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To distance

by Barak Aaronson

It was very interesting to read the reflections of parents, students and teachers on their new forced experiences in ‘on-line’ learning or what is considered today ‘distance’ learning. I found a lot of shared thoughts towards the usage of digital tools in the classroom, yet I also found that important aspects and useful tools for distance (and e-learning for that matter) haven’t been raised or explored. This is the reason I wish to give my contribution. First, I’d like to clarify (and I hope that it doesn’t steer you from reading) that: I’ve never taught in an Italian school, we don’t send our kids to school and so what I have to say about e-learning doesn’t stem from the current covid crisis.

My e-learning or distance learning experiences as a teacher started way before reliable video conferencing was available, google documents was just invented (many people still had hotmail accounts) and YouTube just started picking up its activity. For many teachers using technology in the classroom meant that they used a PowerPoint presentation and sent homework by email not much more than that. There was no pandemic to force me to adopt to a technology I wasn’t interested in. I was a young and enthusiastic chemistry highschool teacher in Israel between the years 2007-2010 which had (and still has) a fascination with using digital technology to solve classroom problems and even enhance learning environments. 

So first I’d highlight the problems I felt I had to deal with and how I tried to use digital technology (some of which can be considered ‘distance’ learning). I can immagine that many of these issues are also present in Italian schools

  1. I had very big classes of up to 40 students – this came with natural differences in learning backgrounds and skills development. I had to try and tailor lessons that would appeal to all, tackle multiple layers of understanding.
  2. My classes were 45 min long and were only a small part of a 6 or 7 hour long day for my pupils. Can anyone really concentrate for this amount of time, on demand? (I know that some kids are given drugs in order to do so!). What happens if pupils just finished a sports class (or had just finished an exam)? Now, I have to try and teach them a difficult and abstract concept on the structure of the atom, how? Can’t digital technology help me?
  3. I was supposed to give homework and check them (school demanded I have a record and give marks accordingly) – this took a big chunk of time from the lesson. The kids were tense because they knew I had to check if they did their homework randomly and they were trying to copy answers as I was asking other pupils around the class. I felt horrible, it felt like a total waste of time, the homework check was shallow and homework checking turned from a tool of learning to a stressful and intimidating ‘catch-me-if-you can’ game. 
  4. The traditional classroom arrangements (physical space and time constraints) prevented me from doing anything creative with my classes. Can I use technology to enlarge the capacity of teaching?
  5. All of the above gave me less and less time in the chemistry labs – the place where I think the best part of learning science happens: hands on experiences. 

In the early 2000s and at the time I was a teacher trainee there was a new wave of educational ideas to address many of the problems above. These ideas came mainly from the USA. I’d like to share one of them in particular which can be useful in the pandemic crisis and then highlight technologies that can be involved to make it applicable. 

The flipped classroom’: The idea was to flip between the classical notion of classroom teaching and homework.

In the traditional format: a teacher uses the ‘frontal’ lesson (where he speaks to the class in school) to introduce ‘new’ concepts and ‘new’ subject material. At home, the student is asked to apply the ‘new’ knowledge to solve a set of problems or answer questions.. this is by the way, the time a student needs help from the teacher the most!
In a flipped classroom the roles switch: At home the student is required to listen to a series of on-line lessons or clips (here comes the usage of YouTube and other platforms), or asked to read a chapter in a book at his own time (when he is most concentrated and comfortable). In the class, the ‘frontal’ lesson becomes a workshop where the pupils work on problems and the teacher discusses and roams around between them. Better still, this allows to introduce creative projects. Pupils can start working in class on a creative project and then continue at home. The flipped classroom can solve many of the problems I mentioned above. In fact, it also encourages the students to take responsibility over their own learning and to confront ‘new’ concepts on their own. Most important, it allwos maximizing the direct interaction between teacher and student as the ‘lecture’ is cut out from the lesson. That, the students do at home.

At the same time MIT came up with an amazing project: selected university courses were recorded and put on-line free of charge. How many times have I refreshed my physics and chemistry using these YouTube lectures! I got totally inspired to do the same.

So what are the tools that could be used in order to maximise learning experiences? Here is a partial list with it’s advantages and suggestions to use as distance learning tools in time of a pandemic:

  1. YouTube: there is nothing better than having a good collection of well performed explanations of various topics. Doing it from home you can use video clips, animations, sketch and most important – no interruptions from students ☺. The students can listen multiple times, when they want and when they feel ready. This is a basic tool for ‘distance’ learning. I still have Israeli students watching my videos more than 10 years after I left the profession! Yes, I did get a big jump in viewing during the corona crisis.
  2. Blogging: For a teacher this is another form of communication and a way of introducing new materials – it might not be as effective as a good short clip but it has much more flexibility to deepen the discussions. I’ll talk about student blogging in the next Wiki section
  3. Wiki platforms: You all know Wikipedia – the online encyclopedia written by it’s community of users. You can download and install your own Wiki website. Wiki is a fantastic platform for creating a true online discussion. Students are given credentials to contribute to the Wiki platform (Have you noticed that on every Wiki page there is a discussion tab? Where people can comment and discuss the content of the actual page). 

For example, a teacher can start a wikipage about the coronavirus in Nonantola and invite students to contribute (or even delegate students to write on specific topics) like: what is the virus (the biological background), how it is effecting Nonantola? What are the guidlines of behaviour and why? and so on. The contributors are the pupils and learning happens in their own time during the day. They can use a wide range of on-line learning materials and, nowadays, even consult by chat, email or video call, directly their teacher. The teacher can adjust and correct the wiki page, leave comments and open a discussion. The teacher can see what each student has contributed to the bigger class discussion – so it’s not just one to one learning but also how to interact with other students and their ideas. Unlike a video conference, it is easy to see who contributes to the Wiki content and, if marks for participation and quality are needed, a teacher can valuate the performance and contribution of each pupil. Unlike a google/word document – the appearnce of the Wiki page is more inviting to contribute. It only requires the teacher and pupils to understand that learning happens in a different way.

  1. Google Forms: Google forms allow you to build a questionnaire that can be used to collect information from students, as an opinion poll or even as a short quizz. The unswers are sent as an Excell spreadsheet and a teacher can perform and share statistics in a split of a second. A teacher can even build an automatic checking system and send feedback in a very short time – something you can’t do in a ‘traditional’ classroom.

So these are just a few tools available and one question remains.. How did it work at your school? Well the answer is complex and I hope this can raise a much deeper debate about how eduacation and learning is appraoched in general:

I had mixed successes: ‘Flipping’ the classroom only partially worked. The videos of lessons I uploaded to YouTube were used exstensively and mainly appreciated by the students (though it required a lot of work to make quality videos and clear explanations). As a result, I could free more time in class to work on problem solving, discussions and play with some project based learning. However, many students and parents accused me for giving too much responsibility to their own learning from home. According to them I should explain over and over again the concepts that ‘they haven’t understood’. In essence, I was blamed for not teaching.

In a case of the current pandemic – YouTube (or to other video uploading platforms) and creating quality content by teachers is the first thing to do and could cut short unneccessary conferencing time. 

There still remains the meaningful part: the direct contact with the student – this, if planned properly can be done via chats, email and short videoconferencing conversations on an individual basis, during the day for the entire week – until the next milestone. Sometimes this is far better than spending a whole 45 minutes in a big class when you don’t really communicate with anyone – you intercat with a hadful of pupils. The teacher now (in the digital classroom) becomes someone that is available for contact more than the allocated time he had previously for a lesson at school. Maybe, the quality of connection could even be greater, even though not face to face. Pick up the phone – ask the pupils how was the video and if they had any questions. Write a personal email, see how they react. Just don’t put them in front of a conference call screen to listen to you do the same stuff you did before the crisis. Obviously for the science teacher where the lab should be a major place of learning it’s more problematic but there is no reason not to revert to kitchen Chemistry : let your student’s record a kitchen experiment and explain it to their class mates.

When it came to project based learning and using the Wiki platform I got  much worse reactions. In a way, I think the schooling system is just not built for this or at best just not ready. For very few students this was an opprtunity to flourish and be more creative. My students wanted clear tasks – to answer simple questions not to do research and write about a topic they didn’t know about yet. Teachers didn’t like it because it was too different from a normal lesson. Parents said it was too much work for their kids and, rightously, commented that it didn’t prepare them for the national examinations. It didn’t, it might have actually taught them something

I stopped insisting on project based learning or using the Wiki platform before the year ended. But in hindsight, I think I could have tried harder to make it work and ‘educate’ my students and thier parents that, on the long run, this is a far richer learning experience than what they were used to before. I think that we (teachers and parents alike) are still too fixed on classical teaching styles and the crave for measuring every step doesn’t let teachers and students explore alternative learning experiences. How can you assess a students contribution to a Wiki page? What do you do with those that contributed less? If you give a project (for example, I once subtituted a written exam with creating a five minute video about a scientific issue), how do you ‘mark’ it so that it can be compared between classes? It’s not going to result in a normalized bell shape graph that satsfies the regional inspector. Of course it won’t, just like learning abilities are not distributed across the population in a normal bell shaped curve.

What I felt was that nobody realy wanted to change the status quo around teaching and learning. A teacher was to remain a lecturer that checks homework and writes exams. Students are to be given material to digest and do the minimum they can to pass the national requirements. Developing interests and independant learning? This is not really the matter – school wasn’t meant for that.

Changing the way we learn at school is what really needs to be discussed, the pandemic is just an opportunity to shuffle some tools and try new approaches. As I was afraid, reading the comments of the parents and students, this has not really happened and in fact it turned out to just emphasize the faults of a failing learning environment. Teachers should have been given time, encouragement and resources to train and be exposed to new approaches of teaching way before the pandemic started. A discussion on how we create independant and confident learners should have started long before. Hoever, I’m optimistic that this crisis and how it may lead teachers and students to see the already existent absurdities will change many peoples views and may consider changing the approach adopted in public education.

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