Online Learning 2.0

New South Wales teachers have just finished the most unusual term of their careers, with no face-to-face contact with students at all (other than the children of essential workers, and a few other stragglers). This time, at least, we were somewhat prepared, given the brief online learning period of 2020 and the advice from colleagues in Victoria (and overseas) who had experienced more lengthy lockdowns during the past couple of years.

Below are some personal reflections on my term of online teaching, and the lessons it has offered me for the future. The comments below are, admittedly, more applicable to high school than primary school level.

Needless to say a great deal is lost by not having students present. Although observation of the students was possible via laptop cameras, I quickly decided that for students of high-school age, it was better to offer them the option of turning their cameras off. This was in contrast to the policy of many of my colleagues, but I felt that during a period of their lives which would be full of strain and frustration in any event, a measure of privacy within their own homes would be welcome and might actually aid engagement with the lesson rather than working against it.

Of course, given such a decision, it was essential for me to ensure that students were present throughout, and this is where cold-calling – such a crucial part of a teacher’s arsenal at any time – was indispensable. One thing that I found was that mostly, those students who tend to freeze up in cold-call situations were much more amenable to the practice during online learning, because of the possibility of replying in (Zoom) chat. And the whole topic of chat deserves a longer discussion.

In brief, it was a godsend to me and I suspect it was the same for the students. There is, of course, the issue of the chat potentially becoming cluttered with off-topic trivia, if not outright socialising or even bullying. But with a few simple-but-firm instructions initially, I feel this is not an insuperable problem. (I realise, though, that my selective students are not typical, so I would be interested to hear the experiences of others in this regard.)

One excellent feature of chat was that less confident or gregarious students were often willing to ask pertinent questions which they may not have asked in a classroom situation. In addition to this, I was often able to answer these questions quickly and without ado, and the danger of losing time by being dragged off topic was reduced because – a vital point – there was not the usual pregnant wait while the student painfully formulated a question; it simply appeared in chat, was dealt with, and the lesson went on. (I found an odd model for my chat interactions in the charismatic Russian chess grandmaster Peter Svidler, whose legendary “banter blitz” sessions feature him taking on all-comers while tossing off affable and witty replies to the various questions he receives in chat. But I digress.)

So much for chat. What about the synchronous/asynchronous issue?

My school’s general policy was to have one lengthy Zoom session with each class per week, and sufficient work and feedback provided via Google Classroom at other times. This suited me (and, I think, my students) quite well, but of course such a relatively laid-back policy suits some subjects better than others – I did not envy teachers of Music, Visual Arts, PE or Drama during the lockdown. Again, the message was hammered home to me that without the speech suprasegmentals that all teachers subconsciously use – the “stress and pause” – instructions provided online need to be exceptionally clear and unambiguous if students are not to waste their time.

I should add that we were strongly encouraged during these Zoom sessions to check in on the students’ mental health, and this was a worthy aim, but there is always a thin line between friendly concern and prying. I tried to strike a reasonable balance here.

Lastly, I think it should be obvious enough that some schools, and teachers, managed to deal with online learning somewhat better than others, and that there would have been some inconsistency in the quality of online education on offer. But sadly, some teachers have evinced quite visceral reactions to this relatively innocuous claim. As a profession, we should always be willing to undergo a bit of self-examination during a period of unusual or unexpected challenges. Ultimately, if specific criticism is not personal and is taken in the right spirit, the children will benefit.

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