How to Teach Online, Part 2

As I was writing the first part of this, I got to the section on keeping instruction brief and realized I wasn’t doing a very good job of that. So we took a little break.

14264443808_8e851ed817_wWe were talking about how all schools are probably going to be blended to some extent. We need to easily be able to move back and forth between online learning and face to face learning. I shared some ideas about emphasizing a caring relationship with the students, establishing norms for your class, using asynchronous modes when possible, leveraging the content that’s already out there, and keeping instruction short and varied. Now, let’s get to the rest of the list.

In an information-abundant society, education is about more than just imparting knowledge. Our students already have access to all of the knowledge. The important part is how they can analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge to solve new problems. Chances are, you use some sort of taxonomy to describe this. Bloom’s Taxonomy is pretty common. So is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. And there are a half dozen alternatives if neither of those works for you. The point is that we want to aim at higher-order thinking skills when designing learning experiences. We differentiate to meet students’ needs by adjusting the rigor. That is, if we aim for the strategic thinking (Webb) / Analyze (Bloom) level, we can adjust downward for students who are struggling (skill/concept or understand/apply). For students who need extension, we can elevate to extended thinking or evaluate/create. All students are learning the same content, but they’re interacting with it and applying it at different levels.

This approach also side-steps one of the huge problems with online learning: you can’t measure recall. In a face-to-face classroom, you can set up an artificial environment of information scarcity. Put your phones away. Put your books on the floor under your desks. We’re going to take a quiz, so I can measure the content you remember. In an online environment, you can’t keep students from cheating on assessments like this. Even if you put a bunch of tech controls in place to lock them into a testing app, they have another device at their fingertips and can just Google the answers. At best, you can use these kinds of quizzes as formative assessments, but if there are any consequences to performing poorly, the students will quickly figure out how to game the system.

PBL has been around in a number of incarnations for a long time. I’m going to over-simplify it by saying this: the student creates something that demonstrates learning. Maybe it’s a presentation or a video or a web site. Maybe it’s just an essay or report or poem. It might be collaborative. It doesn’t have to be. It might be public, or not. It might not be digital at all. But it is something that shows that the student has developed an understanding of the concepts of the unit, and that they’ve been able to compare, assess, analyze, apply, organize, investigate, or critique it. Some of the best projects use an iterative process, where other students (or the teacher) provide feedback on the projects and the students go back and revise them. The point is that the project itself demonstrates the learning; the deliverable IS the assessment. No end-of-unit test is needed. It’s much harder for the student to cheat. And hopefully, it’s a project they’re interested in and motivated to work on.

On the computer I’m using right now, there are three different ways to create a spreadsheet. There are three different tools for starting a video conference. I have access to four different personal calendars. There are lots of ways to do everything.

You need to pick one. Hopefully, you’ve already talked with your colleagues, and you’ve settled on some standards for your school. If you haven’t, you need to do that. Can we all agree that we’re going to use Zoom? It’s not the perfect tool for everything, but it works reasonably well and in the name of consistency, that’s what we’re going to use. Let’s all agree that we’re going to put our assignments in Google Classroom. I know you like Schoology. I know you still have all of your content in Moodle. But Google Classroom is the platform we’re using, and we need everyone to get on board. The actual tool doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re all using the same one in our school.

Our students are overwhelmed. Our parents are overwhelmed. They need a common ecosystem. They need predictable places where they can find things. They need a finite set of tools to navigate. As teachers, we need to bear the burden of discomfort, so our families don’t have to.

This also helps tremendously from a professional development standpoint. This is how you do a screen capture. Watch this video. Install this add-on. That’s it. We don’t have time to debate the relative merits of half a dozen different products. We have more important things to do. Use the one we’ve all agreed on, and move on.

Back in the olden days, when 2020 was a fresh new year and COVID-19 was a global news footnote from halfway around the world, we were talking about limiting screen time. It’s not good to have students on their devices for hours at a time at school, and then send them home to do more online work in the evenings. We need some balance. They need to get outside. They need to be more active.

That’s all still true. In the moment of crisis, we stopped worrying so much about screen time. But it’s okay to have students actually do non-digital work. They can read real books. They can draw. They can do things outside. They might be able to bake or paint or sew or dig. Offline can be more difficult. Students may not have access to the same resources. They definitely don’t have a consistent level of parent involvement, support, and supervision. But if we can think of relevant ways they can learn new things without their screens, we should take advantage of that.

Assume for a minute that your classes next year are going to be entirely online. You’re never going to see your students face to face. Remote learning is the new normal. How do you react? Other than looking for a new job, what is your approach? You organize your class in the learning management system. You put together instructional resources and activities that students can complete online or at home. You structure the class to check in with students on a regular basis. Maybe you do some of the things I’ve described above.

Now, you find out that you’re actually going to be in school sometimes, and you’ll have some kids in your class some of the time. Great. You just got some valuable face to face time with your students. How do you make the best use of that time? It’s probably not providing direct instruction. All of that is already set up. It’s probably not having students working independently at their desks. They can do that when they’re not in your room. It might be differentiating, meeting with small groups or individual students. It might be facilitating a class discussion instead of an online forum. Maybe you’re asking students to do presentations to demonstrate what they’ve been working on. Maybe they’re working collaboratively with a rare opportunity to interact in a face to face environment. Class time is different when it’s rare. You’re going to focus on doing the things in class that are hard to do online.

It’s a lot easier to go in this direction than it is to go the other way. March was REALLY HARD because we were trying to take face to face classes and move them online. If we START with online classes, moving pieces to a face to face model is much easier.

Now think of all of those in-between cases. What if 15% of your students are absent? If everything is already organized online, it’s much easier for absent students to keep up, and it’s not a burden for the teacher. What if the teacher is absent? If everything is already set up in an online environment, the sub just has to make sure the students are safe. The learning continues. What if we find out our school is a hotspot, and we’ve had an increase in infections, so we’re going to close for two weeks, starting tomorrow? If we change our default approach from “face to face” to “online” it puts us in a much better position to adapt to whatever circumstance comes along.

This isn’t easy. Nobody has all of the answers. We all want to create valuable educational experiences for our students. We all want to support our teachers and our parents as we navigate these uncharted waters. And none of us signed up for this.

But we’ve been working on this for a long time now. We’ve been slowly putting the tools in place. We’ve had the conversations about authentic assessment. We’ve talked about using grades to measure what students have learned rather than what they have completed. We looked at the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity until we were embarrassed to call them “21st century”. We slowly put powerful digital tools into the hands of every teacher and every learner. We spent years teaching both tools and how teaching and learning can take advantage of those tools. We have all the pieces.

The only thing that’s different now is the urgency. We HAVE to adapt. We can’t choose to ignore this stuff and go on doing the same things we’ve always done. The world is different now. We learned a lot this spring. We tried new things. We experimented. We failed spectacularly. We found some successes. Now it’s time to reflect on that experience. Figure out what worked. Put together a game plan for fall.

Let’s take the best of what worked for us this spring, combine it with what we know about valuable learning experiences, and create fantastic experiences for next year’s students.


Photo credit: Bluefield Photos on Flickr.