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It’s okay to play

We’re about to embark on week 6 of distance learning in Ontario, week 4 of that learning being led by classroom teachers. The novelty has worn off and our reserves of cheerful optimism are running low. Teachers, elementary teachers in particular, are known for their cheeriness but even the sun-shiniest among us are showing the wear and tear of this uniquely stressful time. If you’re feeling out of sorts you’re in good company.

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Kids are feeling weary too. It’s a long haul and it’s going to get longer. My own children are tech-savy and have all their basic needs met: they wake up and go to bed on a regular schedule, they’re getting outside every day, they’re eating well and they have parents who can help them academically (although I confess that dividing fractions required me to do some review).  If my kids are struggling to remain motivated with their online classes, which they are, then it’s likely that everyone is. The teachers I’m in touch with reported that this week felt like heavy lifting with kids. They weren’t engaged, they weren’t handing in work and they weren’t present for synchronous sessions. What had been working before, suddenly wasn’t.

In my last post, I shared this image which describes the Community of Inquiry as conceptualized by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The model proposes that the educational experience in distance learning is composed of three equally important types of presence: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.

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Over the past several weeks we have seen a lot of influential educational thinkers frantically distancing themselves from the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” as we struggle to both name what we’re doing and to describe its challenges. Emergency remote learning seems to be a term most people can agree on. While I agree that what’s happening is somewhat different from a planned distance learning experience that students have chosen to engage in, I think that we ignore the lessons of distance education research at our peril. Imagining that what we’re doing is entirely different from what distance educators have been doing for decades just isn’t accurate. We’re doing it under intense pressure and with students who haven’t chosen to learn this way but the nuts and bolts of how it works is very similar.

One of the distance education practices that I think we would be wise to pay attention to is valuing social presence. Garrison (2009) describes social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.” I don’t know if that’s something most teachers thought about when they were rushing to put their online classrooms together a few weeks ago.

How are we allowing students to sustain and develop their relationships with us and with each other in our online context? How are we having fun? How are we being silly? How are we playing? We do this effortlessly in our classrooms by telling stories, joking with students, providing feedback, and relating personal connections to the material. We don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. Online we have to be more deliberate about it.

Even if you’re teaching grade 12 Physics, allowing time and space for the development of social presence matters. Why? It matters for its own sake – we all want to feel like we’re part of a community, especially now – and it also matters because it contributes to cognitive presence; students learn better when they’re socially engaged.  As an adult taking distance education courses, you may have never experienced this being done well but the research supports that social presence and cognitive presence go hand-in-hand. So don’t be afraid to ease off the content gas pedal for a while and focus on having fun with your students. Have a look at tools like FlipGrid, which allows students to post short video clips. Have a pet beauty contest, even if the contestants are pet rocks. Re-name the elements in the periodic table based on characters on their favourite TV shows, or politicians, or celebrities. Ask students to complete an activity outdoors – tableaux anyone? Have a silly walk contest. Give yourself permission to have fun. It’s not just okay to play, it may actually be essential to sustaining students’ cognitive presence over the long haul. We can be here for a good time and a long time.