A reflection on teaching online in a pandemic

As we move into the second month of the third lockdown (in the second calendar year of the pandemic….crikey) I have been reflecting on how my teaching has had to adapt and develop through the months of online learning. The practical side of teaching online has always been the easy bit for me: as an early adopter of technology, and in particular Google Classroom, I found the transition to online teaching in March 2020 relatively easy – I could use Google Classroom confidently and had already set up my department with shared Google Drives. More and more of our students were using Google Classroom in their secondary schools and so it made sense to continue this through to A Level. In my role as Digital Leader at the Sixth Form, I introduced Google Classroom to the centre in 2018 and had been supporting staff since, and so was confident that I could continue to teach effectively from home and support others. I originally concentrated my efforts ‘outwards’ by creating tutorial videos to support staff in the practicalities of delivering content online through my YouTube channel. Now I feel it’s time to reflect on what has worked really well for me and what I want to do more of.

Challenges of ‘live’ teaching

I was quickly aware that ‘live’ teaching online has the huge potential to end up with too much teacher talk and not enough student talk; the quietness (or feelings of attending a ‘seance’) that can occur during a live lesson often can leave the teacher scrabbling to fill the silence with their own voice in a way that would never happen in a real classroom. In a real classroom, a quiet pause, a look from one student to another, or a smile, can encourage and support a learner to contribute or offer an idea in a way that is virtually impossible online. These non-verbal gestures cannot be easily recreated in an online classroom, and so as teachers we have to find other ways of facilitating learning. And here is where the challenge lies. How do we use technology in order to encourage full, supportive engagement with learning online and not fall back into the ‘old days’ of teaching where teacher talk dominated and the student voice wasn’t heard?

Creating a clear structure for learning in my classes has helped me no end. I realised that having ‘live’ lessons for the full three hours was only doing one thing: causing me a lot of work and exhaustion and I found that I was doing all the hard work and the students were not contributing enough. My fear of them falling behind had manifested itself in me over-planning, providing too many resources and activities to keep them occupied; I realised that this meant that they weren’t really doing any thinking – they were just ‘doing’.

The Big Question – collaboration in the online classroom

Now I begin each class by setting-up a ‘pre-live’ activity that I ask students to do. This generally tends to be a short ‘hello’ video of me explaining a task and then setting them off on something (research, reading, reflecting, writing, thinking) that they must bring with them to the live part of the class. At the moment with Year 13, I am using this as opportunities for students to explore theories and academic ideas. Students are given between 30 minutes to 1 hour to do this, depending on the length of the lesson and the activity. I ask students to consider what they are learning, how it links to previous learning, what questions it raises for them, and to bring with them to the live class their ‘Big Question’. Coming up with ‘The Big Question’ has helped to change the way my classes run – now the live part of the lesson starts with the students themselves and not with me. I do very little talking in the first part, but instead require all students to contribute their big question to a shared class document. I make some teacher ‘noises’ to ensure that the class is flowing, but I hand over the exercise to the students themselves – I ask students to pick two other student’s questions and provide detailed answers. I then ask students to pick the most interesting question and bring it into the live meet – sometimes students will unmute and talk but everyone is expected to contribute – mostly through the chat feature. Using a shared document means that everyone has to contribute – it’s not possible to ‘hide’. The collaboration features in Google Classroom, where you can share a document with all students having editing rights, means that this is easy to set up. Students enjoy learning collaboratively and rate this as one of the activities that they learn the most from.

Further ideas for collaboration

Now that I’m brave and have accepted the challenge of shifting the effort back onto the students I am exploring using a greater range of group and collaborative activities. I use Breakout Rooms, but do suffer with slow laptop syndrome and so this is not always possible. So instead, I set up groups activities using Slides – and ask students to collaborate using the chat function in the slides. This produces excellent results – students are resourceful and as long as the guidelines for group working are carefully decided together beforehand the students produce excellent work. I can have tabs open on my laptop with each group’s slide – I can easily monitor (and contribute to, if necessary) their discussions in the chat feature. Almost everything I get students to do now involves them working together – Jamboards are also excellent ways of recreating what may go on on a whiteboard in the classroom. I pre-post their names to the Jamboard so that I can see who has contributed or not.

I find now that I do a lot less talking in my classes – being brave and using silence, moving the responsibility back onto the students and requiring them to engage with their learning in a more committed way is gently shifting things back to what it’s like in a real classroom. Still lots to learn though!

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