Teaching Remotely – First Thoughts

The second half of the Spring half term has always felt a bit manic. Year 11s and Year 13s doing mock exams, and then report-writing and parents evenings and finishing the course and trying to get them revision ready, and setting up for Easter and … breathe.

This half term, of course, has been unforgettably altered. We’ve seen and used the word “unprecedented” a lot – but we do live in unprecedented times. I’ve never thought about teaching remotely before, and I’ve never considered how I’d do it – and now, a week of what I’m sure will be many to come – what are my first thoughts?

I must, incidentally, recognise some of my own position here. I’m a reasonably experienced teacher, and as a HoD, have some control over what my team and I choose to focus on. As a school, we have pre-existing ICT infrastructure that has made this relatively straightforward to transition, and I’m comfortable with technology and application. I am also very lucky to have a spare room to work in at home, and I don’t have children or wider caring responsibility to take me away. With that, then, my lessons for this week have been:

ICT Heroes

First, I have to pay tribute to the immense work behind the scenes of thousands of ICT support staff – and commercial tech providers across the country. We’ve seen huge effort from them, and massive injections of time, energy and resources to transition to a virtual learning environment in a very short space of time. Firefly’s virtually overnight server upgrade, school ICT teams rolling out new software, training staff and students, and re-writing Acceptable User Agreements to reflect this brave new world – you guys have made all of this possible, and I am enormously grateful.

Validation of VLEs

With a sudden shift to online learning platforms, I think that the institutions and students for whom the transition will be most successful are those who are used to it. Of course, no school runs a virtual learning environment with the expectation that there won’t be a physical one alongside it, but I think that places which have experience with a VLE will find the adjustment less tricky. For us, we’ve used Firefly for some time – nearly four years, now – and staff and students alike are broadly confident in tasks, returning work, and creating pages. I’ve loved Firefly for ages – and was one of the advocates for it in my current school, based on previous experience. For me, the opportunities of the pages and virtual creation of work have enabled an almost unlimited virtual textbook of activities, resources and tasks to be created – but that has been done in my Department over the scope of years, rather than having to come online in a short period!

Wherever possible, institutions should stick with what they know – for us, Firefly has meant we have an obvious asynchronous learning platform. By contrast, our intent to deliver some interactive components has meant that we’ve had to bring Microsoft Teams online for students and staff alike, and to do so in a very short timeframe. Here, the key is anchoring to the familiar – people are comfortable with our well-established use of Office 365, and this forms a logical extension of that platform in a way that isn’t particularly intimidating. While some people are having great fun and playing with interactive quizzes and many components which might well be unsustainable in the longer term, the short term experience is that – once more – the familiar routines are the most sustainable.

Blessed by booklets

I have previously written about trialling booklets this year as part of my teaching and learning strategies (https://drpreece.home.blog/2019/11/01/reflections-baby-steps-with-booklets/), and the myriad advantages and disadvantages they bring.

However, one of the key challenges I think remote education faces is the lack of connectivity – you don’t know what your students have in front of them, and how they are engaging, writing it down and making progress as you go through your ideas and share your screen if you’re teaching ‘live’. A properly planned task can control that asynchronously, but the benefit of booklets has been magnified using the lens of remote teaching. Students find it much easier to work through what we’re discussing, and because you know in advance what they are seeing, I’ve found it much easier to plan what I want to teach, and how I want to navigate from idea to idea. Game changer – but again, something I’ve implemented before, rather than doing it purely for the online transition!

Plan for learning, not tech

When we sat down at the start of last week to think about what we could do, our first thought as a Department was “what do we want to teach?”. We recognized early on that this wouldn’t – couldn’t – be “business as usual”, but we wanted the starting point to be about what we would be trying to think about in Geography, rather than what we could do with the technology.

This helped us come up with week plans, that we wrote to students at the start of the week. This is what we’re doing, this is where we’re going – do this and bring it to our interactive session here, do this afterwards, here are your resources. The clarity of our planning was helpful for them: they could see where it all fitted, and could manage time and resources.

Go back to your teacher planner. What would you want to do across the period of learning – what’s the narrative and the story? How do you connect the experiences – what can they do for themselves, what might they need guidance on, and what might you need interactivity and direct instruction for? Now plan your technology to support that – how can you make that learning possible? If you can’t, then you can’t – keep it simple, and think about planning cover lessons: how would you set it up if you weren’t physically able to deliver the lessons. Do that, instead.

But start with the subject.

Collaborate not isolate

By and large, teachers are a funny lot. We don’t like unnecessary workload, but will spend hours crafting “our own” resources because we don’t feel like we could teach from someone else’s lesson resources.

Online learning is no time for that: where possible, try and get time for your Department to plan together – and even better, to share out the responsibility for year groups, tasks or sections of work. If someone’s made an awesome video explainer for coastal landforms, how can you share it for all students? How can you share the quiz? The video page, and the questions and tasks?

Unlike our normal classrooms, there’s no cost to photocopying loads more, or physical wall separating us from seeing someone else’s teaching! Use this to your advantage – mix up the sets, mix up your classes – share and collaborate in a way that you’d never be able to do in school, under a standard timetable arrangement

Togetherness is more than lessons

At heart, schools are communities. Some people, and some schools, know that is their core purpose – they live and breathe the challenges of their communities and demographics every day. I live in suburban London, and our school doesn’t fight those battles extensively.

It’s been heart-warming to see the community spirit and need: students reassured by a friendly chat and interaction, staff coming together to use this new-fangled software to do the crossword together or have a virtual coffee time.

We are people, and whatever we do, we do it better together. Let’s not forget that, in this time. Figure out a way to help your students remember their communities: their tutor groups, their friends, their sense of fun and togetherness if you can. They – and you – will feel better for it.

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