COVID-19 has been the biggest disruptor that we have faced in the education industry in recent times. With more than 1.5 billion students affected by lock downs making up 91.3% of all enrolled students and leaners across 188 countries, this is the largest closure of schools and universities the world has seen in recent history.
While distance learning has been around a long time, it has become the oxygen fueling continuity of learning globally today. Overnight, teachers in classrooms from primary schools to higher education, and professional training centers everywhere found themselves scrambling to shift their content and course to a digital platform and deliver their subjects to their students remotely.
As the world battles COVID-19, teachers are raging a different battle – with technology, newness of a learning platform they may never have used before, with students not necessarily having access to their classrooms due to digital divide, with content and syllabus they now have to figure out how to mold to suit remote learning, with assessments, stress, anxiety, the list is endless.
In the United Arab Emirates alone, more than a million students, their teachers and parents began distance learning from mid-March. While some have faired well, others continue to face pressure to prepare their content for the digital platform, to understand students’ needs and barriers. In addition, as we look to remote learning to carry us to the end of the academic year, there is newly-added pressure to prepare appropriate assessments that will objectively, fairly and with integrity assess if students have achieved the learning objectives of the course.
Digital leaders, on the other hand, have had it easier than others. Blended learning has in fact made its headway into many classrooms – these teachers, are now paving the way for others, doing their part to be in it together. Here are some helplines from such classrooms -
Be yourself and believe in your students
This is not a situation that will simply disappear. We are not even sure how this will transform the whole world, and more precisely the way we view education. But while the situation persists, it is vital that teachers remember to be themselves, take care of their mental well being and find ways to stay positive. As teachers face online classrooms day after day, it can get overwhelming. It is helpful to remember the class is full of students that you know and have been teaching. Getting in front of a camera is not an easy feat. Staying calm and remembering that students follow lead can help set the pace and mood of the class. If teachers panic, are stressed, fiercely uncomfortable, students pick up on these vibes and this makes teaching that much harder.
Be confident of your institution’s expectations
Understand what your institution is expecting out of you and your classroom. This is very important. You may find tons of helplines that talk about remote learning, but they may not all be suitable to your institution’s plans. Why so? Because not all remote learning is “live” or synchronous. While some institutions may decide that all their classes will be delivered “live” over a digital learning management platform, others may expect more self-paced approach, providing students with instructions and materials and allowing them complete each module and achieving learning objective asynchronously. Some may do a mix of both.
Be comfortable with technology you will use
Understanding and being comfortable with the technology that the school or university uses or decides to use is a crucial step towards delivering a class online. Many teachers get swept up in the wave of trying out fanciful tools promoted by colleagues from other schools or universities or offered for free by companies trying to hook teachers to their tools in times of crisis, paving way to increasing customer base, or even a variety of helpful ones put out there by government and non-government bodies such as UNESCO. Sometimes using simple tools provided by respective institutions is all that is needed to deliver successful lessons online.
Rethink your content
Successful teaching isn’t about the technology, it is about knowing and understanding students and what may or may not work for your students. Even within the scope of your institution’s expectations, as a teacher and facilitator of learning you should know that some subjects, content and student age group will learn better with constant “live” support from the teacher. However, no matter how ‘live’ a classroom is, it is important to realise that content and tasks should be made available asynchronously for students to access at their own time and pace.
This brings us to the actual content being delivered. Learning to deliver a course online typically takes time, training and practice. But COVID-19 gave us none of these. Understand that you are not expected to be a magician. But also remember that it is not the same as delivering a 40-minute or 60-minute traditional class as when you deliver remotely.
When we are in class, we deliver content, speed up or slow down as we bounce off our students and how they can cope – something we can see and monitor and adapt to. When we are in class, we may ask 10 questions to 10 different students and have them share the solutions with the rest of the class.
Trying to figure out student pace virtually is difficult, especially if the students are younger and/or non-responsive. Moreover, trying to solve all 10 questions within the time frame and asking every student to solve them is a herculean pressure you are putting on yourself and your students – by doing this, believe it or not, you are actually increasing their typical workload by 10 folds!
Remember Off-Screen Time is Just as Important!
Preparing some off-screen tasks can be a great way for students to enjoy time away from the screen, catch up on concepts taught in class and allow you to still manage to provide all the content you wish to for your class.
Understand what you are trying to Assess
Assessing students in a traditional classroom setting is challenging enough. Different students have different learning styles, ability to grasp concepts and respond to or demonstrate effective achievement of learning objectives. Trying to assess students virtually is that much harder. However, teachers should take time to reassess what needs to be assessed from the course content that they have delivered, when these should be tested, and even how. A traditional in-class exam can easily be redesigned in the form of presentations, online quizzes, activities online such as making posters, writing and submitting short answers and so on. Of course, take-home exams are a possibility, which can be set with some deep thinking to make the questions more analytical or even open-book exams. Even actual proctored online exams for that matter can be an option, if needed.
Integrity and Student Cheating in Remote Space
Whatever the form of assessment, trying to maintain integrity of the assessments and the concepts taught in remote classroom is something that should also be taken into consideration. It is not likely that students will cheat any more or less than they did in traditional setting. Moreover, understanding that being able to assess accurately for high achievers vs medium or low achievers is not necessarily a priority during a crisis can help to focus on what is being assessed. This in turn can help develop understanding of how to make assessments work, remove focus from cheating and shift to integrity.
It is always good to ensure you revisit the school or university policy on academic misconducts, explain the rules to students once again, remind them that the remote space is indeed an extension of the physical campus and that the rules of conduct remain the same. In doing so, take the time to explain to students why it is important to uphold integrity. Don’t obsess over cheating or how students should not cheat – you might just be giving students unnecessary ideas or ways to circumvent them. Instead, trust and respect is more likely to go a long way for both teachers and students if students are made to understand why it is important for them, even in such crisis conditions, to focus on the learning, instead of the marks. Reducing risk that contribute to large grades can also help students remain focused on the content and the process of learning.
Teachers have the capacity to set the pace, the environment and mood that is conducive to learning. Create that environment for your students and for yourself. Be kind to your students and to yourself.
These are difficult, dangerous and disturbing times for everyone. We are not in it alone, although social distancing might make it feel like a lonely journey. Remember to reach out and ask for help from your peers, colleagues, friends, family and even the greater community. You will be surprised how much support you get to continue the great work you are all doing as teachers, continuing learning for students everywhere.
*Arabic version of this article has been edited and published in the Harvard Business Review Arabia on 27 April 2020 and can be found here: https://hbrarabic.com/?p=190830
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