Month: November 2020

Learning from online learning

Dr Fergus Anderson

Covid-19 has forced a massive change in way that education happens and education providers all over the world have had to adapt fast. At Crossfields we are no exception. Our postgraduate teacher training programme (PPIE) normally has three residential intensives per year, but for the July residential we had to move everything online due to the lockdown.

We already had a lot of experience of online delivery, but doing a five-day intensive online was a whole new challenge. In this article I am going to summarise the main learning that came out of this experience with the hope that this will be of use to education providers who are struggling with similar situations.

First some general observations:

Anyone who has experience of live online teaching and learning will probably be aware that this can be a rather flat experience. Students tend to be more passive and unresponsive than in face-to-face interaction and teachers tend to counter this by filling the empty spaces with content, often with the help of Powerpoint. This can be an effective way of getting information across, but the student experience can easily be drab and uninspiring.

A further challenge has to do with the very real phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’, namely, that interacting with a group of people online often seems more draining than interacting together in a classroom. So, added to the tendency towards flatness is the experience of exhaustion and burnout that can arise from the medium itself.

This may not be too much of a problem when online sessions are relatively short and happen relatively occasionally. But if online learning needs to occur in a more intensive way, such as has been the case for many education providers since the pandemic, then this can be a real problem.

What I will present below is intended primarily for further and higher education providers who, for one reason or another, are obliged to do intensive online learning for extended periods. The challenge in this case is how to make the experience as alive and stimulating as possible. Much of what I will propose will not be new, but hopefully it will help you to think creatively about what’s possible.

The first step, I would propose, is to be aware of the different modalities that online learning can include. I have experimented with five different modalities, though of course there may be more. These are:

1. Live presentation

This is the familiar ‘from the front’ presentation, either with or without slides. There may be pauses in the delivery for questions or discussion, but the basic aim and rationale for the activity is for the teacher to deliver content. Everyone is familiar with this modality so there’s no need to say more, other than perhaps to note that you can experiment with props.

For example, use a white board or flip chart to draw and write rather than Powerpoint. This can give a more organic and dynamic feel to the presentation and it also means that the face and torso of the presenter can remain visible, so the presenter can bring their enthusiasm and expressiveness to the session more effectively.

2. Recorded presentation

Traditional ‘from the front’ teaching can be inspiring. But as many Ted talks and YouTube films testify, inspiring presentations can be just as inspiring when they are recorded rather than live. The great benefit of a recorded presentation is that students can access it in their own time. They can also pause and go back over sections if necessary, or take a break.

The Zoom burnout experience that can occur in the live context does not seem to apply to the same degree here, which is a significant advantage. It is important to note that there is a distinction here between a presentation that’s made available as a recording from the beginning and a live presentation that’s then made available later as a recording.

Recorded presentation, as I mean it here, applies only to the former, i.e., it is something that’s recorded without students present, and then make available to students afterwards. The recorded presentation puts all students on the same footing whereas a recording of a live presentation differentiates between those who were actually there and those who watched the recording afterwards. A recorded presentation can also serve as a resource that can be re-used, so extra time, care and attention can be given to making it as high quality as possible.

3. Group-work or seminar

This is where students discuss content with fellow students and/or a faculty member. The discussion should be essentially student led and the aim is to engage the collective intelligence of the group to further and deepen the learning of all. The teacher/tutor should be engaged in facilitating this and not on holding forth, and that’s a quite specific skill in the online context. Breakout rooms on Zoom and other applications is a very useful tool for this as it enables small group discussion.

A typical session will oscillate between whole group discussion and small group discussion. Given the already discussed ‘passive’ nature of online learning, it can require skill on the part of the facilitator to stimulate and motivate discussion, and to crystallise and formulate what has emerged in an open and accessible way.

4. Walking conversation

Given that most online learning takes place indoors either sitting or standing in front of a screen, this modality aims to disrupt this by freeing the body and the visual gaze while also opening a subject to peer discussion. All students will have an app on their phone that enables free phone calls (WhatsApp, Messenger, etc.). The idea here is that students are paired in twos to go outdoors on a ‘walking conversation’ where they engage through conversation in some aspect of the course content.

The teacher might set questions or themes that inform the discussion, or not. What’s important to note here is the impact that walking has on conversation and the fact that the visual gaze can roam freely. For this it is important that students use headphones and also that they don’t use the video option (i.e., it’s an audio call only). Student can also be encouraged to use the sensory impressions and embodied awareness from their walk to inform and stimulate their conversation.

5. Individual reflection

The fifth and final modality is that students work individually during a live session. This can be a valuable activity in that it enables them to disconnect for a while from the slightly numbing and mesmerising presence of the screen and to engage in a reflective or reflexive way with what they actually think or feel. Doing this while the seminar screen is still on in the room (though they are not looking at it) can help to give students an awareness of the presence of others engaged in the same activity.

What makes these different activities interesting in this context is how they are combined. The aim is to combine them in such a way so as to make the learning experience as dynamic and varied as possible, so as to counter the tendency to flatness and passivity. But there is no prescribed formula. The above five modalities can be seen as a palette from which something dynamic can be created, but this will mean different things with different student groups and in different contexts.

An example of what has worked for me is to begin with a recorded presentation that students view in their own time over a three or four hour period (say over an evening and part of the next morning). They then have a walking conversation with a fellow student to discuss the recording and to identify questions and areas of interest or unclarity.

There then follows a seminar session that is facilitated by the faculty member who recorded the presentation. This gives students the possibility of discussing the presentation with the teacher but informed by the deepening that has taken place through the walking conversation. The students have tried to make sense of the content first in their own time and then discussed this with a peer before engaging with the teacher who gave the presentation.

Another example is that the teacher begins with a live presentation, then shifts to a period of individual reflection, followed by a group work seminar session. Another example is to begin with a seminar session, followed by a walking conversation, followed by a live presentation. The aim is to shift and disrupt the learning experience so that a theme can morph and develop in an organic way over time as it is encountered in different ways. The sum of these activities should amount to a gradually deepening engagement with the content. The key here is to experiment and ask for feedback from the students about what works. It’s also important not to assume that what worked for one group will work for the next group.

I hope that this has been useful. Do get in touch if you have further insights to share on this subject.

fergus@crossfieldsinstitute.com