This is the third in a series of posts on online learning in the (k-12) school sector.
The issue I want to address here is the extent to which we need to change teaching goals and hence methods when courses are moved online. This is an important question, because many teachers merely moved their classroom teaching to delivery by Zoom, while others re-thought their teaching. It also raises questions of agency and responsibility. How much freedom should teachers have in making this kind of decision? What is the responsibility of accrediting agencies such as Ministries of Education in deciding on appropriate goals and methods of teaching during a pandemic?
This is perhaps the most difficult topic in this series of posts. In general, I would argue that courses should be re-designed for online delivery, because of a number of factors:
- learners studying in relative isolation from the teacher and other students;
- the different affordances (strengths and weaknesses) of in-person and online learning;
- integrating what we know from research and best practices in online learning, and in particular creating an effective parallel online learning environment that matches or exceeds the classroom environment in terms of quality.
However, even if necessary, such radical restructuring of teaching takes time, and was not possible in the Spring. The primary goal was to ensure the semester could be completed. However, the pandemic is proving, unfortunately, not to be very short term, and is likely to last at least 18 months if not more.
I will be arguing that we should treat emergency remote learning not as a once-and-never-to-be-repeated strategy, but something we should plan for to be resilient enough to manage better a wide range of circumstances that schools, parents and children will face in the future. Indeed such a strategy could provide a somewhat parallel and additional service to regular classroom attendance that will have value even in ‘normal’ times.
In most jurisdictions in democratic societies, the state or province determines, often in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, but in particular their teachers, the overall goals and approaches to teaching, through formal curriculum documents. Teachers though are usually given a good deal of freedom in how they convert the educational goals and outcomes into practical steps. Nevertheless formal curricula can vary considerably between jurisdictions. A simplified comparison might be between the emphasis given to content acquisition and memory compared with the development of intellectual and practical skills, or emotional, social or cultural development.
As an example, the government of British Columbia revamped the whole school curriculum between 2016-2018. The goals of the revisions included ensuring students get the skills they need to succeed in a changing world, and making sure that teachers can deliver the curriculum efficiently and effectively. Space is provided in this curriculum, giving more time and flexibility for students to explore topics in depth. The curriculum is listed in detail for each group of subject disciplines, then for each grade on the government web site. The curriculum starts with broad general goals (communication/thinking/personal and social), then medium range goals for each grade level (curricular competencies, such as, in English Grade 5, comprehend and connect, create and communicate), each with sub-goals, e.g. communicate in writing, which in turn provide specific examples, such as using legible handwriting or a keyboard to convey texts.
However, as the main teachers’ union in BC, the BCTF, points out, ‘while the province mandates a curricular framework, it is the right of teachers to make pedagogical choices in response to the learning needs of students as well as specific learning and working conditions.’
My goal here is not to criticise the BC school curriculum (in fact, I support its intent of giving greater emphasis to skills development and cultural – specifically First Nations’ – issues), but to point out that while a curriculum may be specified in some detail by a government, its implementation is really in the hands of teachers. The BCTF, in a survey of teachers shortly after the implementation of the new curriculum, found that the majority (almost 80%) supported the new directions but the changes required more work, at least in the period of adjustment, more resources, and more training.
However, although the province’s curricular goals did not change as a result of emergency remote learning, the pedagogy/teaching methods underwent a radical change. The issue then is to what extent were teachers able to follow the existing goals, and should the existing goals have been modified to take account of the many other changes forced by the pandemic?
My argument is that the lessons from the earlier curriculum change are relevant to the move to emergency remote learning: increased teacher workload (at least in the short tem), the need for resources to support the teachers, and more teacher training. Also, I would add, there was a need for defining clearly the role of parents in supporting their children’s learning, and transparent, regular communication between Ministry, teachers and parents.
In the case of the BC curriculum, the goals probably do not need to be redefined. It is the delivery method that changes (the route, if you like, not the destination.) The issue then is: can you still get to the destination following the new route? I think there are some changes that need to be made because the route is different.
Pedagogy modified for online/at home learning
First, online learning lends itself better to some of the goals in the curriculum than to others, particularly with respect to communication skills. For example, if students have to study at home, emphasis could be given to the development of knowledge management: how to find, evaluate, organise, and apply information to a specific task. This would place more emphasis (depending on the grade) on the teacher setting appropriate tasks, and the students doing the searching, organising and reporting, mainly but not entirely online, with the teacher in a supporting role, rather than the teacher spending a great deal of time on presenting information.
Second, I would suggest the primary focus during home learning should be on foundation skills, such as reading, writing and mathematics. These are fundamental for later learning. A gap of a few weeks may be recoverable but we are seeing the pandemic lasting more than a year. This means ensuring students are able to keep working on foundation skills, possibly through project work, but also through other means. Indeed, online activities that enable the development of foundation skills should remain an option even when students return to in-person teaching. The more practice they can get, the better, and this allows students more opportunity to learn at their own pace.
Third, the BC curriculum document suggests that students should have more time and flexibility to explore topics in depth. This suggests providing projects that students can do at home that enable them to develop foundation skills as well as learning about a particular topic. Again, though, the topics will probably need to be different from home than they would be in school, because the resources available to them are different.
Fourth, it would be wise to take account of some of the affordances – and limitations – of online learning. Online learning is good for asynchronous learning, which works well for project work, especially if children can be linked to other students, for instance, through a learning management system discussion forum. Each student can be set a task, students work individually (asynchronously) on their tasks, then responses are shared and worked on by the group online. Synchronous technology, such as a Zoom break-out rooms for the different groups, can be used for getting agreement on tasks and on their final reports.
Lastly, it is important, especially for younger children, to limit screen time. Giving students tasks that they can do offline at home (such as reading, or collecting information, such as bird counts, for instance), and keeping down the time the teacher spends delivering information via video-conferencing, is really important to keep students motivated to learn.
These are just a few examples of adaptations that need to be made to take account not so much of students having to learn online, but of being at home for long periods. My point here is that technology offers the opportunity to do things differently than in class; the trick is to align the technology-based activities to the formal curriculum.
The importance of structure for home learners
School provides a rigid structure for learning. Students have to get up in time, they know they are committed between 9.00 and 4.00 pm, they have set times (classes) for different subjects, etc. Students also need a firm and clear structure when studying at home, but again, the structure will look different. It can’t be based on the in-school structure.
This means getting away from the ‘one hour per class’ model, or whatever the normal unit of class time is in a school. The driving organisational criterion should be estimated hours per week of study for a particular subject. To keep students engaged without a teacher breathing down their neck all the time (or even a parent), they need lots of engaging activities to do at home, but they can be given some flexibility in how or when they do these activities. Activities can include reading, writing, calculations, observing, doing home experiments. These can be both online and offline activities. If they are online activities, they should be broken down into small chunks of around 15 minutes (for younger children) to up to an hour for older students.
However, deadlines for completed work are also essential. Students should be given daily tasks and at least a weekly assessment and feedback (not necessarily graded, especially if the tasks are likely to be of intrinsic value or interest to the students.)
However, for work at home, everything needs to fit within the assumed average weekly study time, including teacher presentations, all student activities, and assessment. Learning management systems are a really useful and convenient way of organising student home study. Older students in particular enjoy the flexibility of online study – they can sleep in late and study late – but it is essential that they have deadlines and keep to them. Younger students need a more defined structure, and this is probably the most important role for a parent: ensuring that their children study at set times on a regular basis.
Communication and feedback
The research on online learning is clear: the most important factor in student success is the online ‘presence’ of the teacher. Students need to know that their teacher is following what they are doing in their online studying and are interested. There are many ways to do this. Online learning leaves a clear trace of student activity. Just a simple email or phone call, if a student is missing deadlines on a regular basis, can be enormously motivating for the student.
However, because students are not ‘there’ with teachers in class, teachers must set very clear expectations of what students need to do each week, and how that fits with the learning goals, and especially with assessment. It is important to get students to do the work. This may mean though less time spent by the teacher in presenting information and more in support and encouragement of student work. Thus online or home learning shifts the balance of a teacher’s activity as well.
The need for teacher training and appropriate resources
None of these requirements for successful online or home learning are rocket science, but they do require some significant changes for teachers, which requires some additional training. The main – and unavoidable – problem with emergency remote learning in the Spring of 2020 was that there was just no time for such training of teachers. However, 12 months into the pandemic, this is no longer a valid excuse.
In fact, the challenge of training teachers for online or home learning is far less than for post-secondary instructors. Most school teachers have qualifications and experience in pedagogy and different teaching methods. A teacher can probably get up to to least competence in online teaching within say five to ten hours of professional development (online), but that training will make a huge difference.
Furthermore, there is no need to try to update the whole teaching workforce. What is needed is a core of teachers who can switch to online learning when necessary. There should be at least one teacher in every school who knows how to teach effectively online who can support other teachers if needed.
Also it would be best in situations where some students are at home and others are in school, to have separate teachers for online learning, rather than the same teacher trying to teach in school and online at the same time. This is not a viable model in most cases, because the students in school tend to get more attention despite the best efforts of the teacher.
Similarly, every school board should have a set of basic tools readily available for online and home learning, such as a dedicated learning management system and video-conferencing system, on which all teachers are trained. In Ontario and British Columbia, there are centralised online resources, such as online guides, and online educational materials such as videos and simulations, that teachers can use.
Online learning and home learning is not going to go away. Increasingly it will be incorporated into regular school activities as well. We need then to make sure the teacher workforce is not only prepared for this, but properly supported. We don’t need to change the curriculum – or at least the goals of the curriculum – for the purposes of online learning, but we do need to ensure that the teaching methods are adapted for what is essentially a different learning environment to classroom-based teaching.
It will not be a waste to plan for a school system that can make heavy use of online learning; instead this will provide resilience and adaptability for our school systems, come what may.
Over to you
As I pointed out in my first post, I am not a specialist in school (k-12) teaching. If you are a school teacher I would really welcome your views on this issue. Do we need to change our teaching methods – or even the goals – to accommodate online or home-based learning during – or even after – the pandemic? Are my suggestions realistic? Any other views?
If so, please use the comment box at the end of this blog post – I would really like to hear from you