Updated on May 20 with concerns over the mental toll of extended video lessons.
Your brain and body wasn’t mean for this
Thanks to video conferencing software, you can pretend as if it’s business as usual. You can have meetings, give and take your class, hang out with friends and family, even visit your doctor. What’s not to love?
Except it’s not business as usual. These aren’t normal times. There is a bit of a struggle every time you begin a new meeting. From the mic check, the cutting off, the pixelation and so on. You are trying to have a conversation with someone as if it was in front of you. In a normal conversation, you pick up on non-verbal cues instantly, which help you gauge the other person’s emotions and convey empathy. The signs just aren’t so easy to find anymore. Your mind now spends a lot more resources trying to make out the kind of relationship you have with the person, as you continue the conversation.
The story of James
Like many foreigners working as teachers in China, James left the country for the holiday season in late December last year. Little did he know his temporary stay in Manila, with nothing but a smartphone next to him, would become indefinite.
The Guangzhou school he works for suggested he set up an online learning environment, where the 50-strong classroom he tackles on a regular basis would now have to be “crammed” into a virtual live classroom.
Little did we know his story would be about a month ahead of the curve. At the time of writing, millions of teachers —literally— all over the world scramble to build “lifelike” virtual classrooms, and like James a few weeks ago, feel dismayed at the proposition.
For those who are only now starting to tackle, James is one of several examples of how things can play out. And flash-forward to the present, he is also exemplary of the thousands of people who not only have made it happen, but who are working tirelessly at helping others make it happen. Perhaps the first big realization a first-time online teacher has is about the magnitude of the community and infrastructure ready to help them transition.
So how did they made it happen? Not with an LMS, for sure. At least not at first.
Left to their own recourse, Chinese teachers summoned the power of social media. The omnipresent WeChat became the Swiss Army knife. For those with a rudimentary acquaintance of the LMS, WeChat can do it all, with no learning curve, and better: Share files, record video, collaborate through chat. As the height of the lockdown in China hit during the New Year celebrations, many students found themselves in their provinces with limited internet access, often exclusively through smartphones.
James’ school did have an LMS in place, and his class already had some level of acquaintance with it. But a lot of his colleagues did not. As classes were announced to resume, a few weeks time would barely give first-time users the basic understanding of the LMS language enough to equip them with the skills needed to set up courses, built with sections, activities and assessments. But his school wasn’t finished. Days away from reopening, James was expected to set up a live web conferencing room in the LMS to cram his students again. A monumental task for James, someone familiar with the complexities of setting up a web server with multiple CPUs for the web conference tool and integrate it into the LMS —BigBlueButton in Moodle in this case—.
Web conferencing isn’t a bad idea, per se
Some of the advice James got sound disheartening at first. In reality, it’s tough love.
Part of the problem is convincing the school officials that the solution they had in mind —broadcast a class from a phone, 6 hours a day, 3 days a week for at least 2 months— was demanding, exhausting, and downright ineffective.
(We’re leaving the issue of schools being daycare centers, even for teens, and authorities being okay with that, for another day.)
But the principals image is one shared widespread by people in education at all levels, including teacher for whom it is a nightmare. WeChat might have played a role in making live video streaming second nature in Chinese society.
You can’t “flatten the curve” and also flatten the learning curve
In James case, Moodle was partially the answer. In emergency situations, you simply cannot develop a “community of practice” framework that provides alignment to several learning interventions taking place in Moodle, dutifully assessed and possibly tracked with the help of a predictive analytics engine. It appears that this round was won by Google Classroom and other “point-and-shoot” EdTech. Whether this jolt would represent a push towards more comprehensive experiences or not, it still remains to be seen.
Do you need a PhD to run an online course? No. Would you be able to craft a comprehensive learning experience within the day with free tools? Also no. The recipe for success is simple: Do as much as you can, ask for help anywhere you can get it, be resourceful, and be realistic.
You are not doing online learning. You are doing remote learning which is an inferior experience
Among the many social elephants in the room that no longer can be ignored, is the effectiveness of the face-to-face lecture experience. Regularly, there are teachers who go out of their way to connect with students and make them feel heard.
The operational phrase below being out of their way. Teachers do not have a contractual obligation to provide engaging or meaningful learning experiences to students on an individual basis.
You’re going crazy because there’s no distance between anything anymore. Guess what: Your brain is mastermind in compartmentalizing
The bell rings. Class is over. Your shift is done, now you leave your workspace, along with all the concerns borne out of there. Most of the time, anyway. Get into your car, or your commute, and it’s a whole different headspace,
The reality is simple, yet incredible when we consider the power of the mind.
Other key discoveries
- If a dozen students or more do make it into your live online classroom, lesson #1 will likely be “Mute Button Etiquette.”
- The fact that Moodle is an email-based system seems harmless, but it makes it alien for young students asked to jump into it in masse.
- Most schools, especially in the West, likely have “Business Continuity Plans,” covering natural disasters, but likely not permanent lockdowns or community quarantines. It seems like the perfect time to review those.