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Due to school closures in Hong Kong, I have been teaching my upper primary class online for three months. Previously I reflected on the switch to online learning and now I am looking ahead to what school will be like once we return to our classrooms.
I appreciate that my situation is quite different to what most teachers find themselves in – I work in a school where each student is provided with an iPad or laptop and we have well-established routines of using educational technology (edtech) to support learning. Hong Kong also has a high proportion of households with domestic workers being present as children complete their work.
I don’t pretend that edtech is the answer to the multiple challenges that educators are facing in different contexts, but this experience has shown us that it can be a lifeline in continuing our work.
It is time to think about how we can restore our psychological well-being when things get back to normal and to consider the psychology of learning through edtech in that new beginning.
Edtech has allowed us to maintain many of our daily school routines, which is important to provide our students with consistency during these times of uncertainty. We have live class meetings to start and end each day, introduce learning activities and answer questions as well as smaller group meetings to read together and work on those skills that require instant feedback.
Self-efficacy is a quality which helps us have confidence in our abilities but our traditional teaching style sometimes prevents this from happening, with an emphasis on the teacher and rigid timetables.
Students have been given more responsibility for online lessons, where they can pause and re-watch my instructional videos until they are ready to complete an independent activity to show their understanding. This kind of independence is one of the things we want to foster as educators, but in the classroom, it’s often too easy for students to over-rely on the teacher’s presence or for teachers to give an explanation before students have had time to properly think about it for themselves.
This independent learning is an aim of the flipped classroom model, which has received more interest in recent years. The blend of live lessons and independent learning is difficult to get right, but it has shown that our students are capable of more than we give them credit for and they should be praised for their efforts. Hopefully, this disrupted year of education will allow students to develop lifelong skills of persistence through adversity.
Motivation is a key aspect of learning, whether online or in the classroom. When giving feedback on students’ work I have been reflecting on how I can be helpful and encouraging at the same time in order to motivate them to be better learners. This is not an easy balance to attain.
I often find myself deleting comments and rewriting them before I send them, giving more thought than verbal comments in the classroom. It has also been encouraging to see students reply to this feedback and take responsibility to improve the work they submitted. They would be more reluctant to do this with pen-and-paper activities that feel spoiled by corrections and annotations. This online learning arrangement has allowed my students to join in from different countries and time zones, without losing out on participating in class.
It has been encouraging to hear examples of other students who have been able to participate more fully in school as a result of online learning, such as those taking part from hospitals.
The school closures around the world have also helped strengthen connections as we have the sense of going through the same challenge together. Teachers have been sharing lesson ideas and strategies for online learning and many technology companies have responded to the situation by providing their products for free and by responding quickly to suggestions for improvement. This community spirit has helped us get through the beginning of this crisis and is an encouragement when there has been so much disheartening news.
Online learning hasn’t been without its challenges for our mental health as educators and students. It’s easy to forget that others are going through the same things and we need to be intentionally more understanding and patient with each other.
Screen time has been the subject of controversy for concerns about well-being but it’s clear that it takes away from other, healthier activities. This is all the more magnified for those who cannot go outside to exercise due to concerns or restrictions. The fact that students are not moving around the classroom as much as before, but spending prolonged periods in front of a screen adds to this problem.
Personally, I need to give myself a break to get up and move around between video lessons, but this is not always easy when you want to have a quiet place to work with a toddler in the house – a struggle shared by many children.
The loss of our social connections during this time of physical distancing has been compared to the stages of grief and we try to make up for this in our classes with live video lessons. My experience during this time has shown that although it’s just not possible to replicate face-to-face interactions; I need to try my best. I can still recognise a particular student’s voice in a live lesson with a full class, and I’m beginning to notice the behavioural signs when a student is feeling frustrated online. The most difficult social aspect of online learning is when students don’t appear and submit work and, as a teacher, you don’t know what happened until they appear back online.
Additionally, there are new sources of frustration for our students that we need to help them deal with effectively. Lag in Wi-Fi, forgotten passwords and apps that need updating are all part of the online learning experience. These stressors can be opportunities to learn valuable strategies to cope, but if they persist, they can become too much and cause reluctance to participate in online learning. Unfortunately, this frustration is often passed on to parents who are doing their best to juggle working from home and looking after children.
Many people working from home might recognise that they feel particularly exhausted after an online meeting. I’ve seen it suggested that this is because of the cognitive dissonance of having a conversation whilst knowing that you are not really present. It also takes a lot of attention to focus on presenting various browser tabs, monitor messages in a chat and keep an eye on who is participating in the lesson.
One key limitation in how we use educational technology is that our devices are able to do increasingly many things at once, but our brains are still not great at multitasking.
Considering the mixed experiences of online learning so far, it’s time to consider what should be promoted and avoided when school buildings open again. I think it’s unlikely that we would choose to go back to exactly the way things operated before.
I expect to see fewer paper worksheets, as teachers and students are now more familiar with the online alternatives that allow students to show their knowledge and to receive immediate feedback. This doesn’t mean I’m not expecting to save trees; I will value paper as a medium to share as we jot down our ideas, share notes of encouragement, create art and decorate our shared environment with paint and crayons.
I plan to continue to take advantage of recording important lessons and instructions that allow students to pause and replay to deepen their understanding. This will allow me more time to work with individual students, rather than stand at the front of the class delivering instructions. I will also maintain the habit of giving written feedback online, using the opportunity to think carefully as I write constructive encouragement, that appears in comment boxes rather than ink marks on a page.
As the students of 2020 live through this moment in history, it’s my hope that this shared experience of making it through coronavirus will unite them. This unity might even help them increase their shared sense of purpose shown through the climate strikes.
We not only possess the tools but also the experience to have effective online meetings with students around the world. We don’t even need to be restricted by time zones and borders as our homes have become extensions of our classrooms. There are also opportunities for children excluded from mainstream classrooms due to disability to be included, now that we have established the strategies to make this possible.
It will be some time before we see the lasting changes that the school closures bring to education, but I am certain those changes will be significant. Educators and students are now familiar with new tools and routines so the fear of change is no longer a factor that is holding back progress.
We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to embed these changes in our schools, however. My first priority when school starts again will be to relearn some of the offline skills we might have forgotten, like listening to each other intently, making eye contact and reading and responding to body language, without the comfort of a mute button. I’m looking forward to dressing up for work again to start the next chapter of education and help shape what that experience will be like.
Jim Nelson is a primary school teacher from Northern Ireland who has also worked in secular and Christian international schools in China and Hong Kong.