And so ends a term like nobody expected. When schools closed and learning moved online, it all happened so fast that there was nothing to do but jump straight in. Little did I know then that online teaching and learning would be my world for an entire term.
With the academic year now drawing to a close in my part of the world, it would usually be the time to take stock, reflect, and consider what we can do differently or better next year. That is a unique challenge this time around as much about September remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the unprecedented circumstances of the last three to four months have shone a light on some aspects of my students, their learning, and my teaching that we might not have otherwise noticed.
1. My learners are now more efficient and independent (mostly…)
I have long been a proponent of encouraging independent learning, but it has at times been a challenge. When I ask learners to complete specific tasks or do their own research into a topic before a lesson, there are inevitably one or two who didn’t/couldn’t/forgot to do it. The same applies when I ask them to complete a task on their own – send them away with instructions to use the remainder of the lesson time to work on it and one or two will take an extended break; keep them in class to work under supervision and the intended level of autonomy is lost under requests for help and ideas.
Remote learning has changed that. My school adopted a policy of hosting approximately half of scheduled lessons as live sessions with half to consist of tasks to be done independently. I have found that, one or two exceptions aside, my learners have done all the tasks I’ve set for them to complete in our asynchronous session, whether these be assigned before or after the lesson. This has resulted in us completing sections of the syllabus in less time, more depth, or both.
I put this increased engagement and efficiency down to the following:
- the independent learning tasks are set in place of lesson slots on the timetable. Students therefore see the tasks as an integral part of their learning programme instead of ‘extra work’
- the live lessons simply don’t work when these tasks are not done. We start each session with feedback on the previous tasks before engaging in extension activities. Anyone who has not done the work cannot simply look at their partner’s notes or ‘wing it’ easily
- when the tasks are completed outside of live lesson time, nobody has to wait for others to finish. They all work at their own pace and start the next session at the same point
2. …but they still need monitoring
It is not the case, however, that I just leave my students to tackle these tasks alone. Just like in class, they still need help and support. During the designated independent learning slots, I make myself available via Teams chat so they can ask any questions (I, in the meantime, catch up on admin and marking, making my own use of time more efficient).
I also sometimes initiate an exchange of messages myself, sending individual students a quick line to check they know what they need to do. This has helped maintain student-teacher relationships on an individual level, and also reminded me that even in an online setting, students may still be reluctant to ask for help. Pre-empting this by asking them how they are getting on has worked well and is something I will look to incorporate into my classroom teaching when face-to-face lessons resume.
3. Feedback has been more instantaneous…
A key part of the monitoring process has been feedback. As detailed in my May post on feedback cycles we have engaged in various forms of feedback including live comments on shared documents, and feedback on request on plans, drafts, and other ideas. The key to making this effective has been a quick turnaround time. Students do not have to wait until our next live lesson to get feedback and there is no delay while I collect notebooks in, review them, and then return them a couple of days later. In this case, going online actually causes less lag for once!
4. …and more likely to be acted on
This is an interesting observation and one I can’t yet fully explain – my students now seem more likely to act on feedback. In class, I monitor and give on the spot feedback, I provide individual feedback, and conduct whole class feedback. And yet, frustratingly, my students do not always make the suggested improvements to their work. Working online, however, they do go back and edit more often. Perhaps it is the ease of editing a digital file, or perhaps the feedback feels more immediate and personalised when presented as a combination or voice chat and text comments. It will be interesting to see if this greater response to feedback continues when we return to our normal school setting.
5. Levels of interaction have varied…
Just like we have a mix of vocal students and those who prefer to stay quiet in the actual classroom, we have students who are happy to contribute and others who prefer to simply lurk in our live lessons. What has been interesting to note though is the change of roles. Some of my quiet students have suddenly become much more engaged and active online, happily answering questions on the microphone and leaving comments in the chat. Conversely, a couple of my chatterboxes have gone quiet, only contributing one-word answers if that. However, on the whole, I have found the levels of interaction to be high. I have got to know those quieter students better and, with time spent completing tasks asynchronously, we have more time to engage in discussion and Q&A in class.
6. …but I still miss the classroom
Despite all the positives we have found, I think we would all agree that being in the classroom is better. It is not just about learning tasks but also about forging relationships, reacting to moments in real time, and seeing the students as part of the wider school and not just in 30-minute virtual bursts.
So, plenty to reflect on despite the never before (and hopefully never again) seen circumstances of the term. As we approach summer, I will be mulling over these thoughts in more depth as I start to plan for whatever challenges the new school year will bring.
One thing I will definitely not be doing though (until it’s time for next month’s blog at least) – sitting in front of my PC. Time to switch off in more ways than one!