Category: Education

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

 

In Memory of Sir Ken Robinson PhD, 1950 – 2020

Sir Ken Robinson died on the 21st of August 2020 and I want to recognise his amazing work for education in the world as well as the inspiration he brought to Crossfields Institute. In these two short videos, he sums up beautifully what should be at the centre of our educational decision-making.

This particular video may be the last public appearance he made and here, he invites us to learn from the impact of a relationship to the natural environment that caused devastation and extinction so that we can start to also change our ways of approaching learning, education and school:

In the second video, which is a short tribute, Sir Ken tells a story about human potential and how easily it is missed in a system that habitually medicates the seemingly restless children of today:

I invite you to take this opportunity to dwell with Sir Ken’s core message – I invite us to take a moment to imagine what changes we are ready for, now, as we enter a new era where some doors are closed forever and others are finally opening…

Dr Charlotte von Bülow
Founder of the Crossfields Institute Group
Director of Crossfields Europa

Relational Arts & Organic Design – an inspiring new course at Emerson College

Relational Arts & Organic Design is an immersive twelve-week course exploring the relational nature of the world in which we live through a rich programme of nature-based crafts, expressive art and observational science The programme is composed of three four-week blocks built around the themes of Enquiry, Creativity & Purpose:

  • Block 1 – Enquiry: 4 x one-week open modules
  • Block 2 – Creativity: 1 four-week open module
  • Block 3 – Purpose: 1 four-week final project

Students can take part on either a full-time or a part-time basis, choosing one or more of the open modules from the first two blocks. Please note: Block 3 (four-week final project) is only open to students who have completed either Block 1 or Block 2.

Find out more:

Restorative work instead of sanctions and punishment

It was good to read a report in The Guardian on the use of a “restore” process in a school in Gloucester to break the cycle of sanctions and exclusions. As part of the research and development undertaken for an Erasmus+ funded project, staff from Crossfields Institute have taken part in a training session led by teachers from Finland, who use Restorative Mediation widely in their schools. It had a significant impact on the group of 50 teachers gathered from four countries, and we could see the value of the process for both student and staff conflict or difficulty.

Learning support on four legs!

We welcome the increased interest in the use of dogs as educational support “staff” in schools, as reported here https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/28/teaching-support-dog-school-teach-read

We offer several qualifications that accredit practitioners working with horses and dogs to facilitate human development, develop mindfulness practice and use horses in therapeutic work. Developing these qualifications has allowed us to see at first hand the amazing ways in which trusting relationships between animals and humans can lead to increased health and well being.

Next time you see a learning styles questionnaire, burn it?

Next time you see a learning styles questionnaire, burn it – began a typically forthright article in The Guardian back in July 2006 by Professor Frank Coffield. He had published results of a large research project into the use of learning styles questionnaires two years previously, but the UK Department of Education was firmly wedded to the use of learning styles, and his results were not publicised by the Learning and Skills Development Agency which had commissioned the research. Nearly 11 years later The Guardian has published a plea from scientists, educationalists and psychologists to “ditch the neuromyth” of learning styles.

At Crossfields Institute we are developing a qualification for 16 and 18 year olds focusing on developing a range of creative thinking skills. The focus of this is on building capacity and developing skills, whatever the style and preferences of the students.

Is 14 too young to choose your educational path?

The UK government initiative to introduce University Technical Colleges, to create centres of excellence for vocational education is under scrutiny, following news that seven have recently announced their impending closure. The impetus for these colleges came from the 2004 Tomlinson review into secondary education.

Significantly, Tomlinson did not recommend separate pathways for academic and vocational education, rather the replacement of multiple exams and qualifications with a single, integrated Diploma approach, utilising an extended project as a significant component.

Crossfields Institute is working on an Erasmus+ funded project with schools in four countries to develop a Diploma that combines academic and practical learning, and requires students to complete an Independent Project and, in doing so, seeks to respond positively to the recommendations in the Tomlinson review and create an integrated approach to learning that will enable a wide variety of students to achieve their full potential.

Goat time out!

Varndean School in Brighton have a specialised team who have helped the school de-escalate challenging behaviour. The flock of goats initially came to the school to maintain the grass, but are now having a significant impact on behaviour and wellbeing:

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/how-pygmy-goats-have-transformed-pupil-behaviour

Crossfields Institute works with a number of affiliated organisations who already know the value of engaging with the natural world for young people, and our qualifications seek to develop healthy, integrated engagement with the world around us.