Friday, April 3, 2020

When digital technology is not an option: Some thoughts on remote teaching

Ping Pong and Sora obediently staying at home throughout the MCO period
(photo credit: my sister, Sandy)

Malaysia entered its second phase of Movement Control Order (MCO) to curb the spread of COVID-19 on the 1st of April 2020. Schools have been closed for the past 14 days and now will continue to be closed for another 14 days.  Teachers are instructed to conduct remote teaching to help students keep up with lessons. This has evoked diverse responses from teachers. Some see this as an opportunity to hone in on their technological skills and to experiment with different e-learning and digital tools. Some approach it with a lot of apprehensions and anxieties. This is an unprecedented time - a truly challenging time for many.

There are already lots of articles and resources out there which offer advice and tips on how to conduct e-learning effectively. Lots of people have shared digital tools and resources for teachers to utilise during this period, so I'm not going to touch on that. In this post, I feel moved to share some thoughts on remote teaching in situations where digital technology is not an option.

What makes it work

There are two main factors affecting the use of digital technology in remote teaching and learning, i.e. the teacher factor and the learner factor. Each factor is further influenced by aspects such as digital literacy, tools, and access. Digital literacy for remote teaching and learning refers to one's ability to deploy and manipulate online and offline digital tools to deliver and receive instructions. Tools refers to the availability and suitability of devices, apps, software and platforms for delivering and receiving lesson contents. Access deals with issues of connectivity, i.e. availability of Internet connection and whether or not users can afford them.

In an ideal e-learning or online remote learning situation, we expect all three aspects to function at their optimal levels, both for teachers and also for learners. Teachers should have the digital literacy required to deliver effective instructions through digital platforms, and learners should have the skills necessary to receive instructions and to act upon them. Both teachers and learners should have the tools, devices, apps, or platforms necessary for delivering and receiving lesson contents. It is crucial for both teachers and learners to have access to the Internet, and to be able to afford the cost.

The reality

Many have taken the opportunity offered by this unprecedented period in history to point out how e-learning is de rigueur for education in this 21st century, and that it should be more enforced by schools since a long time ago. Some go as far as suggesting how this pandemic can act as an 'eye-opener', a long-awaited catalyst that can potentially move education from its current traditional physical classroom-based mode to a more predominantly virtual, online mode. There have been a lot of debates going on for and against this argument, but I'm not going to discuss them here in this post. I believe it's important to point out that the decision to move to online teaching and learning during this period is triggered more by necessity and urgency rather than by choice. I know many teachers who would love to do more online teaching, who would love to experiment with more digital tools and e-learning platforms, - but not like this. Not in this manner. Not when everything feels so forced and ad hoc and unplanned and unsupported.

In an ideal online teaching and learning situation, the teacher factor and the learner factor should reciprocate one another. But the reality is often very far from ideal. To provide an illustration, a teacher might have the technological skills necessary for conducting online classes using Zoom, but she can't do it if her students have never heard of Zoom before. Although making an effort to introduce students to Zoom during this time is perhaps possible, not all students in the class might have the tools needed. Those who have the tools might not have Internet connectivity that is strong and stable enough to run the platform properly. Some students have to rely on a mobile device that's shared with seven other members of the family. In many cases it could be the only mobile device that the family owns, the only device that connects the whole family to the world during this quarantine period. Would it be wise to use up the precious Internet quota on a Zoom session with the teacher?

The illustration I offered is just one of the many examples of challenges that need to be faced by teachers in conducting online teaching. There are many more.

But please don't get me wrong. I'm not against e-learning in any way. I have conducted technology-based projects in my own classrooms. I've spent years trying to promote technology-enhanced teaching and learning to my fellow teachers. People close to me would know how passionate I am about educational technology. I appreciate the 'publicity' this pandemic has given to e-learning. I'm inspired by teachers who are doing it so wonderfully, despite the many constraints. I enjoy witnessing the tech-averse to tech-savvy transformations that some of my colleagues are undergoing at this moment.

What prompted me to write this blogpost are comments made on my Facebook page by teachers experiencing situations that are not that far different from what I've described in the illustration above. These are teachers who feel lost for not being able to jump on the bandwagon. Teachers who are enthusiastic about online teaching, but are not able to do so due to limitations faced by their learners. Teachers who feel a pang of envy for their peers who seem to be having the time of their lives using Google Hangout or Schoology or Edmodo with their students.

These teachers are not doing it, not because they don't want to. Not because they're not able to. Most of the time, it's because their students are not able to.

Things to do - first and foremost

So, when digital technology is not an option, what should teachers do? Most of these teachers, as helpless as they are, refuse to treat this movement restriction as a vacation. The pressure that results from seeing other teachers doing it is just too much to bear, not to mention having to deal with added stresses imposed by school administrators eager to "ensure that teachers are doing what they're supposed to do," and to prove that "teaching and learning will go on as usual" despite this crisis.

If you're one of these teachers, I would urge you to, first and foremost, do the following things:

1. To acknowledge that it's not your fault. The last thing a teacher should do is feel guilty about students missing lessons. Nobody wants this to happen. Nobody wants a virus to force schools to shut down. We all want to go back to our classrooms and to see our kids and to teach like we always do.

2. To accept that it's beyond your control. No matter how advanced the technology you're using for your remote teaching, no matter how impressive your skills, the truth is that many students have already missed a lot of lessons, and many will definitely miss a lot more. This is not something that anyone can control - not with technology, not with anything.

3. To realise that there's no such thing as "teaching and learning will go on as usual." There's nothing usual about what we're currently experiencing. Everything in our world is very unusual right now. People who can claim that they're doing everything "as usual despite the pandemic" are either lying, or are in denial, or have no idea what's going on.

4. To stop thinking of yourself as a bad teacher. Not being able to do what others are doing doesn't make you a bad teacher. The fact that you're thinking about this and are feeling guilty for things beyond your control is proof enough that you're indeed a good teacher who cares a lot about your students and your responsibilities as a teacher.

When digital technology is not an option

The good news: there are things that we can do even when circumstances don't afford us the opportunity to utilise the most cutting edge technology in education. It won't be perfect, of course. But then again, no one should expect anything to be perfect in this unprecedented time. The key is to focus on things that we can do, instead of on the things that we can't.

First thing to do is to assess our situation based on our ability to communicate directly with our students. Through my observations, teachers who are facing challenges with using technology for remote teaching can roughly be categorised into three main groups, as follows:

1) Group 1: Teachers who can communicate directly with students,
2) Group 2: Teachers who can communicate with students through someone else, e.g. parents
3) Group 3: Teachers who can't communicate with students at all.

Group 1: Teachers who can communicate directly with students

This is the group of teachers who have already formed some sort of platform to communicate with students before this lockdown happened - typically via WhatsApp or Telegram group chat. If you belong to this group, that's awesome! There are plenty of things you can do with students through a group chat. In fact, a majority of teachers in my circle are using this method to stay in touch with their students during this period. Through this group chat, you can:

  • post quizzes or short assignments for students to do;
  • share useful links to websites, references, and other learning resources;
  • assign tasks from the textbook - students snap a picture of their completed work and post it on the group chat for feedback;
  • utilise the voice message function for speaking lessons. Nothing complicated. I once did a tongue twister challenge for my students through our WhatsApp group and everyone went crazy (it was hilarious!);
  • just have a chat. Just be there for our students. This is the chance for us to encourage our students to use language to express themselves and to learn how to communicate in real-life situations.  

Remember to keep it as simple as possible, and to avoid doing anything that may put a strain on the students' Internet quota e.g. live video chats, online streaming, etc.

Group 2: Teachers who can communicate with students through someone else, e.g. parents

Lots of my teacher friends who belong to this group are teaching in rural areas where mobile devices are normally limited to just one or two per household and Internet connectivity is very poor. Some teachers may have a WhatsApp or Telegram group chat for communications with parents, but not with the students themselves. If you belong to this group, here are some suggestions on how you can be available for your students:

  • assign tasks that the students can do without having to access external resources. Just give something that the students already have, e.g. anything from the textbook, or a workbook, or from previous classroom projects. Be careful not to assign anything that requires downloading or printing - downloading requires a lot of Internet data and many families don't have a printer at home;
  • encourage parents to pass on to you any questions that the students might have about the subject. Questions can be about the current tasks or from previous lessons;
  • encourage parents to send you updates on their children's progress, if they can, by sending pictures of their works etc. (only if they can - don't make it compulsory);
  • send short messages from time to time to uplift students - maybe a motivational quote, a snippet from previous lessons, a compliment for a work well done (during this time or in the past - it doesn't matter). The goal is to remind students that you're thinking about them, and are trying your best to be available for them albeit not physically. 
The rule is still the same: keep it as simple as possible. Some parents might worry about their children's education during this time, and I understand how challenging it is to try to keep everyone from panicking. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let them know that everyone in the world - not just in our school or in our country - is currently facing the same situation. We can safely say that no one is really ahead of anyone else in this game. We're all on this same boat - together. 

Group 3: Teachers who can't communicate with their students at all

I understand the frustrations of teachers in this group - believe me I do. But for now, let's focus on what we can do. 

If you're tech-savvy, or have always wanted to experiment with technology but have never had the chance or the time to do something about it, now would be the best time to let your creative juices flow and to engage yourself in fun little projects. Here are some suggestions. You can:
  • start a YouTube channel. You can create short video lessons and upload the videos on your channel;
  • create a blog to share lesson materials, tips and techniques for examination, quizzes, lesson notes - anything you like;
  • create digital lesson materials such as quizzes, presentation slides, animations, podcasts, etc. It would be great if you can find a platform to host these materials online. 
Okay, right. I know what you're thinking right now. What's the use of all these when you don't even have the means to share them with your students? Well, it's true that all these might seem useless right now, but trust me they won't be useless forever. Sooner or later the schools are going to be reopened, and I believe you'd definitely be able to find ways to put all these precious materials to good use when that finally happens.  

Maybe the materials you create might not be able to help your students right now, but they might be able to help someone else's students. I don't know about you, but I believe that when you do good things for people karma will find a way to repay the good deeds to you. And who knows, by God's grace, all these materials that you put online might be able to reach your students somehow, in some ways. With faith, anything is possible. 

If you're not the tech-savvy type, don't worry. You can do something similar; you just don't have to use digital technology if you don't want to. During this time when you can't physically be there for your students, you can:

  • create learning modules for use when the school reopens. Your students would have missed a lot of things by that time, so you can try to use your creativity to come up with something that can help the students to catch up;
  • create a study plan for your students to help them keep up with all the things that they've missed during the school shut-down. This study plan can include at-home activities with parents. It can go together with the module you've created;
  • update your lesson plans, grade those papers, analyse those data. Things should have gone haywire because of this unexpected crisis. When school finally reopens, trust me you won't have time to sort these things out as you'll be busy cleaning up other more urgent messes. Consider it a blessing that you don't have classes to think about during this time, so you have plenty of time to work on these little, often forgotten, yet not less important stuffs.

These lists are by no means exhaustive. I'm sure many of you can come up with a lot more. Do feel free to share with me your ideas so we can learn from one another.

Source: Bored Teachers

Ragtag group and uncharted waters

My own situation is a unique combination of Group 2 and 3. I'm quite new to this school, so I haven't really got the chance to explore online means to communicate with my students outside school hours. To cope with the school closure due to COVID19, I was forced to set up an ad hoc WhatsApp group for my Year 6. I'm supposed to have 28 students in my class. To date only 15 have joined the group. A third of them are students using their own mobile devices, another third are students using devices shared with siblings and other members of the family, and the remaining are parents joining the group on their children's behalf. I'm moving into uncharted waters here. I've never had any experience managing such a ragtag group, let alone trying to conduct remote teaching through it. 

I started by posting something simple, just to get the students (or whoever else are in the group) to interact with me. It took two days for the first response to come, with the student profusely apologising for the late reply. He was just able to top-up his prepaid Internet. That first response triggered a couple more - one is from a confused mother. 

This is Amir's group for English lessons, right? 
Yup, that's right. 
Oh sorry. I'm starting to lose track. Just too many WhatsApp groups to keep track of all of a sudden.  

She has four children, all using one and the same mobile device for remote learning. 

The goal is not to teach

I decided that the best thing to do is to take it easy, and to stop stressing myself and my students and the parents of my students unnecessarily. I realise that synchronous interactions is just not possible in my situation, so I refrain from posting daily tasks that require immediate response. I try to be constantly present but not too much, as I know that everyone holding the phone on the other end is already inundated by numerous posts from various other groups.

I'm also aware that I still have 13 students who haven't joined the group, and I have no way of reaching them. Worrying about them won't change anything, so instead of being depressed about it I tried to vent it out by keeping myself occupied. I started creating video lessons, set up my own YouTube channel, posted the videos on the channel, and shared the links with everyone. You can have a look at the channel here.

The videos are crappy - but working on them is therapeutic and it gives me something to look forward to every morning. I try to post one video per day on the WhatsApp group with no expectations attached. My students may or may not watch them, they may or may not learn from them, but that's not my goal here. My goal during this time is not to teach. My goal is to be there for my students - as I always have.

Source: WeAreTeachers

Share your story

If you're a teacher who's struggling to make it work during this time due to technological constraints, I would really love to hear from you. I hope you won't mind sharing your stories and how you overcome your challenges so that we can learn from one another.

Sending all teachers a socially-distanced hug. Till the next - keep well and take care! -ccj #stayathome

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