Objects in the mirror

As we enter week 4 of online learning (and week 5 for me of the supporting and setup) a few musings on the process.

I chose today’s title because a lot of what we do is like trying to drive a car in reverse over a long distance for a long time with only a side-mirror as any view on reality. The other reason is that things are both distorted and exaggerated.

My mantra has always been that it’s not about tech, it’s about people. And that seems even truer if possible now. Students (and teachers) who were struggling in real life classrooms are struggling now. In some ways it’s just more obvious and exaggerated now. Those with a great rapport with students are re-creating that rapport albeit online. And the people who thought the usual rules and ways of doing things didn’t apply to them still think that – only it’s really messing up students ability to find what they need to do and to do it on time, so maybe, just maybe they’ll be sanctioned.

This week I wrote a blog for our parent EdTech blog forum about maintaining social relationships during online learning. What I didn’t say, because it wasn’t appropriate in that forum, was what my son said to me when I asked him what his advice would be. Besides saying he was just doing what he always did usually and that he had mates whose sleep/wake patterns were so messed up that he knew he could have contact with them no matter what the time was. He’s quite a perceptive kind of kid, and comes out with great one-liners, like this one: “the sad thing is that suddenly some kids are realising that they don’t have friends. They hang around in some amorphous group at school where they have the illusion they belong, but this just highlights they don’t have one real friend”.

It’s a time of learning so much about oneself. Like I’m usually a highly structured person with great habit-stacking and very regular when I wake up, exercise, work, read, learn Chinese, etc etc. This usually even includes holiday time when I always have great learning goals which I usually achieve (more or less, say 60-80%). But trying to be available for everyone all the time has truly messed me up big time. This weekend is the first one in five that I’m refusing to look at my emails or teams or WeChat (except for posts from friends). I’ve started refusing meetings starting at 3am-6am. And trying to force myself to bed on time (since last night). Because no proper rest means that I’ve become a bit of a brain-dead idiot myself. Even my reading has been suffering – I remarked on twitter to someone the other day that I was incapable of reading my school book club book (Down Girl) because I didn’t have the mental capacity for anything besides series of mediocre historical crime fiction and popular nonfiction (thanks Bill Bryson for “The Body” – yup that virus you predicted has come to reality, and I’m working my way to an early death right now).

So what works?

Having systems and structures and routines in place: When I originally read “When Adults Change” I thought it was a “nice idea” and something that would be “nice to have”. I’m beginning to think it really is a “need to have” at this point. Off line there is considerable room for ambiguity. Lots of opportunity to improvise and make things up on the spot or change direction 180 degrees. Online is less forgiving. Especially for people under stress. If you say that students can find their daily check-in and work for the day in place A, if it is not there about 80% of the students will assume there is no work for the day. About 10% will go hunting around using intuition and some kind of savvy and about 10% will bother to ask the teacher and/or EdTech person or their parents will do so. That means at any one time in any subject a lot of kids are missing the boat.  Having one daily entry point solves a lot of that. 

Simplifying instructions to the point of no-ambiguity: When things aren’t clear you can see on people’s faces that you need another way to explain things. That you need to rewind. That you need to do things one step at a time. Online, even in conference calls the nuances of facial and body expression are reduced to caricatures of themselves. Ideally you should only be delivering one message at a time. In clear simple language. With illustrations / marked up screenshots and screencasts. You need to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Eliminate and refine channels of communication: I tend to be quite private and don’t generally have colleagues on my personal social media, even if they’re my friends. In China WeChat has resulted in significant blurring of those personal/professional boundaries. Luckily in MS we’ve said the WeChat is not an acceptable channel for teacher/student communication. Unfortunately it is still so in HS, something I don’t support as a parent of a HS student – even if he thinks it’s ok. But I still regularly have people trying to contact me on school Tech matters on WeChat, while my order of assistance is email, teams and then finally about 4 or 5 hours later I may get to WeChat – because I still see that as my “personal space”. I’ve had to communicate that clearly to people at the risk of them feeling it’s unkind of me.

For students I’ve recommended that teachers eliminate one-on-one communication by email as much as possible for “communal” issues. If students post a problem in a communal forum, the chances are (a) more students have that issue / misunderstanding (b) some student has already resolved the issue and can help the others (c) everyone sees the issue and the solution. So anything from two to 60 one-on-one emails are eliminated. On the other hand it’s good to have one-on-one (with another adult in the room) mentoring sessions to make sure that students are no isolated and are feeling supported.

Knowledge management – Curate and publish FAQs & Issues: Thank heavens for Libguides * at this stage of the game. I’ve always been a fan, but now I can not only “can” responses but also point people to a central place where they can (hopefully); help themselves. I have a central one that points teachers, parents and students into more detailed pages. A couple of things I see happening are well documented in EdTech lore – the “waves” of adoption and understanding. We have the early adopters (along with the EdTech team) who already were tech savvy and quickly work out the tools and issues. So their questions become valuable in setting up the FAQs about your basic LMS, they then move onto experimenting with other tools, and gaining and sharing expertise and issues in these (like Teams). Besides this there are some amazing groups on WeChat China Tech who’ve been experimenting and documenting and helping each other (Thanks James Rong – the Teams Guru) Then the bulk of teachers start having the same experiences, and if you’ve had time to document things you can point them to this.

Then you have the very long tail of people who have not been keeping up with developments and out of the blue want to use tools that are either obscure or have already been tested and failed.  That’s what we are experiencing right now.

Keep things minimal and simple: managing EdTech has always been a balance of having a few “old” tried and tested tools and giving teachers and the Tech team the freedom to experiment and try things out with the hope that something amazing is around that corner that will be a game changer. Very few new tools are truly game-changing. Even Microsoft Teams for Education, which is pretty good but still has a LOT of work to do before it’s ready to take over the learning space (I’ll write more on that some other time).

Now is NOT the time to throw new tools and edtech at teachers and students/families. See my point above about one daily entry point. It’s also not the time to expect students to use seven different tech tools to complete one piece of work, with the risk of failure to connect at each point. It’s also not realistic to expect your IT support staff to have to up-skill to be able to support all the many and various issues that may arise. That’s why it’s important to be able to either say “no” or “only if it’s proven to work in China and you’re on your own if things go wrong”.

Don’t create busy-work – remember your educational goals. This is really important. In the first week of closure I noticed at home with my own son (first year IB), the difference between the teachers who were in tune with the idea of online learning as an asynchronous experience that would be used to continue teaching and learning and those who saw it as a delivery mechanism for work-sheets and busy-work. Online learning is hard – particularly if no-one (teachers or students) signed up for it in the first place. It requires extraordinary levels of self-motivation. It’s far more “active” and “harder work” in the sense that generally in a normal school situation students can gain a lot of their education by passively going to classes and absorbing what’s going on.

Some of our students are discovering previously un-tapped resources of self-discipline and self-motivation. Many of our teachers are being amazingly innovative. A lot of very positive things are coming out of this experience. Both the positive and negative are just very magnified right now.


* As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of Libguides during this period they’ve become even more valuable than every before in information and knowledge curation. For their quite modest price they definitely punch above their weight in reliability and accessibility. And they’re not hard to learn – some of our teachers have jumped right on board and with a bit of training and help have created amazing guides – see this one for our G5 PYPx on Sustainable Development Goals made by @MrsBidder

Photo by Elly Filho on Unsplash

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