With half of Australia remaining in lockdown, schools are hard at work ensuring that students remain engaged in their learning.
As was the case in 2020, students, teachers and leaders are leveraging Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and a host of other software to check in with one another, give and receive feedback and maintain some semblance of normalcy in a markedly abnormal situation.
For the educators who already had a strong grasp on distance learning, 2020 and 2021 provided a unique opportunity to see how online learning works on a national scale rather than just a local one.
Peter West currently leads a Learning Technologies Team in a ‘Digital Lab’ at TAFE NSW that explores new learning technologies for a leading VET organisation. Previously, West was Director of eLearning at Queensland’s St Stephen’s College, where he helped build a robust online learning framrwork.
According to West, the schools that will thrive during remote learning are the ones that keep the ‘physicality’ and ‘personal aspects’ of the traditional classroom.
“Teachers can encourage their students to have their webcams turned on [using virtual backgrounds if necessary to hide the room the student is in]. This allows the teacher to monitor body language, facial expressions, and so on,” West told The Educator.
“Teachers can also use Q and A or similar, possibly using facial expressions as a guide, to check understanding and engagement.”
Get prepared, and be strategic
West said schools must also be strategic rather than reactive, even while having to cope in the lockdown situation.
“This requires some additional effort but is worthwhile as the resources and methodology built/ used will be valuable in the future,” he said.
“This lockdown is not a new experience. We have been there before and will probably see similar in the future. Get prepared. The swine flu epidemic in 2010 was my ‘wake-up call’ and the efforts over the following years allowed my school to cope well with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
West says schools must also move away from ‘emergency remote teaching’ to modernising the teaching paradigm.
“Build your course, complete with all learning resources, sequencing and explanation in your LMS or OLE [online learning environment]. That way you are building something that can be easily accessed and reused year after year.”
West says educators must be careful to distinguish authentic flipped/blended learning from rushed activities, such as simply reading a document, completing a worksheet or watching a video before class.
“Take some time to learn from the experts. Some people prepared this path long before the pandemic and then had to make only small modifications to deal with lockdowns,” he explained.
West pointed to Jon Bergman, one of the pioneers of flipped learning, who says 2021 and the years following will be marked as a time period that fundamentally changed how teaching happens.
Would you enjoy your class?
A growing body of research has spoken to the importance of educators thinking and planning from the student perspective, so areas of improvement around student engagement can be better identified.
According to West, many discipline problems in tech-enhanced classroom stem from simply putting laptops and a few online resources into a traditional teaching paradigm.
“When a rich activity-based learning ecosystem is built, along with the appropriate changes in the teaching paradigm, students can be more active and engaged, and can learn in a meaningful way,” West said.
“This results in fewer discipline problems as students always have high-quality, personal learning paths to follow”.
As such, says West, teachers must ask themselves how they would feel if they were a student in their own classroom.
“Would you be engaged? Would you be involved?”
Active learning vs passive learning
West said active learning is a key ingredient in keeping students switched on during remote learning, as students tend to tune out when teachers talk too much.
“Teachers should reduce the amount of talking they do to only a part of the lesson and include activities for students to do, such as responders, polls, activities, and so on,” he said.
“Have students model answers and then share their screen to explain. Basically, get students involved.”
West said teachers can use a shared whiteboard or call students to answer questions.
“In a physical Maths classroom, I had students work a solution on the board. Do the same here,” he said.
“Include engaging activities and variety as compared to lots of text documents and ‘watch this video’ experience.”
West said there are many interactive activities available online that teachers can leverage.
“It takes some time to find what is appropriate, but it is time well spent,” he said.
“Students enjoy having their teacher involved, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes it is better if it isn’t.”
West said narrating PowerPoint presentations can also be helpful.
“Make screen recordings with narrated explanation. Create tutorials similar to those on the Khan academy,” he said.
“They are quick and easy once the initial learning curve is mastered.”