Permanently Blended Learning

The COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone in education differently.  Classroom teachers, specialist teachers, administrators, librarians, custodians and office staff – we’ve all had to figure out what our jobs look like now.  When the Ontario Ministry of Education postponed the remaining Professional Development (PD) days for the year, one of our teachers quipped: “Isn’t every day a PD Day now?” It certainly feels that way.

We all began this journey at a different point in our learning. Some teachers were already using digital tools to support the work they were doing in their classrooms and some teachers didn’t know how to log into their G-Suite accounts.  Some students were familiar with handing in work online and other students had never used digital tools to support their learning. Some subjects lend themselves more easily to online learning: more tools exist, the content is easier to share online and students can work independently without sacrificing their understanding. Other subjects are very difficult to translate into the online environment – my heart goes out to the physical education, dance, drama and music teachers out there – it’s possible but it’s a tik-tokking challenge.

As we begin to thaw out both literally and figuratively this spring with restrictions on movement and assembly easing slowly, I want to consider the impact that COVID-19 might have on our practice as educators in the mid to long term.

When we go back to the physical building of school, which we inevitably will, it will be with all of this learning about distanced education in our back pockets. It also seems that we may be going back for periods of time, as this pandemic ebbs and flows or with only some students while others stay at home in shifts. While we don’t know what that will look like in its particulars, we can infer that it won’t look the same as it has for most of our careers. Our practice shouldn’t look the same either.

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Online banana bread baking class in progress. 

Here’s my modest proposal: from now on, every classroom will need to be a blended learning classroom, combining face-to-face and online elements. There will no longer be classes that don’t use online communication systems be they with parents or with students. It will become second nature to post content online, for assignments to be submitted online, for groups to meet online. Student portfolios will move online as students are now experienced at documenting their own work.

Blended learning will allow us the flexibility of moving seamlessly between face-to-face and online learning should we have to isolate again. We have given email addresses to 6-year-olds and the sky has not fallen; we can keep using these tools as part of our instructional toolkit – we don’t have to stop just because we’re back in the building.

Reverting back to our historical instructional practices would also be an abdication of our responsibility to prepare students for their futures. All of Ontario’s postsecondary institutions use an LMS (Learning Management System like D2L or Moodle) extensively, at any given moment, 16% of university students and 22% of community college students are enrolled in an online course. Most post secondary students graduate with at least one online course on their transcript. Getting students familiar with these tools is essential.

Beyond that, however, these systems make it possible to reach more students. While it’s true that distance learning doesn’t work for every student, what we’ve learned is that it works very well for some students.  Some students really like learning at their own pace and in their own time. Some students prefer learning independently. Some students prefer interacting digitally to interacting face-to-face. And that’s okay.

Part of differentiating instruction is providing options for students that may not be the options you’d select for yourself. This experience has given students a set of skills and capacities they didn’t have before mid-March. It’s opened up a world of possibilities. We need to change the way we teach because they’ve changed the way they learn.

 

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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.