Week 1 of Distance Learning

video conference

photo: Getty Images

We are in a time of rapid education reform. Australian schools have in recent weeks been planning for and beginning to enact distance learning. I reflected on Tuesday after Day 1 of my school’s move to distance learning, and over the last few days I’ve reflected further as I’ve led, taught and listened to the responses of students, teachers and parents from across the school.

Below are my Week 1 takeaways.

Less is more

This week, our teachers have been working incredibly hard. They have been putting in extremely long hours to make this ‘pivot’ work. They have been preparing content and front loading teaching before the school day begins, as our Distance Learning Plan notes that the day’s work needs to be to students by 8.30am on the morning of a particular lesson, so students can plan their work for the day. Teachers are responding to individual emails, messages and requests from students and parents. What they have achieved individually and collectively is nothing less than extraordinary, and the gratitude from the school community for their hard work has been resounding. However, teacher workload in a distance learning model is an issue we need to consider. ‘Less’ is better for teachers.

Students have been engaging positively and openly with the distance learning model, but some have felt inundated with communication and set work over these first days. The pace of learning from home can be slower than learning that happens at school, the delivery different, and the need for disciplined student work habits greater. Some students have been feeling overwhelmed. ‘Less’ is better for students.

As we continue to evolve in our distance learning provision, we need to think carefully about the desired learning outcomes, what is really important, and what is possible and desirable in the current climate of global crisis. We need to be realistic about the hours teachers have in the school day to provide teaching materials, learning opportunities and feedback; and the ways that learning happens in a home environment, when many students are learning independently and with less support than they have in the school classroom.

One thing we are considering is what a lesson’s worth of work might look like. A lesson at school includes transition time between lessons, roll call and packing up, as well as probably some teacher-directed instruction and some student working time. How might we use this to guide what we provide and expect of students, giving students time between lessons to stand, move, be active, do chores and catch up with each other in non-classroom spaces and ways.

‘Less is more’ will become even more important as teachers increasingly work from home, with all the complexities of family environments.

Let’s make sure that students, parents and teachers are all able to be human beings at this time, not human doings. Teaching material shouldn’t be about keeping students busy, or glued to their screens, but about continuing their education, wellbeing and connectedness in these uncertain circumstances.

Testing and tracking

Similarly, we need to consider the purpose of assessment and feedback, and how these can best work in a distance learning environment. We can think about this from the point of view of what is possible for teachers to enact, and what is useful for student learning.

How might we use our professional judgement to rethink, redesign or reschedule assessments? How might we use technologies to give meaningful feedback? Video conferencing, OneNote, and online rubrics through platforms such as Schoolbox and SEQTA, are some tools that teachers can use to  provide online, continuous feedback.

At my school, we are not taking lesson-by-lesson attendance, but we are tracking student engagement in learning by asking students to ‘like’ posts in Teams, seeing who joins class or small group video meetings, student work in OneNote class notebooks, and checking in on students who don’t appear to be engaging.

Humanising distance learning

In this time of physical distance, our students and staff are keen for a sense of connectedness. We’re finding that video and audio are humanising distance learning for our students. This includes live video and audio meetings with groups of students, pre-recorded screen casts, and PowerPoints with audio or video.

Seeing teachers’ and peers’ faces and hearing their voices can help to bridge the isolation we all feel, and bring some of the connectivity and relationality missing when we are teaching and learning remotely.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

Planning for distance learning in the event of school closure – COVID-19

Source: @bzak on pixabay

School closures have yet to happen in my Australian city of Perth, but in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at a K-12 school with over 1700 students, I have been involved in planning for what we will do in the event of a closure due to COVID-19.

This article by Tomas Pueyo shows why social distancing is so important for flattening the curve of how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community. School closures are part of the social distancing manoeuvre.

In this post I share some of my thinking around what schools might consider in the face of a school closure, in the hope that it contributes to the global conversation or is helpful to others.

‘Distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’, rather than ‘online learning’

Effective and meaningful learning can take many forms. Walking through classrooms in any school will reveal that teaching and learning is diverse. Learning environments vary. Technologies are leveraged in a variety of ways. Across the teaching of a course, learning will look different, as teachers move through the explicit instruction of content, facilitating of robust discussion, questioning, one-on-one feedback, small group tutorials and a multitude of other pedagogies.

Learning remotely, or at a distance from school, can also happen in many ways. While technology plays an important part in distance learning, it is not the only tool and it is not always the most appropriate platform for student learning. Learning at a distance from school does not mean being constantly online, staring at a screen for six hours each day.

Consider all stakeholders

In planning for distance learning, we can be clear about:

  • What teachers will (and will not) provide;
  • How students might engage in their learning; and
  • How parents can support their children’s learning during a school closure situation.

Teachers can and should continue to provide appropriate communication, materials, learning activities, teaching resources and feedback to students.

School closure can be an opportunity for students to develop independent work habits as autonomous learners, but prolonged school closures may result in students struggling to maintain motivation and complete set work. This is a good guide for senior students on how to be effective remote learners. Students can also be encouraged to incorporate physical activity and mindfulness into their day.

Parents can help their children to establish a routine, for instance by using the normal school day as a guide. They can help to establish an appropriate space where children can do their learning at home (quiet, comfortable, resources, and without distractions such as smartphones). The age and independence of the child will determine how much checking in or assistance they need with their learning.

Learning tools and strategies that are ‘fit for purpose’

There is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects with varying needs. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialised equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practicals), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to design learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar. Teachers should be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of content and learning activities, utilising tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

A blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times). This edublogger post provides a useful outline and ideas for structuring distance learning.

Some schools during closures have been running identical timetables in which students and teachers ‘arrive’ at online spaces for each class, in its regularly scheduled time. This synchronous approach is one way to go, but it may mean students spending large amounts of time at a computer screen, and teachers giving lessons in didactic, one-dimensional ways.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

There are great video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, and effective collaborative spaces in various Learning Management Systems (such as SEQTA, Schoolbox, Canvas and Blackboard). The Office 365 suite offers opportunities for feedback, collaboration and communication, such as through Class OneNote, Teams and Seesaw.

‘Flipping’ the classroom through video content that can be re-watched by students and later used for revision is one option. For younger year groups, spelling words, handwriting books, mathematics games and exercises, physical activity challenges, inquiry projects and learning apps can be communicated home, with recommendations for how the day can be spent, in order for children to continue their learning.

Consider infrastructure and equity

Designing a distance learning plan means thinking through the required hardware, software and training of staff and students. It also means considering equity and access. Schools will vary by the demographic and by existing technology resources and practices.

Do students have their own devices and power supply for home use? Do they have access to paper, stationary, and a printer? Do students and staff have sufficient internet access and bandwidth at home for the planned learning? Are the intended technology tools accessible remotely via a web browser or a Cloud-based app?

Some schools are running trial mornings before the event of a closure to test technologies and systems.

Communication is queen

Proactive, regular communication is key in uncertain times. This goes for government officials as well as for school and system leaders.

It may not be ‘business as usual’, but we can let our students, staff and families know that planning is in hand, and keep them informed with updates about what is happening and how they might be affected.

Consider wellbeing

Social distancing means isolation from others. It may mean being away not only from the relational spaces of schools, but from friends and family, and from places like gyms, cafes and sporting clubs that are a part of normal routine.

School closure can add pressure to parents and workload to teachers. It can lead to students feeling anxious, perhaps especially those who are in their final year of schooling, preparing for examinations.

In these situations, we all do our best with the emotional, cognitive, financial, technological and physical resources available. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to think about teaching and learning a little differently, to see how we might be efficient and innovative by necessity.

We can be kind to ourselves and each other, and support each other with optimism, care and togetherness, even at a distance.

Digital Pedagogy

source: pixabay.com

I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.