At the end of the first full week of teaching online it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on what has been a whirl-wind ten days or so! About two weeks ago we met as a staff and were told to prepare ourselves for the possibility of teaching online during any possible closure of the schools because of the corona-virus pandemic. Over the weekend it became obvious that schools would in fact be closing, and in the event we had just two days to prepare ourselves. Now I am an IT teacher and was kept very busy trying to help staff learn new skills, very rapidly. My school was using Microsoft Teams, but not all teachers had set up classrooms yet, so that was the first task. My colleague, who teaches IT to Matric bore the brunt of this first onslaught because Teams is her responsibility, but very quickly we had teachers finding out how to record video lessons, set up assignments in Teams, use Flipgrid or EdPuzzle, record meetings in Teams, use Zoom … the list of demands was endless. I’m not sure I remember much of those two days, except the feeling of exhaustion. It was almost a relief when the school closed. I realized then I hadn’t thought much about my own classes!
I have been using Teams in my normal teaching as a place where students could find resources, download files, submit assignments and watch videos of lesson content. I have found it useful to record short five minutes videos of the work that I cover in class so that students can review it at their leisure, or catch up on missed work if they are absent. When teaching coding I like to start each lesson, or punctuate a lesson with a “live coding” session where we go over possible approaches to a problem, and I can introduce programming concepts such as variables, loops, or functions. So, as luck would have it, I had very few videos to prepare from scratch. I am currently teaching mobile app design on the MIT App Inventor platform with my grade 9s and web design using HTML & CSS with my grade 8s.
I was worried about how it would go, because so much of my time in the classroom is spent walking around helping students, and I knew that many of my students do struggle with managing digital work. It seems to me that the law of thirds operates here. About a third of students are very capable following digital instructions and using my video flipped content to work independently. About a third cope quite well, but they do need to hear instructions and ask questions about what they are doing face to face, although they are happy enough with whole class instruction. The last third needs individual instruction to be able to cope.
I knew that about a third of my students would cope well – bandwidth and data willing! I also knew that another third would probably be able to get buy with a lot of hand-holding! What really concerned me was that group that needs one-on-one help even face-to-face.
I was also concerned about how much work to expect students to be able to do. The school had decided to follow the normal timetable to keep a sense of routine. I knew that this might become problematic so I left instructions on Teams and sent out an email for the week, setting out expectations. I told students I would be online during timetabled lessons to answer questions and hold check-in meetings, but all the instruction had been posted in videos, and they could do the work at any time they found convenient. Very much a Flipped Classroom model.
So, with some trepidation, on the first morning I logged on at 7:30 am and within a few moments a few students joined the meeting in Teams and asked a few questions. Half an hour later a handful of the girls had finished the assignment ( a short tutorial on mobile app design using a bit of block-coding). By the end of the hour more students had submitted the assignment, but many had submitted work that had been due before the close of school. I had answered a handful of queries, mainly procedural, and marked all the work submitted. I don’t even know if more than a third had actually logged onto Teams that first morning. Over the next few days I got more submissions of the work asynchronously and more queries on Teams or via email. I had started to get into the second third, the ones who need hand-holding! A week later the missing third does not even appear to have logged onto Teams.
I know that in many cases families are not able to support the levels of data required, and there are probably many private tales of squabbling over the family laptop or desperate attempts to top up data caps. Or even families without adequate devices or connectivity. I also know that my colleagues have been piling work on the students. We have had anxious letters from parents telling us this. I know that their computer skills work will be one of the first to be sacrificed to Maths or English homework, but I am really concerned that the missing third is truly missing during this period. It is the same group of students who need constant individual attention in class, who are simply not able to get that attention online.
As teachers we desperately need to examine what is pedagogically different about online teaching and learning. We cannot just expect to port our normal methodologies online and carry on as if nothing has changed.
So my big take-away from the first 10 days is that now most teachers are fairly comfortable with the technology necessary for teaching online, that we need to start zeroing in on the pedagogy, and in particular the problem of how to teach inclusively when the technology itself is necessarily something of a barrier.
Lower Technological Barriers to Inclusion
There is not an awful lot we can do about the problem of lack of technology access in many households. We have supplied dongles with data to our bursary students, but I know of even very well-off families struggling for a variety of reasons. But we can make sure that we set the technological barriers as low as possible. As an IT teacher this is difficult for me, but I have made sure that they don’t need specific software downloads, that we use only browser-based platforms. Many staff are using as much paper-based work as possible. Some staff are using email rather than flashy video-lessons, and I’m sure students are extremely grateful for that. Just because a platform has bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you have to use them!
Establish your Digital Presence
However, I believe that central to the success of any online pedagogy is the question of online presence. Being able to talk to the teacher, check-in and ask a question, have queries answered on the spot, is all crucial to students. But, unlike a classroom, where a teacher can be present even for students who are zoning out, what do you do about students who do not log on to the platform, or who ignore emails? In a sense there is not much to do beyond contacting those students directly and trying to draw them then, much as one does in class. But if they are ignoring emails? Some teachers have set up whatsapp groups for their classes, and this might be the best way of ensuring digital presence by using a platform used by the students more widely than official school platforms. No doubt Tik-Tok would do the trick!
Create Back Channels
Apart from trying to lower the technological barriers to inclusion and promoting your digital presence – being there for students, I think one of the most crucial differences between offline and online teaching is the absence of social cohesion online. I think it is important to try to promote social cohesion and collaboration. If students feel isolated and alone, they may simply give up. Many will be communicating with each other in back-channels, but some will not be, and establishing back channels for your class is vital. I tried to do this by having check-in meetings during my allotted timetable slots, during which students could log on at the same time and see and talk to each other. That was my plan, but so few have logged in at the same time that this has not really worked. I know other teachers have had better success with this sort of thing. Coding is fairly individualistic, but I do plan to try to establish a share ideas check-in to try to get students talking to each other about the work!
As the week draws to a close, I have to say online teaching is really exhausting!