Parents and children often had to share devices and data. Internet connectivity was often slow and sites crashed, especially in the beginning when the large tech companies had to rapidly roll out resources to service the massive increases in demand. Many students had access to personal devices, but quickly discovered that an iPad or smart phone, while OK for completing tasks in the hybrid environment at school, were inadequate for the range of tasks expected of them when learning went online.

I honestly have no solution to the problem of giving adequate technological access to all students and teachers. This requires massive infrastructure investment by the government. While service providers have zero-rated certain educational sites, much of the country lacks the tech resources necessary to support online education and data costs are prohibitive. The teachers on the #ZAEdu twitter community have undertaken a number of initiatives to try and get zero-rated data costs on educational platforms and set up advice and assistance for teachers. Government and industry has been lobbied to take steps to enable greater access. This is vital work. But we also need to start to pivot towards thinking not just about how we get teachers and students online, but how we teach online in such a way that we can do something about reversing the trajectory towards increasing inequality. In other words we need to start moving beyond questions of formal access (to schooling, or internet infrastructure) to questions of epistemological access. If we do this right, we might be able to salvage something from the fire. It seems to me that those teachers who were able to teach remotely over this last three week period, or are starting now, have a huge role to play in terms of reflecting on effective pedagogies so that questions around the effectiveness of remote teaching and learning do not get ignored.

At the beginning of the year when teachers drew up their year plans, the assumption would very much have been that teaching would have been conducted face-to-face in the classroom. As these plans melt away, and teachers re-draw their plans, it becomes increasingly important to think very deeply about instructional design and pedagogy. If government and industry listens to teachers and starts enabling massive online access in South Africa, we as teachers need to be sure that we have figured things out so that the digital divide does not just shift from being about physical access to being about access to quality teaching online.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I use Legitimation Code Theory (LCT)  as a lens for my research, and for understanding my own pedagogic practice. The LCT research Group at Wits University, led by Prof. Lee Rusznyak, this week held an online discussion around what LCT Theory has to tell us about remote learning generally and how we should be re-tailoring our curricula in the light of the Great Onlining. I would like to share some of this thinking, because I believe it is a useful intervention in the conversation right now. Having a theoretical perspective is important because it allows for a common language and tool-set for thinking about the problem at hand. LCT is particularly powerful in this respect because it looks at knowledge and knowing itself and allows us to use a common approach to thinking about how the nature of knowledge and of knowing impacts on education at every level, and across all fields.

But before getting into theory, I would like to frame this in terms of what I see to be the problem. As an overall comment, it is obvious that remote teaching, classroom teaching and specially designed online courses are three different animals. Each of these modes of pedagogical delivery has different sets of affordances and constraints. Put simply, there are clearly things you can do online that you can’t do in a classroom, and vice versa! Understanding these affordances and constraints is something that is largely dependent upon the subject matter being taught, and the context of each situation. One cannot make sweeping claims; the devil really is in the details.

Here’s an example.

One of the hardest things for me as a teacher of computer coding in middle school, large generalist classes, has been finding a way to help students debug their code. The initial teaching transferred quite nicely online via videos of live-coding on the interface. I used screen-cast-omatic to record my screen, with an inset of my talking head in one corner. The ability of students to pause and rewind and see my screen up close may even have been more effective than the same thing in the classroom via an interactive whiteboard. But pause and rewind is not the same as being able to ask a question or hear questions from peers that you hadn’t thought of. So I also had meeting check-ins on Teams in which I was available to answer questions and share my screen in response to queries. I recorded these so that students working asynchronously could also view this form of content delivery. But accessing student code to help them de-bug it was problematic. Most of my students use iPads and find the coding itself difficult on these devices. In class they use desktops. Sharing screens is awkward in Teams and helping students debug mistakes via email or the chat stream is definitely not the same as being able to see a student’s screen and help them notice where the error lies.

On the other hand, my colleague, who teaches programming to specialist, smaller high school classes has found it relatively easy to tackle these issues. Her students all have laptops rather than iPads, and see her every day rather than once a week! She has found that screen-sharing is much easier with a handful of students and makes debugging code easier! The devil is in the detail! Context is everything. Sweeping generalisations are not really that helpful. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

What MOOCs have to tell us about remote teaching!

Massive online learning initiatives have a relatively long history now, and what they show us quite clearly, I think, is that the standard format of short videos delivering content knowledge with quizzes checking understanding works fairly well.  Lectures can be enlivened with graphics and visuals far more engaging than the normal chalkboard. Knowledge can certainly be presented comprehensibly, but possibly only if the students already have a good basic knowledge to build upon. The drop-out rate for non post-graduate students on MOOCs is massive. Modular stackable instructional design may work well if you have a knowledge base to stack upon, but may not work well for those seeking to build that base of knowledge. It seems to me that MOOCs are pretty good at extending knowledge, but not that effective at building knowledge. Those who believe that massive online content delivery to high school students can be built on expert teacher videos streamed across cell-phones are not thinking about the pedagogical work that needs to go with this. I have taken quite a few MOOCs over the years, of varying quality. To my mind what appears absolutely crucial is the digital presence of the teacher. The presence of the lecturer and/or Teaching Assistants is what really makes or breaks a MOOC. The use of online Google hangouts, social media chats or more formal check-in times allows teachers to help students navigate the content effectively. To build knowledge, students need to make connections and links between ideas, between abstractions and real-world examples, between simple building blocks and larger theoretical approaches. Students need help doing this, and unless the teacher invests a huge amount of pedagogical work in terms of being present digitally, MOOCs tend to fall short. As a general rule, though, there appears to be no reason why online delivery of content knowledge cannot be done effectively, albeit with caveats around difficulties in linking ideas.

What Classrooms have to tell us about remote teaching!

I think we also need to understand what classrooms do well, and where they fall short. Classroom interactions allow teachers to monitor students much more effectively than online platforms do. A teacher can literally see where students are engaged, and when they goof off, can monitor their progress on a task first-hand and intervene with much greater flexibility. They can not only respond to questions, but can also often sense when a student wants to ask a question, or can sense when something has not been understood. Teachers can gauge when to wait for a student response, and when to step in an answer the question, or when to rephrase it. In other words classrooms are pretty good at affording the reading of social cues, much more difficult, if not impossible online.

However, delivery of content knowledge is often compromised face-to-face by any number of factors. It is difficult for a teacher to compete with the graphic capacity of digital media, or to repeat content endlessly. There comes a point where the lesson ends, and it cannot be rewound or paused. If a teacher makes mistakes in presenting material, the moment can be lost. Videos can be more carefully scripted, rehearsed, edited or re-shot. While teachers can compensate for these mis-firings and interruptions, students often leave a class uncertain about what they have heard and no chance of a replay. There is a possible case to be made that classrooms are better at the social than the knowledge bits.

The following sections look at three key concepts within LCT. If you are feeling brave, or are familiar with LCT from previous blogs, then I would suggest reading what follows closely. If you are feeling less up to the task of difficult or new theory, I would suggest skipping the explanations and reading only the bits in italics.

What LCT has to tell us about remote learning!

I believe that the devil is always in the detail, and in the particular context, but I think it would be fair to say that the observations above about the forces at work online and in the classroom largely hold, or at least set out parameters that are useful in thinking about how to approach remote teaching. We need to recognize that the major strengths of online instruction revolve around effective delivery of content knowledge, but that social relations are severely constrained, while the major strengths of the classroom lie in affording social relations, but that content delivery may sometimes be constrained. Perhaps this is why research suggests that while classroom teaching beats online teaching, hybrid delivery equates with face-to-face in efficacy. In my normal practice I upload videos of all my lesson content which students can consult if they are absent, or if they need to: offering the best of both worlds?

LCT has a number of dimensions and each of them informs educational practice in useful ways, and I believe helps us to navigate the maze that is remote learning.

Specialization

A key concept within LCT, an approach developed by Karl Maton (2013) from the work of Pierre Bourdieu on Knowers and Basil Bernstein on Knowedge, is that of specialization, that different fields have different codes which represent what makes for legitimate knowledge in that field. Maton argues that all knowledge is made up of both knowledge (epistemic relations) and knower (social relations), but in different fields the emphasis is different.

  • In Science, for example, the knowledge is foregrounded. Who you are is relatively unimportant, having the knowledge is what legitimizes you as an expert in the field. It is a Knowledge Code.
  • In the field of English Literature, however, the rules of the game are different. What you know is far less important than having the right gaze, being the right kind of knower, having the right feel, the right eye for it makes you a legitimate knower. It is a Knower Code.
  • Relativist Codes are where neither epistemic or social relations are foregrounded, personal opinion is what counts in everyday discourse, for example.
  • Elite Codes are where both the knowledge and the ways of knowing are crucial: Music or Architecture.

From what we said about the affordances and constraints of online and classroom spaces above it would seem that different fields will experience code matches and code clashes when moving into an online space. Knowledge Code fields might find online environments offer more matches because knowledge is what is foregrounded. Knower code fields may find more obstacles because social relations are constrained. The devil will always be in the detail, and I am not saying that resourceful teachers will not be able to navigate these difficulties successfully and inventively. But they seem to me to represent underlying forces which inform online practice.

Teachers might be well-advised then when planning what to do during what might be an extended period of online teaching to take those bits of their syllabus which sit better with knowledge transmission than with knower building. An English teacher may plan to use Zoom meetings to read a text with their class, but then find half the class has not been able to get online, and the whole experience may become a nightmare. Perhaps it might be better to choose the more knowledge-heavy bits of the syllabus which can be tackled asynchronously if needs be.

Semantics

Another key concept within LCT is the dimension of semantics. The key idea here is that meaning can be analysed in terms of semantic gravity, how abstract or generalized an idea is or how concrete and contextualized an idea is and semantic density, how complex or simple an idea is. Research in LCT seems to suggest that cumulative knowledge building is predicated on movements over time between abstract and complex and concrete and simple called semantic waves. These waves could describe the course of a lesson, of a semester course plan, or a worksheet or student essay. Teachers need to make sure that these connections are being made regularly and in both directions.

For example, when a teacher explains a concept they will unpack the idea by explaining it in everyday language, giving concrete examples, using metaphors so that students can understand it. This movement between abstract and complex and concrete and simple represents what is called a down escalator. Essentially the teacher is mediating difficult concepts and helping students understand the concept by reformulating it in language and ways that are easier to understand. But cumulative knowledge building depends upon ideas being connected and understood as part of a larger whole. And upon students being able to take their raw understandings and repackage them in more academic language and understandings, in other words making up escalators.

Successful curricula describe semantic waves connecting the theoretical with the practical, the abstract with the concrete, the complex with the simple. Common semantic profiles are shown here. Often understanding remains at a theoretical level ( a high semantic flatline) or at a simple and practical level ( a low semantic flatline). Successive down escalators represents knowledge that is understood, but remains segmental, unconnected with new understandings built by students over time.

Any curriculum design would clearly aim at building semantic waves over time, connecting and consolidating knowledge, grounding theory in practice, grounding abstract ideas and concrete examples to further understanding. But online coursework may not offer affordances for this kind of cumulative knowledge building. While short videos unpacking single ideas are certainly do-able, the kind of pedagogical work necessary to sustain extensive cumulative knowledge building is heavily constrained online.

As Rusznyak has pointed out in the discussions around this held online at Wits, it may well be necessary to re-plan curriculum design to maximise the affordances of that portion of the year spent on remote teaching, and do the connecting of the semantic waves later in the year when classes resume in person. Alternatively some subjects may find it best to describe high or low semantic flatlines, and build semantic range later in class.

Since some portions of the syllabus might lend themselves better to different semantic profiles, teachers need to think carefully about how best to sequence and pace their syllabi.

Autonomy

The last dimension to be unpacked by LCT scholars has been the dimension of autonomy. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because the discussion so far has been quite dense. But essentially autonomy looks at  the extent to which practices are inside or outside a field (strong or weak positional autonomy) and the purpose to which they are put (strong or weak relational autonomy). For example, in a Science class, the class might be doing Maths (which falls outside the field of Science), but it is being turned to the purpose of doing Science. Or in a Maths class the teacher might be talking about cricket (outside Maths) but using it for the purpose of understanding a parabola (for the purpose of Maths).

Several codes are described:

  • the sovereign code – for example doing Maths for the sake of Maths
  • the exotic code – content clearly outside the syllabus for purposes that have nothing to do with the curriculum
  • the introjected code – in which non-curriculum content is turned to the purpose of doing the curriculum
  • the projected code – in which curriculum content is turned to other purposes, eg. for the world of work

LCT research has indicated that good educational practice involves tours through different codes. For example using exotic material for sovereign purposes by introjecting, or projecting sovereign content, showing how it is useful in other purposes.

A concern has been raised that as teachers race to put material online for remote instruction, material will be positioned far too much in the sovereign code. This represents an all work and no play approach which has proven the kiss of death to much of the drill-and-kill type of digital content that has been produced for educational consumption. Teachers need to make sure that their online offerings retain the same kinds of introjection and projection that they employ in their normal classrooms.

Conclusion

This blog post has presented a great deal of dense theory, but I hope that the theory has been turned to the purpose of illuminating the kinds of instructional design decisions that teachers will need to make and the kinds of things they need to be thinking of as we move from thinking about the technology of teaching, and thinking more about how our pedagogical decisions can give students greater epistemological access.

Bibliography

Maton, Karl. (2013). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education.

Morrow, W. 2007. Learning to teach in South Africa. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

 

 

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