Learning Online – What works? What’s not working?

Over the past two months I have begun teaching online in two very different environments from the F2F classrooms I’ve experienced most of my career.

In one setting I am using an LMS (Learning Management System) called Canvas as the course organization, and teaching synchronously using Adobe Connect for two hours per week.  My students use the features of the LMS to access content, to discuss, and to submit assignments.  They also use the feature of Google for collaboration both in class (using Google Docs and Google Sheets) and with their classmates. We use email to communicate between classes, and occasionally we will connect via phone.

In the other setting I am using an LMS called D2L, and the entire course is asynchronous. The content, discussions, and assignment submission take place in this environment, and there is little collaborative work.

This latter version is what we in Ontario would be familiar with as the structure of the current e-learning environment for K-12, and which was proposed to be used for four of the 30 credits for our secondary school students, and which the unions lobbied to have removed.  The recent agreements have landed at two credits, but parents can opt their teens out of this, upon request.

The past two months may have changed the landscape significantly, as indicated by the Minister of Education’s direction to provide synchronous learning for students. (https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2020/05/08/ontario-teachers-told-to-embrace-live-video-conferencing-as-school-shutdown-continues.html) His direction to do so takes place in the absence of any secure tools with which to do so, without allocation of any resources either in hardware or bandwidth to the teachers and students, and without research to support.

So, I have been thinking a great deal about how teaching and learning changes as we move through the various options of learning environment:  face-to-face traditional, synchronous supported with video technology, asynchronous supported with video technology, and asynchronous using an online learning management system.

1. Face-to-Face Traditional Classroom:

  • Real-time interaction
  • Student-teacher relationship is very strong
  • Responsive to student questions
  • Allows for collaboration among students in real-time
  • Efficient – teacher teaches once, and reaches all students in the room
  • Assessment is provided both in real-time, and scheduled.

2. Synchronous Supported with Video Technology:

  • Real-time interaction
  • Student-teacher relationship is strong
  • Responsive to student questions
  • Allows for collaboration among students in real-time
  • Efficient – teacher teaches once, and reaches all students in the room
  • Assessment is provided both in real-time, and scheduled.

3. Asynchronous Supported with Video Technology:

  • No real-time interaction
  • Student-teacher relationship is weak – students see teacher, but teacher does not see students
  • Not responsive to student questions
  • Does not allow for collaboration among students in real-time
  • Very Efficient – teacher teaches once, and reaches an infinite number of students
  • Assessment is scheduled.

4. Asynchronous using an LMS:

  • No real-time interaction
  • Student-teacher relationship is very weak – limited to text
  • Not responsive to student questions
  • Does not allow for collaboration among students in real-time
  • Very, very Efficient – teacher does not teach directly, but reaches an infinite number of students
  • Assessment is scheduled.

I am currently teaching, using options 2 and 4.  I love the synchronous teaching, but it is much more demanding than F2F in a traditional classroom, and some of my students are managing to “hide” by turning off their cameras and mics, so my relationship with them is more difficult to develop.

The asynchronous group is a mystery to me; I only know them from the assignments they submit. So, I’m thinking of adding aspect of #3 to my practice, to hopefully build more of a relationship, to more effectively “teach”, and to encourage them to connect.  I may even use some of #2, by scheduling “office hours”, and further connecting.

But, back to the Ontario context, in six weeks time the Ministry of Education has promised (https://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2020/05/government-supports-online-learning-during-covid-19-outbreak.html_:

  1. Expanded core programming represents ‘traditional’ summer school courses focused on grades 9 to 12, with additional opportunities for grade 8 students to better prepare.
  2. Introduction of upgrading courses, which will allow students to upgrade their mark in a course in half the time it would have taken them previously.
  3. Targeted supports for vulnerable students to support access to non-credit ministry educational programs and leadership supports.
  4. Focused programming for students with special education or mental health needs, including dedicated learning supports such as access to educational assistants and existing after-school programs that could be delivered through summer school
  5. Communicating volunteer opportunities for students so that students can leverage virtual volunteer opportunities where possible;
  6. Summer programming in Provincial and Demonstration Schools to focus on continued learning for our students with specialized learning needs; and
  7. Key concept mapping for next year’s learning to focus on compulsory, high-demand and pre-requisite secondary courses

Promises #1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 require that students have the hardware, bandwidth, and supportive home environment to participate.

Promises #1 and 2 and well as possibly #4 require that content and a new learning environment be built, within which teachers will be teaching entirely new courses, and students will be participating using new tools.

And promise #7 is the death-knell for much of our rich programming at the secondary level, with may not be compulsory, in high demand, or a pre-requisite for post-secondary destinations.  I remind you that compulsory is: English in grades 9 to 12, Math in grades 9 to 11, Science in only grade 9 and 10, Geography in grade 9, History in grade 10, Careers and Civics in grade 10, French in grade 9, Physical and Health Education in grade 9 (let’s see what that looks like online!).  We only need to offer a Social Science course in grade 11 and three other senior courses to complete the mandatory compulsory 18 credits. If you add pre-requisite courses, you then need grade 11 and 12 courses in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, plus a fifth mathematics: Calculus in grade 12.

There will still need to be other courses to reach the total of 30, but those that are not “high demand” won’t be there. And these are the courses that keep our students in school: Physical and Health Education, Music, Drama, Visual Arts, Dance, Business, History, Social Science, Family Studies, and Technological Studies. Without these other twelve credits, our students will not qualify to graduate. So they cannot be ignored in favour of ONLY the compulsory or pre-requisite.

Back to the delivery of the program. We need to get as close to our #1, Face-to-Face in a classroom, as possible.  The best path is through option #2 – Synchronous Supported with Video Technology.

But, we need the technology.  It needs to be safe and accessible for all: teachers and students. And it needs to be flexible, to shift to asynchronous as well, since our teenagers may be caring for younger siblings, may have unreliable bandwidth, or may only be able to access the household computer at the end of the workday when their parent is finished their work.  Provision of hardware and unlimited internet access to both teachers and students is a necessary pre-requisite for success of this proposal.

Asynchronous with video technology also requires that teachers be recorded (as does synchronous in some cases) and this brings with it many privacy and security concerns. As a teacher I ensure that my background is unidentifiable, and I continually monitor my language so that someone can’t take advantage of my voice and “clip” it for their own entertainment, or for other purposes. However, I know that each class is now more risky than it has ever been, and with that comes stress and worry.

We are going to learn a great deal about teaching and learning as we look back on the past two months of asynchronous teaching and learning, and over the next year as we work through our transition in learning to this new online synchronous environment. I hope that we will eventually bring what we learn back to the classroom, and use it to enhance and enrich Ontario schools.  However, I fear that someone will choose the “quick and dirty” path, and hire a for-profit organization to deliver option #4 in order to make a quick buck.

Parents: please do your best to support us as we learn how to teach online. And then fight for us to return to the classroom when we are able, to provide the richness that our face-to-face classes provide for your children. A world without music, art, debates, collaborative inquiry, and strong social connections will be a much poorer one for our children.

My "Gradeless" Reading – Academic Journal Articles

I recently shared the books on my bookshelf that have inspired me on my exploration of a world without marks.

Here are some reflections on quotes from some of the journal articles that I have found most interesting:

“Educators have a moral imperative to dismantle the inequities that endure in our schools.” (p. 55)

Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Kappan, 100(8). 52-55.

Educators are the closest to students, and so the inequities in the classroom are most apparent to them. Where they struggle is where their “moral imperative” runs up against the standards they have set for their practice, or have been set for them by the organizations that govern them. Educators find it difficult to compel their students to “follow the rules”, unless they are modeling that for them.  To dismantle the system, means NOT following the rules, but to follow the rules means preserving inequity.

“…increased use of grades for high-stakes decisions including student mobility, admission, selection, accountability, and reporting” (p. 18)

DeLuca, C., Braund, H., Valiquette, A., & Cheng, L. (2017). Grading policies and practices in Canada: A landscape study. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 184, 4-22.

Everyone wants an easy answer, and marks are the easy answer to the questions of university admission, job offers, and status. We need a way to validate achievement, without the use of numbers.  I believe that we have the technology, but we haven’t yet figured out how to use it.

“Distinguishing specific product criteria and reporting achievement grades based on these criteria allow teachers to offer a more precise description of students’ academic achievement and performance.” (p. 16)

Link, L.J., & Guskey, T.R. (2019). How traditional grading contributes to student inequalities and how to fix it. Curriculum in Context, WSASCD, Fall/Winter, 12-19.

Criteria, criteria, criteria.  Whether you agree with the criteria set in the curriculum, or not, it is much easier to communicate achievement when you have clear criteria.  Traditional grading, where points are given, ignores the precision of criteria, and does a poor job of describing a student’s achievement.

“…grading, like school calendars and group instruction, is part of the very fabric of formal schooling. As long as there is formal schooling, teachers will assign grades”. (p.21)

Anderson, L.W. (2018). A critique of grading: Policies, practices, and technical matters. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(49), 1-31. https//doi.org/10.14507/epaa.26.3814

The resignation in this statement makes me sad. Perhaps it’s the “formal schooling” that is the problem.  And perhaps our current COVID-19 crisis will be the impetus for us to abandon schooling, and get back to learning.

“Grading practices that have the potential to reduce failure, reduce dropouts, and improve school safety are, indeed, urgent”. (p. 71)

O’Connor, K., Jung, L.A., & Reeves, D. (2018). Gearing up for FAST grading and reporting: It’s time for schools to move toward a grading system that is fair, accurate, specific, and timely. Kappan, 99(8), 67-71.

I would go one more step.  We should get rid of grading practices, and go straight to feedback and validation of achievement of criteria. There is no need to reduce rich achievement data to a single number.

“Is my job to “rank,” to assess and sort students into disjoint bins depending on how they can perform the tricks I expect them to? Or is it to help them move forward in their lives better equipped to handle what will come their way?” (p. 870)

Karaali, G. (2018). On Grades and Instructor Identity: How Formative Assessment Saved me from a Midlife Crisis, Primus, 28(9), 848-874. https://doi.org/10.1080/10511970.2018.1456495

This rhetorical question summarizes where I am, hoping to “help them move forward in their lives better equipped to handle what will come there way”.

What have you read lately, that is inspiring you to change your practice?