Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning – Part 2: Connections

Much is being written about best practices for how to do online learning during this pandemic age and unlike Dr. Seuss I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, I have been afforded a unique perspective and experience from which to share some reflections about online learning having looked at this as, as the old song says, “from both sides now” as an educator and a student, and have experienced some of the best and worst of online learning over this past year from both of these viewpoints.  When my online journey began one year ago, the initial task was to organize instruction at our school through a Learning Management System for students and teachers who would be in their homes on opposite sides of an ocean for what was initially to be for only two to three weeks to give this COVID thing time to “settle down.” If only that were true.  At that time, because of this perception that online learning would be a temporary measure and from our lack of experience, we focused mainly on asynchronous (not at the same time) instruction and teachers busily prepared online activities that students could complete on their own time without worrying too much about the quality of the teacher-student connection.  As we progressed through the spring and it became clear that face to face (f2f) instruction would not be re-established, and so teachers were encouraged (and required) to increase their synchronous (at the same time) contact and regularly connect with students despite time zone challenges. 

Although there were differences in the connections established between teachers and students, many teachers developed excellent practices to build strong connections with their students and quickly grasped that the quality of the teacher-student connection was still “the main thing.” With the onset of much better interactive platforms and educators learning from experience, we are long past the days when computer-based instruction meant a student sitting behind a computer working asynchronously and know that interaction and communication is required to make any classroom work. Indeed, if I was to do anything over again as an educator from this first foray into online learning last spring,  it would be to increase the synchronous component as much as possible and decrease the time students are working on their own.    

After returning home to begin my PhD studies to become a student myself, I soon learned that I would be an online student and so began a different online journey.  While I was disappointed not to be in f2f instruction, I also noticed the irony of being in front of a screen as a learner rather than educator and plunged into my studies eager to have this experience this from a new perspective.  I have found that the name of the game is still about building strong connections between teachers and learners and the classes that I have participated in so far have at least three characteristics that have contributed to building these successful connections and will call these community-building, differentiated structure, and technological ease

  • Community-building means that, to the greatest degree possible, the online experience simulates an in-person experience and feels like a classroom.  It is really hard to create community when cameras are off and people can’t be seen and is a pet peeve of mine so cajoling or requiring that cameras be on as much as possible is essential. Finding ways to encourage and promote communication between teacher and student, and between students is another key way to create a community feel. Breaking classes into smaller discussion groups is a key strategy to help overcome the awkward silences that can occur in larger group settings. I also think it is fair game to notice the personal artifacts and pets and people that appear via the window into people’s lives that Zoom affords us and that just noticing these helps create authentic community within the class.

  • Another component that makes online experiences successful is how the class is structured for teaching and learning. If traditional transmission of learning through direct instruction does not engage students in a f2f class, it works even less so in an online environment and a greater variety of differentiated modes for communicating and instruction need to be applied.  As a student, I must say I enjoy some direct instruction so this doesn’t mean that the teacher should altogether abandon providing some direct instruction. However, after about twenty minutes of “hypnotizing the chickens” (a US Military term for the fog that sets in after about twenty minutes of a PowerPoint) other methods for communicating information need to be applied. One of the best methods for this that I have experienced as a student is to breakout into small groups for discussion and for the group to complete a Google form which can be contributed to by every one in the group. This can then be used to share with the larger class when the breakout session ends. Coming up with different varieties of activities is essential for students to remain engaged.

  • Technological ease means that the technology has to be easy, efficient and just has to work.  Technical points such as having a good camera with proper lighting (and yes, a good background), good wi-fi connections, are good starting points but the other teaching and learning activities need to be well structured.  My experience as an educator was very positive with a learning management platform and while these are now commonplace, there are advantages and disadvantages to each platform but the main point being that there should be a single entry point for all teaching and learning activity. Students will need to easily navigate whatever learning management system is used to find and share course material, hand in assignments, and easily dialogue and connect with students.  Teachers should share live links with students in real-time to allow students to easily locate resources and not make students go searching for these resources later.  While there is concern about creating distractions when providing something in real time, I find there is more value being able to focus on the content in the resource and not spending time finding the resources on my own.

These and other practices are supported in a short literature review here called “The Efficacy of Virtual Instruction in K-12 Education” from Georgia State University (2020), identified as one of the top ten significant studies of 2020 by Edutopia. While this pre-pandemic review concluded that effectiveness of online learning is at best mixed, there are some practices that support the points made above with the most significant being of the value of “incorporating peer and teacher feedback” (p. 4) into learning activities. One study concluded that there is a “strong, positive relationship” (p. 6) between positive rates for course completion and student grades when there are strong student-teacher interactions.  Relationship quality remains an important factor in student success whether in f2f or virtual settings and as any successful teacher will say, is one factor that should be sought for at all costs. 

While it is unclear how long instruction will be provided in a virtual or blended  environment, for the foreseeable future at least all teachers and students need to find out how to build and then maintain strong connections to provide the greatest chance for creating student success.   As education prepares for the next steps into the post-pandemic period we will see what practices will carryover. Which brings us to Part 3 of this series, Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning called “After the pandemic: what’s next?” Until then, stay connected out there in virtual land.

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