Saturday, July 11, 2020

Looking at Online Learning

Yes, I am back! I had envisioned that I was going to take a long respite from blogging, because I did not feel the need to blog anymore and just wanted to take a break from it all. Looks like I only lasted a month. Now that there is a huge national debate raging about schools re-opening for the fall, and with many school districts giving parents the choice for their children to attend school either in-person or online, suddenly, I want to blog again and to add my voice to this debate, using my Instructional Technology knowledge and degree. I am only speaking for myself in this post and not for the online learning community as a whole. 

One of the main arguments which I am hearing for schools re-opening in person is that both parents and students had a negative experience with online learning when schools closed. And to be honest, what else can I do but to agree and to congratulate them on their remarkable perception, because most likely, they are correct: Parents and students did have a negative experience with online learning. However, the blame should not be on online learning per se, i.e., online learning in and of itself is not bad. Rather we should focus on the fact that most teachers have never received any type of training related to remote learning. As an Instructional Technologist, I will say that teaching online requires a completely different set of skills and knowledge than teaching face-to-face in the classroom. When schools had to abruptly switch to digital learning, most districts were caught off guard. Although many districts had learning management systems (LMS) set in place, teachers never anticipated the necessity to implement them as their primary means of instruction. To be honest, I had only really used my district's LMS for housing CI stories for students to review prior to exams and for the occasional snow day lesson. So when suddenly faced with having to deliver instruction solely in a digital manner, most teachers simply took their face-to-face lesson plans and set them in an online environment, as if a 1:1 complement existed (which it is not at all). This is not to say that teachers were not doing the best they could in the situation - I was definitely thrown off by it all, even with a degree in the field and being a doctoral student in Instructional Technology! In addition, toss in the fact that many districts did not set up clear grading guidelines or student accountability, an uncertainty for how long this digital teaching would occur, and a lack of technology access for students. It is no surprise to me at all that many parents and students do not have a positive view of online learning.

So some terms to define, since many districts are tossing them around, and the terms can be confusing or be misused:
  • Blended-learning - This is a mix of face-to-face and online instruction. The idea is that half of a student's instruction comes from physical in-person classroom time, while the other half is delivered in a digital environment. The flipped classroom is an example of blended-learning curriculum. If you teach in a traditional classroom and have a LMS, this is how on paper a curriculum should be delivered, but most likely, teachers still implement 90% of their instruction face-to-face, with the LMS serving solely as a supplement or storehouse for past class notes or activities. 
  • Online/remote/virtual/digital learning - This refers to a 100% online delivery of instruction. A student's curriculum occurs solely in a digital environment, where "face-to-face" instruction occurs in a variety of ways: screencasts, YouTube instructional videos, Khan Academy, Zoom meetings, Google Meet, Microsoft Team, Blackboard, etc. One of the major benefits of online learning is that it allows for a learning environment no longer bound by physical space or time, i.e., students do not have to adhere to a specific meeting space at a specific time. Within prescribed deadlines, students can learn at their own pace according to their own schedule. As a result, online learning is not meant to have daily assignments but rather a list of prescribed tasks and assignments to be completed by X time.
When schools closed suddenly, immediately teachers had to switch to a 100% online delivery of instruction overnight. The biggest problem with it was that teachers had never been trained properly in how to teach online, and most were struggling to keep their head above water with it all. Many schools (mostly private) required students to continue their daily schedules as before except in an online environment such as Zoom, so these teachers were able to continue face-to-face instruction. On the other hand, since I teach in a public high school which is not 1:1 but rather BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), I did not feel comfortable setting up face-to-face sessions, primarily because I had no guarantee that all of my students even had access to technology or home Wi-Fi. 

As we see COVID-19 numbers spike dramatically in almost 3/4 of the country and as many district are having to consider 100% online learning again, if we wish for our students to learn in the best way which we can offer digitally, then I propose the following:
  • Districts need to provide educators with proper professional development in online learning. Just as there are learning theories for the classroom, learning theories exist for digital environments. Educators must understand how to best to address the learning needs for all students, which includes instructional technology learning theory and instructional design theory. As an online graduate student, I will admit that there have a number of courses which I have taken that have been quite boring. At the same time, there are other courses which I absolutely enjoyed and had an incredibly positive learning experience. In my opinion, the difference was due to the professors and how they had designed the courses. In the same way, provide educators with the correct tools and information for how to design an online environment backed by proper learning theory. 
  • Districts need to provide the necessary technology for all students who need it so that they can take part in online learning. 
  • Districts need to provide take-home hotspots for families who do not have Wi-Fi at home. Pre-COVID, a large number of students relied on school Wi-Fi and other Wi-Fi hotspots in the community to complete their assignments, but during the shelter-in-place ordinance, these students lost their sole access to Wi-Fi. Districts should also consider mobile hotspots on school buses, such as Kajeet SmartBus, and park them throughout the community for students. Once we return face-to-face instruction, then students can continue to use the school bus Wi-Fi during their transportation to and from school.
Let me finish by saying that there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction. During the shelter-in-place, I greatly missed my students and interacting with them. I missed the relationships and getting the opportunity to teach them in person. As language teachers, so much of student learning is dependent on student interaction with the language and with you as its deliverer. However, in this current COVID time, until there is a vaccine, safety of my students and my own self-preservation are my primary concerns. Therefore, if necessary to go 100% digital learning again, we need to be prepared and armed with knowledge which will help our students best learn in an online environment. We need to make the best of this situation and to adapt as we can. 

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