The past few weeks have been rather difficult as a teacher in Hong Kong. Next week will be the third week in a row I will have been teaching remotely as students stay at home during the Coronavirus outbreak. I have thought carefully about the strategies that work and do not work in this situation and I think I have developed a system that is working somewhat well at the moment (although I would prefer to go back to face to face teaching!). Here are some observations I have worked into three main principles guiding my approach;

Communication and Community First, Materials Second

The first principle I have found is the most important. The default approach for this kind of situation seems to be to fall back on methods of delivering materials to students. Most commonly this seems to be utilising Google Classroom. Having this as the foremost consideration in remote teaching is, I feel, guaranteed to lead to disengaged and demotivated students. Google Classroom, notwithstanding the privacy issues associated with Google as a company, is primarily a method of disseminating materials and documents. While it is certainly the case that you can have some communication through the platform, it seems to really be just posting comments under Posts in the stream.

This has led to a situation that has been highlighted very firmly by the parent body at school whereby teachers are simply posting large amounts of materials onto classroom and leaving it at that. This has meant that large numbers of students simply feel overwhelmed by the workload. While it is the case that some, in an attempt to ensure that all students have enough work to do, have posted far more tasks than they normally would expect a student to complete in a session, I wonder if the feelings of being overwhelmed might be exacerbated by the lack of communication and contact endemic to this approach.

Additionally, in an attempt to bridge the communication gap, Google Meet has been pushed as an appropriate teaching tool. For me this does not go far enough to fix the fundamental communication problem with young students and remote learning. By its nature it encourages lecturing - if everyone has their microphones enabled it is almost impossible to hear the speaker. Thus, inevitably students are muted and teachers talk. It’s hard enough to get students to verbally contribute in a class discussion, are they really likely to be brave enough to unmute a microphone and verbally interrupt? I think not.

It may be suggested that the chat function is a replacement, but I don’t think this is viable. Posting in public chat on a platform like Google Meet has two issues;

  1. The session is, by design, ephemeral. Why would you type anything significant if the session is going to be deleted in an hour anyway?
  2. It is public! In reality we want students to be able to teach and coach each other. Public chat gives no privacy to ask questions you don’t want the rest of the class knowing you wish to ask.

I have had many colleagues blame students for a lack of engagement in their online lessons…I wonder if they have considered these points.

Thus, I am of the opinion that communication platforms need to be the first thing to be considered in remote learning. Just like when a good teacher sets ground rules and engages in routine at the start of a year with a new class, a culture needs to be created in the virtual classroom. My advice for any teacher looking to better support online elearning is;

  1. Use communication tools which allow enduring, not ephemeral text chat. Ideally, the same system can be used for communication outside of direct lesson time so that email isn’t used. Overflowing email inboxes are a terrible method of communication!
  2. Teachers must pause often and encourage students to unmute microphones to contribute. Don’t lecture!
  3. Try to use software that allows breakout rooms where students can chat without a teacher present.

Lastly, and most importantly;

  1. Integrate your mechanisms of distributing learning materials into the communication platform, not the other way around.

Personally I have had great success setting up a Discord server for my classes. I am able to make different virtual breakout rooms on the fly for students, the voice functions are great and, importantly, many of my students were already using the tool! The learning curve is, thus, far less steep. I would also recommend BigBlueButton - an open source elearning platform with the ability to screencast, have a collaborative whiteboard, breakout rooms and more. It’s self-hostable if you have a beefy server, but the free demo is awesome and has served me fine so far.

I know that Zoom has also been taken up by lots of different institutions and has some really great features. While the video and audio quality is impressive, I dislike the fact it is propriety software and would always prefer an open source solution. Additionally, I would not use it younger students as the interface is designed for feature rich video-conferencing rather than ease of use. If it works for other people, great. I’m less enthusiastic. The rush to convenient solutions has, for me, created unseen issues I’ll discuss later.

Have a consistent “Home” to legitimise the work

I read a great article at considering the balance between innovation and standardisation and felt it relevant to education. The need to be innovative is clear when it comes to moving your curricula to remote learning. However, I have seen possibly too much innovation and a lack of standardisation is leaving some students confused. It’s great that teachers are exploring new tools to aid their practice and keep learning interesting, but a lack of standardisation is ensuring that some students just get burned out and disengaged.

I have often sat with trainee teachers I was mentoring And asked about how they are legitimising the work that students are doing. Frankly, if a student feels a task is not legitimately serving their needs (be it getting a particular grade or imbuing them with knowledge and skills they consider useful) there is little chance they will meaningfully engage with it. Consider your school bag when you were a teenager. While my books were usually in reasonable condition, any sheets of paper given to me without express instructions to stick them into my book were hastily shoved into my bag at the end of the lesson. These sheets would usually spend the next few weeks being mashed into a pulp by the other things in my bag until I threw them away. What a complete waste of time. The act of organising and placing work in a central location legitimises that work. The same is the case online.

Thus, if you are using a huge variety of websites and services with students, I wonder how you are organising this? Do students have a central place they collect this work? An online virtual exercise book? Again, Google Classroom is not going to work - students may be able to submit their work, but the interface is geared at the class, not them. Having a personal online space to organise work is essential to legitimising it for students. There has to be some sense of standardisation.

This leads on to my last, more ideologically driven observation…

More proprietary tools is not better teaching!

Despite often holding fairly liberal views, teachers are a fairly conservative bunch. As a group they definitely do not not seem to like large amounts of change! The sudden cancellation of schools this month has thrown a metaphorical cat amongst the pigeons for some, particularly those who are not confident in their own abilities with technology. I feel the endless stream of oddly-named software is probably quite intimidating to many. It gives the impression that innovative teaching is simply using a huge range of online services.

In this environment, I wonder if there has been a rush towards services that are seen as convenient. In this rush, no consideration of user privacy has been made, despite the fact that a large number of these services collect large amounts of user data. I feel that this is hugely unethical, particularly when you don’t necessarily give someone a choice but to use these services. I cynically suspect that Google is doing rather well out of the Coronavirus outbreak given the rush to use its services.

I don’t really have a solution to this, it really is just an observation. I would personally prefer fewer features on a tool if it could guarantee freedom from data collection and feeding corporate entities like Google my user data. However, education still seems to be in thrall with the function of a tool with little consideration of the implications of its use. Perhaps this will change in time- certainly the last few years has seen greater interest in free and open source, privacy respecting technology.

This virus outbreak has scared the absolute hell out of me at times, but I have found the challenge of moving my practice into a purely online realm a great distraction from the fear. I have seen responses from students which have blown me away, and some students whom barely said a word in class have been transformed by allowing a new method of engaging and communicating with me and the class.

That said, I rather hope this blows over soon as I miss the routine of getting up in the morning and heading to work. One thing I really don’t think can be replaced is the comfort of being in physical proximity to other people.