The potential of digital technology in education and its impact on approaches to online teaching

In March 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic left thousands of children to carry on with their learning outside of school. This changed the educational landscape dramatically and gave the world a glimpse into how teaching and learning could change for better, or for worse, in the long term.

Partial school closures as a result of the lockdown engendered various responses in the effort to continue learning. Some schools offered printed paper-based packs to their families, whilst others interacted through email or via school-based virtual learning environments. Some tried to recreate the school setting using online video conferencing tools, whilst others sought to achieve continuity of learning by offering pre-recorded or live lessons through remote learning models.

While technology in education has never been the priority for the government or indeed for many schools, it is now at the forefront as a way to enable learning to continue in order to avoid the already growing gap of inequality and disparity between our pupils (Foster and Staton, 2020). Literature from the World Economic Forum (2020) suggests that COVID-19 has taken on the form of a catalyst for educational institutions to search for innovative solutions to age-old problems. In some cases, teachers and students have had to embrace technology for the very first time. The use of technology gives education a new meaning, allowing for online lessons where teachers and students can collaborate and discuss in real time.

Amongst all this change, my principal concern lies with the teachers and the impact teaching online has made to their current pedagogic practices, and the effects on the students – in keeping them engaged and continuously motivated to learn.

Online pedagogical strategies

According to a 2019 EduCause survey, only nine per cent of instructors prefer to teach in a completely online environment (Galanek and Gierdowski, 2019). This suggests that 91 per cent of the rest of teachers prefer face-to-face classroom teaching. This should come as no surprise, as chances are, there is less excitement and buzz at the end of a lively online discussion than could possibly take place in the classroom. But good teaching will yield good conversations and these can also take place online, provided teachers have a good understanding of the types of pedagogical practices that will work most effectively.

As documented in the FutureLearn How to Teach Online course (FutureLearn, 2020) lessons may be synchronous, where the teacher will talk to pupils live as though in a physical classroom, or asynchronous, where lessons are pre-recorded. While real-time live lessons seem to resemble the traditional classroom setting closely, this manner of teaching, although effective, is not necessarily sustainable for weeks or months. At the end of the day, both students and teachers can find themselves tired and frustrated. On the other hand, asynchronous teaching may seem more appropriate and practical, loaded with instruction, videos and voice recordings, so that a student can complete their tasks whenever their schedules permit. But, this can leave pupils overwhelmed, confused and even emotionally distanced, thereby not able to carry out the tasks or assessments assigned by their teachers.

Flaherty (2020) suggests that there is a delicate balance to be achieved between delivering live teacher-student lessons vs. independent flipped learning instruction, sometimes followed by assessment. It is also important to recognise appropriate online pedagogical strategies that resonate with the age of the child. Good teaching requires teachers to be in the classroom with their students, and this is particularly relevant with younger children. With emphasis on young children in their primary years, DfE case studies by schools found that it is more effective to use live sessions to connect with the students in the first instance or introduce new material, and then offer a pre-recorded presentation followed by a task or activity (DfE, 2020). When primary school teachers teach, they engage with the children in a playful and highly communicative manner, explaining, guiding, asking, illustrating and answering questions. This can allow for the lesson to flow smoothly and will help keep younger students engaged. Young children learn through play and when they feel safe, secure and connected, they have a greater chance of learning (Lego Foundation, 2017).

Asynchronous learning, or the concept of flipped learning methodology is often associated with older students who are expected to learn new content on their own using self-study materials (Roddy et al., 2017). This method would rely on student participation to engage independently and is therefore an approach better suited to older learners. Depending on the maturity of the student, there is no guarantee that they will oblige or cooperate with this method. However, there is still a place for asynchronous learning with students in the senior years, and schools have found it useful when delivering their lessons online. This can then be followed by assessment, after which a teacher may wish to conduct live teaching lessons to close gaps and deepen understanding.

One size does not fit all. But it is worth understanding the subtle differences when considering online pedagogical practices, and the range of academic ability among students encountering them.

Online learning strategies

Most teachers enjoy teaching in person because they can interact with their students, share their passion for their subject and witness the ‘aha’ moments of understanding. Some teachers enjoy the performance aspect and have their own persona in the classroom, which unfortunately can get lost in translation in online delivery. Employing humour, pausing and raising voices do not necessarily have the same emphasis as they would in face-to-face teaching (Darby, 2020). Dry chat messages and no facial expressions can make it very difficult to capture engagement or make a point. So, with all these blockages online, how then can teachers continue to keep students engaged and motivated?

Engagement

According to Speck (TES, 2020), the growing distance between a teacher and student has the potential to result in stranger anxiety. Therefore, creating a bond and trusted space with students is key in this environment. Recording yourself whenever possible is a great way to bring yourself to class (Unicef, 2020). Whether by audio or video, it is a good idea to capture expertise, and your own personal style in a way that comes across with impact. Perfection is impossible so do not feel the need to strive for that. We are in the profession of teaching not video editors or animators, so if you are annotating on a presentation or drawing squiggly diagrams, and it does not come across as sophisticated, this is ok. Be as natural and authentic as you can – this is how your students know you.

Motivation

When trying to motivate your students, put yourself in their shoes. What are they looking for and what do they want from you? Neither you nor your students chose to learn in an online environment, but have yet had to adapt to the new norm. In a physical classroom, it is easier to pick up on nonverbal cues especially when you see that your student is lost, confused or just bored, but this becomes more challenging in an online environment. To address this, have a think about your classroom tone and mood. Do you enjoy your online classroom? Are you there and available to support your students during these remote times and do you enjoy communicating with your students online as you did in the physical classroom? When you enter your physical classroom, you smile, greet your students and make eye contact – try to do the same in your online classroom if you can. Show your support and demonstrate optimism and positivity.

As educators, we need to think about how to draw our students into the online learning experience. Using interactive tools such as Kahoot, Nearpod, Microsoft Forms and Stream, Quizlet and Padlet (some of my favourites) are great ways to segment the lesson and add in some interactivity, which may help to maintain students’ motivation to learn for longer periods of time (D2L, 2017).

Conclusion

When people predict that things will no longer be the same in education, it is possible that they are referring to lessons learned by teaching and learning online, and it may be true that some aspects of schooling might not go back to the way they were before. People do get comfortable with adaptations and it appears that the education system is ready for a digital change.

 

Key questions:

  • How do I adapt my lessons to suit my students online?
  • How can I ensure student engagement and participation?
  • How do I encourage students to stay motivated and curious?

 

References

Dans E (2020) Want to Teach Online? Change the way you think about it. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2020/04/03/want-to-teach-online-then-change-the-way-you-think-aboutit/#2884483b5ada (accessed 8 June 2020).
Darby F (nd) How to be a better online teacher. Available at: www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching(accessed 8 June 2020).
Department for Education (DfE) (2020) Keeping pupils motivated and engaged. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/keeping-primary-and-secondary-pupils-motivated-and-engaged-at-a-distance (accessed 8 June 2020).
Desire2Learn (D2L) (2017). How to Apply Brain Science to Online Learning. Available at: https://www.d2l.com/corporate/blog/apply-brain-science-online-learning/ (accessed 8 June 2020).
Educational Technology. Tips to increase student engagement through eLearning. Available at: https://edtechnology.co.uk/comments/tips-to-increase-student-engagement-through-elearning-1505398312/ (accessed 8 June 2020).
Flaherty C (2020) Zoom Boom. Inside Higher Ed. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/29/synchronous-instruction-hot-right-now-it-sustainable (accessed 8 June 2020).
Foster P and Staton B (2020) How coronavirus is widening the gap in schools. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/50fcc605-674d-4630-9718-d3890eccffbf (accessed 8 June 2020).
FutureLearn (2020) COVID-19: The best resources for online teaching during coronavirus. Available at: www.futurelearn.com/info/blog/resources-for-online-teaching-during-coronavirus (accessed 8 June 2020).
Galanek JD and Gierdowski DC (2019) EDUCAUSE Research Report: ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology. Availabe at: library.educause.edu/-/media/files/library/2019/12/facultystudy2019.pdf?la=en&hash=F0F8AF83BD870239A7E5CD285FBDBE157AA51135 (accessed 8 June 2020).
Lego Foundation (2017) Learning through play: A review of the evidence. Available at: https://www.legofoundation.com/media/1063/learning-through-play_web.pdf (accessed 8 June 2020).
Roddy C, Amiet DL, Chung J et al. (2017) Applying Best Practice Online Learning, Teaching, and Support to Intensive Online Environments: An Integrative Review. Frontiers in Education Journal (2): 59.
TES (2020) A third of teachers have Covid-19 mental health fears. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/third-teachers-have-covid-19-mental-health-fears (accessed 8 June 2020).
Unicef (2020) Keeping the world’s children learning through Covid-19. Available at: www.unicef.org/coronavirus/keeping-worlds-children-learning-through-covid-19 (accessed 8 June 2020).
World Economic Forum (2020) 3 ways the coronavirus pandemic could reshape education. Available at: www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/3-ways-coronavirus-is-reshaping-education-and-what-changes-might-be-here-to-stay/ (accessed 8 June 2020).

 

 

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