Three Problems with Online Teaching

We started our school year today. We have a split group of teachers who are fully online and a group who is hybrid, two days in school and three days online. To make our support manageable, my counterpart and I have worked to infuse systems that support both 100% online and the hybrid model of instruction.

With so much uncertainty, it's hard to push teachers to completely rethink how they approach instruction. Building a foundation on something familiar is an easier ask than jumping into a brand new paradigm with very little time to prepare ahead. What I've ended up seeing is a group of teachers, not just in our district, who are trying to re-create the school day in an online space as closely as they can. So, a group of students is assigned work on Day A and the second group sees the same thing, but on Day B. Time is dictating student access to information, given out at the discretion of the teacher.

That's a bad model, but it's especially bad when you're online or in a hybrid.

It's an Equity Problem

Directing information in this way assumes all students can access that material on your scheduled. In the traditional school strucutre, that's less bad (though still less than ideal) because we have that time with students face to face. It's expected and generally followed for the larger population.

Online, that's asking a lot.

Some families stayed online because they can afford to. It's a luxury they can take advantage of. Others are all online because of necessity. The rest are hybrid for the same reasons. At the end of the day, we have a diverse population with at minimum three different paradigms for schoolwork. That doesn't include family dynamic, Internet access patterns, work patterns, and a number of other situations.

Assuming a typical school day will work as an online school day ignores the varied situations our students are in. Flexibility helps mitigate those differences. Equitable access to content starts with flexibility in how a student both receives that material (assignments, reading, videos, etc) and how they respond to those prompts.

It's an Instructional Problem

Equitable access to information isn't a problem with technology. It's a problem with our paradigms for designing and implementing instruction. Teaching online frees you from the notion of "all here, all doing" when it comes to information transfer. The simple act of offloading the information iteslf into the personal space allows students to develop and practice some agency in their learning.

The most frequent argument to this idea is, "But they'll work ahead!" It amazes me that teachers are worried about students working ahead.

Information isn't the only part of teaching. It's a starting point. Students can watch a year's worth of my biology videos in a few hours, but they're not going to learn anything important unless I design meanginful, engaging activities and tasks that forces them to use what they've watched.

This is an instructional problem. It's a problem that we equate information transfer (I talk, you listen) with learning so closely that we cannot fathom posting videos at the start of the week for everyone, regardless of their class day. It's a problem that we worry about students moving forward in the class on their own time because they have time on Monday to do the work you were planning on assigning Wednesday.

Working online provides a great intervention to the idea that learning happens on the teacher's time, not on the student's time.

It's an Assessment Problem

If your instruction online is crippled from the start because you don't have a way to proctor students during tests, you've got a bigger problem with assessment. Practice problems cam be gamed. "Skill games" don't actually measure skill (yes, I said it). Assessment is a strategy that informs the student of where they are and the teacher of what you should be doing differently. It takes serious planning. It takes skill to create useful, valid, reliable assessments.

It takes even more skill to design assessments that only show student learning better when they're done online.

Giving a test online (if you want to call it a test) allows students to use the vast amount of information on the Internet as a resource. This is a good thing. Your assessment strategy should change in such a way that if a student does Google the answer, their answer only gets better as a result. Open-ended questions, inquiry, allowing students to define their own performance criteria takes the stress out of writing the perfect multiple choice question.

The Hard Truth

The fact is that teaching online should force a teacher to look into a mirror (or webcam) and question everything they've thought about teaching before. If time and place are non-issues, if the vast swath of the Internet is open for searching, and if you had the freedom to design and use it how you wanted, what would be possible? What would you choose to do instead of just do?

It's scary. It's often frustrating. It's definitely humbling.

The featured photo is Space by Ikhlasul Amal is licensed under CC BY-NC