“You’re on mute”, “Can you see my screen?” and “We lost you for a minute there” – the stock phrases of lockdown life across the UK.
When lessons, meetings and parents’ evenings all shifted online, the move brought with it a mind-boggling array of new terms and expressions to get our heads around.
The difficulty of digesting this new terminology was complicated further by the challenge of decoding numerous debates on social media about which videoconferencing system is best suited for educational purposes.
“Use Zoom,” suggest some sections of Twitter, rightly enamoured by Zoom’s fantastic gesture to offer its sophisticated services for free. Indeed, it hasn’t just been schools that have taken advantage of this; in April 2020, Zoom peaked at over 300 million daily meeting participants – up from 10 million in December 2019.
Online learning: Which platform works best?
Nevertheless, the call to Zoom is far from unanimous. There is also significant backing behind Microsoft Teams for Education, particularly from schools and colleges that were already using Office 365 before the pandemic hit. The ability to track attendance, analyse engagement and create virtual breakout rooms adds to its appeal.
The merits of Google Meet are also hard to ignore. Schools and colleges that already used G Suite for Education, such as RGS Worcester, where I am based, saw no reason not to utilise Google Meet for both remote and hybrid lessons and advocate for other schools to follow suit.
Surprisingly though, when one turns to the literature to find out a little more, it turns out that the choice of technology is largely incidental. Teacher efficacy with any chosen software is the real key to success; teachers expected to deliver lessons using technology need to know how to use it effectively.
It is, of course, also vital that the technology selected offers reliable, stable and secure platforms but products such as Zoom, Teams and Meet all fulfil those requirements.
Instead, the debate should focus on the pedagogy and instructional design behind the lessons. As the academic Richard E Clark puts it: "Media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in nutrition…only the content of the vehicle can influence achievement.” (Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media, 1983)
Therefore, rather than fuelling the “which tech?” debate, we should keep our focus on the pedagogy and design of online lessons, not the method of delivery.
Focus on the pedagogy
For example, both remote teaching and hybrid learning models offer a great opportunity for personalisation of learning. With digital tools such as Showbie, it is possible to allow flexibility with learning content and pace.
However, it is also important that educators attempt to reduce instances of students feeling overwhelmed, disinterested and/or frustrated – ideally by keeping things as simple as possible.
Instructional design for online learning should also include elements of social interaction and collaboration. Isolation from school is difficult for students, as we all know – schools offer so much more than just an academic curriculum. They are places for debate, conversations, fun and personal growth.
Thankfully, there are a number of online tools that lend themselves very well to making online lessons interactive. Many are built into the video-conferencing systems that we all now use, such as “breakout rooms” and “chat rooms”.
However, interaction is not the be-all and end-all of learning online. In fact, most research demonstrates that interaction alone does not miraculously improve online experiences. Interaction is important, and well-planned interactive lessons can really help to engage pupils and offer respite from isolation, but forced interaction can be as strong a detriment to effective learning as its absence.
Ultimately, online lessons are not easy and in many ways do not compare to face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, Covid-19 has driven many of us out of our comfort zones and into the previously unknown world of live captioning, adjustable layouts and background changes.
It is likely that things will not return to normal for some time yet, so, in the meantime, rather than worrying about the vehicle of online instruction, let us all try to make sure that content has a positive effect on learning outcomes for our students.
John Jones is director of innovation at RGS Worcester