I recently completed an online course about teaching online. It was designed for teachers around the world who now find their schools shut down and their students forced to stay home. It was aimed at helping equip teachers with the skills to move their teaching online and provide some form of continuity for their students.
My organisation, W.TEC, finds itself in very much the same situation, with our having to move our technology classes and workshops online. This is something that we have thought about for a while, but never been able to embark on as a large percentage of our students lack access to digital devices and the Internet. Without these two critical components, online learning is but a dream.
For those students who are able to get online, access to the necessary infrastructure alone does not guarantee success.
From the How to Teach Online course, some things jumped out at me. The first was thinking through how to balance the synchronous (live) and asynchronous (offline) learning activities.
When we consider the reality of our students’ lives, notably where access to the Internet and Internet-enabled devices are concerned, it’s clear that the inability to connect to live online events will shut out a large percentage of the students. This is true even in countries that have faster and more ubiquitous Internet and certainly more pressing when we consider many developing nations.
Then we need to think about the physical spaces the students are in. Do they have quiet spaces to study? With access to a comfortable desk and chair? Or are they studying in bed or a room filled with people? Is their home a safe space or do the students live in an environment of mental and physical violence? The truth is, especially when working with and teaching younger people — many of whom might be from socio-economically backgrounds — the technology is far from the first consideration in what makes a successful online learning experience. As teachers and curriculum developers, the primary focus must be on understanding the students’ respective contexts first.
I had the opportunity to share examples of my own teaching activities and forms of assessment and receive comments on it. The experiences and best practices reinforced that there is no one way to teach and nowhere is this more true than online. You need to do what works for your students.
Ideally you should use tools that pose a low barrier to entry for your students, particularly now that they are all in their homes and you have no say over what devices they are using. You can be more ambitious within the school setting if your institution is well-resourced. If you are going to use new tools, you need to introduce them beforehand and give your students ample time to practice.
Don’t try to teach too much. Aim to teach a fewer number of things than you would in a physical setting (perhaps this a good rule of thumb to follow anyway). That way, your students can get a bit more depth in the topic. All the best to my fellow educators as we proceed with the new normal.
To summarise my key learnings, let me re-cap:
- The inability to connect to live (synchronous) online learning events — such as webinars, online classes — will shut out a large percentage of the students.
- Consider the physical spaces the students are in at the moment to see if they are physically and emotionally safe spaces for the students.
- There is no one way to teach. You need to do what works for your students.
- Use tools that pose a low barrier to entry for your students and be willing to provide plenty of support.
- Don’t try to teach too much. Aim to teach fewer concepts so that your students can get a bit more depth in the topic.