Among my circle of teacher friends, the jury remains out on whether the challenges of teaching online, courtesy of coronavirus, are welcome or not. But we all recognise the importance of technology and how it is currently driving the industry at this most demanding of times. What's more, it is an opportunity to try things new.
With many foreign students back in their home countries and with domestic students self-isolating in the UK, distance learning via online tutorials and lectures is key. For many schools and colleges, the timing of this move at the end of the spring term has come at a convenient moment – if there can be a good time for such things. It means teachers everywhere had the Easter break to get up to speed with the teaching platforms that will, to some extent, define their summer term.
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For me, the Easter holiday was always going to involve the customary lesson preparation but, in the end, it also required learning how to organise my online classroom. Simple procedures such as dividing students into activity groups now requires some technical know-how – and a bit of jargon. Teachers or "moderators" need to be able to assign people into "break out groups" where students can discuss with their peers before returning to the "main room". As part of this, knowing how to mute and un-mute microphones is important to coordinate vocal interactions and prevent voices overlapping.
My crash course has also included recognising bandwidth as a key factor in lesson planning. YouTube videos are common resources but showing a video within an online lesson may not work well where students have limited bandwidth – so these may need to be viewed for homework. Another potential glitch is where PowerPoint slides include graphics. These can become distorted when they appear as screenshots so the official in-house advice is to convert them to PDF before uploading. For more advanced IT souls than me, learning to use online whiteboards and annotated slides has also been on the training agenda.
My recent "professional upgrading" has involved watching several in-house videos from IT colleagues demonstrating how to upload files, record videos and also how to protect sensitive student data when working from home. For continuous stretches of the training video stream, I can follow instructions quite easily. But suddenly some abstruse detail makes me click the pause and replay functions. This can lead to watching and then rewatching the same crucial segment of video several times until my poor addled brain finally yields to the new input and the "I get it" moment arrives – finally. At such moments, it can be useful to curse coronavirus rather than one's own limited IT skills.
Challenges for students
Of course, online learning is not only a challenge for teachers but for students, too. Many are concerned about how they will access their classes and whether using a webcam will be intrusive. Where I work, one way to get around this has been to assure them that they do not have to use a personal webcam during the lesson and nor do they have to speak during the session either.
Technology allows students to participate using chat boxes and avatars so that they can contribute but without revealing their identities online. The technology means that classes can be recorded, too, which provides extra convenience because the digital file can be saved and a link for it posted online.
This means it can be viewed flexibly and fit around students' living patterns such as childcare provision or if they are living outside the UK in a far-off time zone. This is a massive benefit and may remain as a lasting legacy in education. But – and here is the glitch/ hitch – it also raises modern online data security fears over who controls access to the videos once they are out and circulating online. Unfortunately, there is no current solution to this problem: the internet has a life of its own, as we all know.
Despite these challenges, it probably fair to say that most teachers already possess the essential skills and knowledge needed to survive but just require a bit more push to get up to speed with the nuances of available tools.
Current anxieties mainly reflect inexperience with online teaching methods but these will abate and maybe – just maybe – this could be the successful beginning of a whole new way of working which brings the best of tradition and technology together.
Rufus Reich is a pseudonym. The writer is a FE lecturer in England