Reflecting on the systems you have in place

Without a doubt, the pandemic has brought about the biggest change to education in decades. Lessons are increasingly being offered through live video calls or other technology-enabled synchronous and asynchronous learning. This has created significant challenges for both educators and students. In some cases, a difficult situation may have been made worse by changes that were not necessary, or that were introduced too quickly. Let's start by reflecting on what you and your school are doing.

Technology: the student’s domain

Image: Meyer, Marvin. Unsplash, 2017

For many students, virtual learning has demonstrated that they know far more than their teachers about technology! For some educators, this sudden change has been unnerving, even unwelcome. Instead, we should be celebrating the fact that, as long as we can master the tools at our disposal, most students should also find things straightforward (as long as we provide clear instructions!). Therefore, you should be open to the use of technology, and proactive in asking for help. Your colleagues, IT teams, e-learning coordinators, even students can and will help you when asked.

In a fascinating article, a neuroscientist notes that if teenagers have become conditioned to passively absorb information through technology (think YouTube) or dart from one tab to the other, then it will be difficult for educators to encourage them to remain on-task. Some suggested solutions to this issue of engagement are time-locks for apps and self-monitoring of deviations from the work to be done. As well as this, you and your school need to consider how you can easily monitor whole class engagement if they are not physically in front of you.

Quick polls, cold calling and checking through collaborative documents are just some of the simple techniques for checking engagement that are outlined later in this guide.

Synchronous or asynchronous?

There is no set way of delivering virtual schooling. Some schools have opted for 100% synchronous learning, with timetabled lessons through Zoom, Meet or some other videoconferencing tool. Others have a highly asynchronous approach, with tasks and projects to complete in the students’ own time, and by a set deadline. The range of options available means that there are almost as many approaches as there are schools.

An insightful blog post by Daisy Christodoulou, a well-known UK education expert, highlights the fact that attempting to replicate high-pace classroom activities on a video call may be doomed to failure. In particular, she notes that 'Reticent students may find it easier to "disappear" in the remote setting than in the normal classroom setting'. Importantly, Christodoulou argues that educators need to think less about replicating the classroom online, and more about replicating learning processes. This may be a more suitable way to plan for engagement.

How you are delivering virtual school impacts how you perceive, or indeed misperceive, student engagement. When my school first moved to virtual school, we placed too much emphasis on students attending lessons. This led us to communicate concerns about engagement based on measures of attendance, when the student was actually completing all work set. We now have quick forms for staff to fill in if they are concerned about student engagement. The forms are focused on work completion, and are collated by the heads of year. We then use attendance data alongside the staff concerns to build a picture of what is going wrong.

Encourage or start conversations within your department or school about how you will measure engagement, and what constitutes unacceptable levels of engagement.

Cognitive load theory and virtual learning

Source: Housel, Morgan. Unsplash, 2020.

This outstanding introduction by Dominc Shibli and Rachel West to CLT provides plenty of food for thought about the dangers of making your virtual lessons too complex. Put yourself in the student’s shoes: they have finite working memory available, and their teachers have now added the additional burden of new technology and more complicated instructions. The more clicks, URLs and tabs you require from a student, the less space you are leaving for them to concentrate on the task in hand. Failures in working memory are often associated with lower engagement, so one promising strategy for improving engagement is to simplify the intrinsic and extraneous cognitive loads of the work.

Make your tasks as straightforward as possible. Repeat activities that work again and again, and create shared folders where everything for the class gets placed. Use your learning platforms such as ManageBac and Google Classroom. Always plan with the student in mind.

What happens when things go wrong?

Finally, nothing disrupts engagement like a technical issue! How quickly you can recover is vital. Below are five easy steps to preventing or minimising the impact of technical problems.

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Make sure your own device is connected to the internet through multiple wifi networks, ethernet cables, etc.

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Bookmark and organise all of the internet tabs you need. Here are guides for Chrome and Firefox.

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Know who you need to contact when an issue occurs. Have a ready-made email in your drafts (or if you use canned responses in gmail, set one up). This saves time, especially if you are having to email using your phone because your laptop has stopped working!

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When planning, make sure the activities are ones that can continue without you being present. Have clear instructions on the document or learning platform. Even when there are no technical issues, get your students used to working for 10-15 minutes 'on their own'.

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Know how you will alert students to the issue. Do you use messages on ManageBac or Google Classroom? Have you set up an email list? Or a Teams/Hangouts group? Tell your students what communication channel you will use with them during lessons, and NEVER use another one. When something goes wrong, all your students will be looking in the same place for an update. You, a colleague or a student only need to provide one message.