The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced schools around the globe to close overnight and move all of their learning activities online. Such a drastic change in education is unprecedented. Every educational institution is under pressure to come up with a viable and sustainable solution for its community. There is no universal way to tackle this challenge – each education system and institution is unique with its own values, beliefs and priorities and thus will make different choices. However, as we are all grappling with remote learning at this moment, it could be valuable to start a collective reflection. As a former middle school teacher in Calgary and a current doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, I would like to share some of my thoughts.
What comes to your mind when you think of remote learning? So far, what I have seen the most is the “teachers-in-a-box” approach: having teachers record their lessons in advance and students watch the video on their own time. There are certainly advantages to this approach. For example, it makes learning flexible during this time of uncertainty; students can watch the lecture in a time that suits their family schedule. It also gives students more control over their learning – they can pause, take notes, replay as needed. For students who are still learning the language of instruction, being able to watch the lecture at their own pace with subtitles can be extremely helpful. Also, during this anxious time, it is reassuring for students to see some familiar faces of their teachers. However, if this is the only type of teaching that we can imagine, we might be losing out on the opportunities that the digital world offers.
What are the alternatives to “teachers-in-a-box”? A few examples came to my mind. Students from a primary school in Cambridgeshire have used Minecraft, a popular computer game, to design a Bronze Age city with the support of their teacher and experts from the University of Cambridge. Video games, such as Minecraft and Second Life can be used as engaging learning activities during this time of social distancing, allowing students to collaborate remotely in a digital learning community. Free educational apps, such as Duolingo, can also help to create fun lessons and maintain a learning community online. In Duolingo for schools, teachers can set up a class, invite students and monitor their progress in real-time, and students can follow and visit each other’s profiles just as they do in other social media platforms.
Virtual field trips are another option. Museums around the world are opening their doors virtually for free, among which include Louvre, the Vatican Museums, Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum in London, Musée d’Orsay, and my personal favourite the Van Gogh museum. Time-travelling and a virtual visit to the Giza Plateau are made possible by 3D Giza as part of the Digital Giza Project led by Harvard University. Students can also venture into nature, solve mysteries of ecosystems (ecoMUVE), conduct experiments (ecoXPT) and learn the fundamentals of computational modelling (ecoMOD) through the ecoLearn project designed by a team in the Harvard Graduate School of Education led by Professor Chris Dede. Even though these resources are not built specifically for remote learning, they can be adapted to diversify online learning activities. There are also a wide range of virtual field trips offered by Discovery Science across subjects including science, career readiness, financial literacy, environmental science, sports, data science and more.
Free tool suites, such as Collabrify, designed by a research team led by Professor Elliot Soloway at the University of Michigan and Professor Cathie Norris at the University of North Texas, provides a user-friendly tool kit for younger learners to co-edit texts and drawings, co-create animations and learn together. These are just some examples that I can think of, and there are a wealth of open educational resources online that teachers can use and adapt for their own classes.
However, digital resources alone are not sufficient to support remote learning. The effectiveness of digital tools largely depends on the capacities of the teachers involved – how they adapt these resources to fit the learning needs of their students and meet the curriculum standards. Providing digital resources and learning platforms such as Moodle or Canvas is not sufficient to address the challenges teachers face in remote learning, which include but are not limited to:
- building a digital learning community and orchestrating digital interaction among learners,
- collecting learning evidence, monitoring student progress and providing timely feedback, and
- creating viable and fair assessments.
There are no easy answers to these questions, and teachers should not be left alone to grapple with these challenges. Support from the ministry, the district, school leadership teams, educational researchers, and instructional designers, as well as collaboration among teachers and parents, is critical to ensure a successful transition into remote learning.
On the other hand, these problems are not unique to remote learning. In fact, these challenges are present in face-to-face teaching but have become invisible in the daily teaching practices that we have taken for granted as well as in the assumptions about learning that we believe to be true. A group of students that is physically present in a classroom is not necessarily a learning community. So, what are the measures that we have taken to build a community of learners? Paper-based standardized tests have been held as the only fair and valid assessment. Are these truly fair and valid? Is the result of such tests a realistic reflection of student learning? After all, what have we been doing in face-to-face teaching? What should we prioritize once we have the luxury to be together in a physical classroom again?
As schools close their doors, not only is it time for us to reimagine various forms of remote learning, but also to reimagine learning in general. We need to collectively question our practices, beliefs and assumptions — in a process of unlearning — suggested by Professor Chris Dede. Resuming business-as-usual after this pandemic will surely be a waste.
[Guest post by Lydia Cao, @lydiaycao, doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, England]