Spring break has been moved forward by a week so it seems as though this is a good opportunity to reflect on things that have and haven’t worked during e-learning. As the rest of the world starts it feels strange to have been on the front lines, trying out a number of different ideas to keep students motivated and engaged. Some have been more successful than others but I am proud of what my team and my students have accomplished. On Friday my class had a reflection meeting where we took stock of our accomplishments and reflected on how had felt things had gone so far. It was good to hear the students’ perspectives on how they felt they had done, activities they had enjoyed, and what they would like to see more of when we return from the break.
Well that went well…
I began the first week of e-learning by assigning the students a summative task for the end of our unit of inquiry. The students had planned a migration story before the Chinese New Year vacation and so I set them the task of drafting and revising their work. The idea was that this would be a week-long process allowing for teacher feedback and guidance with the final product due at the end of the week. The first thing I realized was that distance learning is not like learning in the classroom. Students saw that the deadline was Friday and so the majority did their work on Friday. Looking back I now see the students needed additional scaffolding with a more gradual release of responsibility. If I were to do this again, I would begin by modeling the writing process through videos shared with the students. I would have written a paragraph collaboratively using the meeting feature on Microsoft Teams and then assigned students partners in the same time zone to work on a paragraph together. All of this would have been done before asking them to work independently. By aligning this task with Vygotsky’s gradual release of responsibility model I could have reduced student anxiety in addition to helping all students find success.
Strict deadlines are another thing that I found do not work with e-learning. I had students in different counties around the world who were unable to access material posted online at the same time as their peers. Flexibility and a focus on communication helped alleviate some of the pressure many students were feeling at the start of e-learning. I have observed that more students have started to reach out for help as the weeks have progressed and the majority of students have settled into a daily routine.
Access has been a recurring area of difficulty during e-learning. After attending the ACAMIS technology conference in October I was incredibly grateful for the toolkit I had at my disposal. I quickly found, however, that many websites were having issues that meant students could not view content from their homes. I had to work closely with my team to come up with solutions that would allow students to be able to access the materials we had posted each day. We posted files to Google Drive for students outside China and Microsoft’s One Drive for those here at home. We found that by posting videos to YouKu we were able to support students in China whose internet was too slow to download large MP4 files. Additionally, I quickly learned that I needed to test all websites using an internet connection without a VPN before asking students to use them. During the first week of e-learning, I forgot to do this and found that many of the websites I had posted to had restricted use for students in China. Perhaps the biggest take away though was that e-learning is not the time to be attempting to introduce students to new websites. They need to have had previous exposure and feel confident in navigating platforms in order to make the most use of it.
Microsoft Teams has been incredibly useful in allowing students to stay connected to the rest of their class. I have been holding daily meetings in the mornings and afternoons to connect with my class. I feel that building a learning community is one of the most important and best parts of teaching. I’m looking to Vygotsky again here but his theory on social learning has heavily influenced my pedagogy. One of the big questions I faced was how do I let students know that they are still part of 4B when they’re out of the classroom? Consistent video conferencing has been extremely helpful in helping me meet my own expectations. These meetings have followed a familiar formula each day where I explain the day’s tasks and schedule, answer questions and clearing any misconceptions students may have, and finally sharing stories or work from the previous day. Students reported they found these motivating and enjoyed the opportunity to meet online with their peers. The more experience they gained with Teams the more they began experimenting and building their own communities. Different chat groups started to spring up and the students had a place where they could talk to one another and feel connected again.
For students with ESOL needs, I felt it important to try and talk over the phone every day in small groups so that they could maintain their conversational English. By doing this I have found that students quickly grew in confidence when speaking over video chat. After the third or fourth session, many of these students felt more comfortable in joining meetings with other members of our class and began asking me for help independently when they needed it.
One of the benefits of students being at home is that they had access to their personal devices. This allowed for a great deal of tech integration into every single day. Students regularly used PowerPoint to create presentations and share their understanding with others. A number of students have been creating videos and a few have started to edit them to add music or titles with iMovie. I had the students create a Leap Year detector in Scratch that they could use to test whether years from the past were or weren’t leap years which helped to round off a maths unit. My team also managed to have the students take part in a virtual field trip, exploring the galleries of an art museum. All of which has helped the students stay motivated and excited about learning.
My own experience
It’s incredible just how much extra work e-learning is compared to being in the classroom with the students. The thought that needs to be put into every assignment as to whether students will understand directions or they will know what to do if they’re stuck can feel overwhelming at times. My experiences with COETAIL have helped me see things from my student’s perspective. Many of them are taking extra online classes in addition to the work set by me and they are finding it hard to find balance. It’s something I have found difficult too but I am slowly finding it easier and getting back to feeling grounded. We still have some time with distance learning ahead of us, however, we have started to hear rumors that we may hear of updates regarding school reopenings soon. Things are starting to feel more like they are getting back to normal here so I think it’s good for all educators to know that there is an end to this. I asked if I was meeting the needs of my students in a previous blog post. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to answer that question yet but I am proud of all I have achieved over the last seven weeks and it’s amazing to read and hear the experiences of other teachers going through the same thing.