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.

3 thoughts on “Learning Online – What works? What’s not working?

  1. So before I have to do some synchronous teaching I have a few minutes to respond. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter after hearing Mr. Lecce this morning:

    For anyone wondering, this teacher is working harder, if not twice as hard, than prior to March break to run my classes in “online school” which has yet to find a fulsome and complete way to replace what I could do face to face. Taxpayers need not worry about the vast majority of teachers who are still earning their pay and doing more than asked –as usual. It is the platform of distance teaching/learning that is the problem and we are working like mad to find ways to fulfill all the objectives we normally can. The Minister is riding the backs of the malcontents as usual and perpetuating stereotypes with propaganda while trying to look like he is in control. You know nothing Steven Lecce.

    I am angry about a lot of things but trying to maintain some semblance of an open mind. This is a very emotional issue for teachers whose career is a vocation, not a job. I am a 30+ year veteran and a digital learning acolyte and have seen as much as Terry over the years (although not from an admin chair — but I contend my seat is even closer to where the action really is). As for “e-teaching”, I am worried also about the “quick and dirty” approach of private companies who will in all likelihood tout their expertise and ability to deliver quality education when every teacher in their right mind knows that summer school and online credits are not worth by at least half the same as a regular in-school credit, or at worst are a barely quarter of a real course and learning that goes on in a classroom. Sorry summer school and night school teachers, try as you might, it is not the same. I won’t even entertain an argument about that. In many courses, I am convinced that not all of the overarching learning goals can be addressed through distance learning and don’t even get me started about academic honesty with online testing. — my thoughts on #2 and #3.

    While privacy is one issue, synchronous video is also a very intense environment. I am 3x as tired from a day with my face in a screen than I am from teaching in the classroom. Perhaps, that is also because all of my planning and creating new or massaging some of my usual lessons/projects/tasks and learning online which is all done at the computer far more than if I was in a classroom. Any suggestion that all kids/students (or adults for that matter) can spend that much time online in a synchronous “classroom” lesson and keep mentally healthy is naive, especially for some age groups–never mind getting teenagers to wake up for an 8:20 class like they do in a real school. Without supervision, many will wake enough to logon and then go back to sleep for the hour or so they would be required to be online. I already have one grade 9 student pulling such a trick when I offer Google Meets twice a week. How do I know? I can’t leave the meet until all students are out for security reasons. I’m waiting at least 5 minutes for him to hear me and come back to log off or I have to remove him 5 minutes later because he hasn’t come back to the computer at all. No one promoting online learning is talking about all the go-arounds for this. Ask any university student who wrote some online exams this spring, there was rampant cheating all over the place. Some may have called that open book testing but that is likely all or mostly knowledge based. (I have a third year child who informs me of all these goings on — it was nice to have that backroom channel when he was in high school too. Information is so much more valuable when it comes closest to the source. Mr. Lecce would do well to consult some actual teachers and not just those that have climbed the golden ladder and would never step foot in a real classroom again if they could help it now that they’ve lived the difference. heheemmmm IC/EML people. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are really good but sadly many are on an upward trajectory to a cushioned seat.)

    I repeat in the end that I am exhausted and busy. But I still love my job and work every day to make my interaction with students purposeful and interesting. Parents with small children in the home at the same time as they are distance teaching, my hats off to you all. My other child, a teen in grade 11, is independent but not independent enough to be ambitious with this type of learning. There is a myriad of problems to discuss before the propaganda machine convinces me (and I hope he doesn’t convince “the taxpayer”) that online learning is the panacea he purports it to be. I hope the majority of parents opt out of online credits when that is implemented. Ex-teachers working in the private sector in this line of work are delusional about what can be accomplished online in comparison with a reasonably sized group face to face in a semestered or 3-term year. I hear daily of the successes teachers are sharing online and I have them too. I just don’t think it’s a good move for the majority of our children.

    Sorry Terry, gotta go to prep my next class! That’s all for now. I am angry–sorry if that ruffled a few feathers but I won’t be returning to read any retorts. You should know that I am an upbeat, positive and hopeful role model just the same in this COVID period of online learning for my own students and children. I’ve laid out my truth as much to purge it as to inform about realities that the “optimistic” won’t talk about.

    1. Kathy: I’d love to hear more of your thoughts, in the blog that links to your name, but still says “Coming Soon”. I hope that the first two days of PD have gone well, and that you’re looking forward to seeing your students F2F on the 14th. Take care, Terry

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