This week, thousands of B.C. teachers will have their first experience with teaching at a distance. Many of them will have to figure this all out on the fly. They will get to know the weaknesses of distance learning first hand, without having the backup of its strengths. This is why many educators are saying that we should not call this new situation “online learning” but “emergency remote teaching.”
Having designed and taught online high school courses for nearly two decades, I have become adept at defending my profession to its critics who see it as a cheap substitute for the real thing. The reasons which I rattle off all have to do with design. Courses are created, with attention to detail, and often by a team, before students begin. When students enrol, they are afforded this omniscient survey of the course’s entire journey from beginning to end. They can focus their efforts on the areas they find challenging while allowing themselves to breeze through the less troublesome parts.
What follows is not a distillation of best practices in online education. Think of it more as a helpful survival kit, stuffed into a plastic grocery bag and wrapped with masking tape onto which I have written, in green felt pen, “Good Luck!”
1. Only post essential content.
When you post content for students to study — whether that is documents, articles, videos, photographs or maps — make it clear exactly what they are responsible for knowing and let them know what they will do with this material. It will sound something like this: "As you watch this video, pay attention to the point of view taken by the narrator. Take three or four notes as you do so. Hold onto these notes as you will use them to write your... assignment.” Don’t tell students to just browse a website or watch a video expecting them to learn something. They won’t.
2. Give clear instructions.
This saves everyone time and frustration. Break your assignment down into discrete steps, phrasing everything in the second person: “You will do this, then you will do that.” Before posting it or sending it out, run it by someone who is completely unfamiliar with it. Ideally, this someone will be close to the age of your students. Have that person paraphrase it back to you one step at a time.
3. Make your assignments ‘ungoogleable.’
Design your assignments so that they are specific in such a way that a student can’t just find a similar assignment online or copy from a website. Rather than having students research immigration to Canada, have them research their own family history. Instead of asking them to write the biography of a famous scientist, get them to compare the achievements of two famous scientists, choosing one from column A and another from column B.
4. Use the simplest, workable tool.
If a student can show understanding by creating an assignment in a word processor, or even right in their email program, don’t require them to create a web page. If they can draw a picture with pen and paper then photograph it with their phone, then they don’t need to learn an online drawing program. Don’t assume that all young people are technology wizards. They tend to be good with the tools that they use daily, not the ones that they don’t.
5. Learn one new skill at a time.
You might want to learn to speak Spanish, Russian and Japanese. That is fine, but you wouldn’t try to learn them all concurrently. The same goes for technology. If your district is giving you access to courses on a learning management system, put all of your efforts into learning how to use that. Perhaps, you will be expected to hold conferences using Zoom or another type of videoconferencing software. If so, learn how to use as many of its features as you can before trying it with students. This will help you to avoid some awkward situations.
6. Know about fair dealing in the Canadian Copyright Act.
You can send students newspaper articles, photographs, chapters from books, videos and audio recordings without seeking permission. You can also post these to a learning management system hosted by your school district. You must know what you are doing though, as there are exceptions, so study Fair dealing.
7. Be available when students need you.
Though teachers are used to communicating with students weekdays during daytime hours, this doesn’t always align with when students need help. Being attentive to when students are working so that you can give them timely help usually requires a schedule adjustment. Determine which times you are not available and let them know. Turn off notifications and put away your devices.
8. Dole out feedback incrementally.
Do not overwhelm students with detailed, personalized feedback. I mark everything by rubric followed by a short comment. “Here is what you are doing well. Here is what to do next.” This same advice applies whether a student is asking for clarity on assignment instructions or has handed in an assignment for marking. One step at a time, we all move forward.
9. Use communication tools effectively.
Talk to your district about which communication tools you will have at your disposal, then consider what your students will have, in order to work out the most effective means of communicating with your students on a day-to-day basis. My courses are all set up within a learning management system, so I use the internal messaging system constantly as it is fast and convenient.
A lot of students prefer to use texting which works for teachers with work cell phones. See if your district is providing them, as using a personal cell phone invites complications.
Email works for most teachers, but it is a little more time-demanding and students don’t always check theirs.
Phone calls are always at least a five minute investment and often more. Whatever you do, you need to understand that the longer any individual piece of communication takes, the less points of contact you will have with each student. For me, I find that 90 per cent of my interactions with students take a minute or less of my time as I need to be in touch with each student a few times per week to keep them on track.
10. Guard student privacy.
Whenever possible, use tools that belong to your school district, whether that is a learning management system, a web page or email. Never require students to download free software or use social media. Some school districts allow teachers to use Google Classroom and Google Docs, but parents must first sign a waiver. There is a reason for that. I was once at a conference where a presenter told us that student data fetches a higher price than credit card numbers. I am not sure how someone qualifies that, but I got the message.
A few last words, and how to find help
Now is the time to make sure that you really know how to use your laptop. If you haven’t learned to touch-type, sign up for TypingClub. It is free. Be sure that you can fluently use the word processor on your laptop which includes adding and resizing images. You should be able to create fillable forms and to download documents as PDFs. You don’t need to know Photoshop, but you will need to be able to edit images with whichever program your computer came with. You should also be able to help students troubleshoot their programs when they run into trouble.
You will end up using your phone more. Learn to use it to scan documents. I use the app Office Lens, but there are others that work as well. If you will be using a learning management system, such as Moodle, download the app for it and tell your students to do the same.
If you aren’t on Twitter yet, sign up. There are people there who will help you through every problem. Click on #bced (B.C. Education) to get an idea of the conversations that happen there. If your district is using SharePoint, for example, you can post questions to #sharepoint. If you are looking for #mathideas or #mathlessons or if you teach #grades1s, they have you covered. And if you want to drop me a line, I am @mr_nixmith.