Online teaching? A great opportunity.

Putting all your classes online suddenly is a big challenge and a great opportunity to do things differently, i.e. better.

Give doctors the freedom to exercise their profession without interference.” (Dr. Marc Wathelet, Belgian virologist.)

What kind of world do you want to live in? We now have a possibility to reset things: not go back to how things were, but go forward, but not in the same direction we were going before.

In this blog post:

Universities around Japan recently decided to cancel all face-to-face classes this semester and have all the classes conducted only online after Prime Minister Abe declared a State of Emergency at the end of April. The three unis I work at is each using a different platform to deliver these classes: Microsoft Teams, Moodle and Manaba (or Manavi). As each have quite a different interface, and as the hastily put together manuals for teaching online using these platforms are only in Japanese, I, like many teachers no doubt, have been looking online for tutorial videos to help me master these platforms before online classes officially start, which will be after Golden Week here in Japan, May 7th.

A friend, probably tired of me simply passing on snippets from other websites, challenged me to write my own thoughts. So I did. Part-rant, part- manifesto, part-interim-report.

Plug for Russell Stannard’s excellent online-teaching videos

I found Russell Stannard’s videos very helpful: they show me what to do very clearly. I recently created a quiz using Google Forms simply by copying what he did.

Give teachers the freedom to exercise their profession without interference.

The purpose and objective of teachers should be what it has always been: to provide an education. That’s it. And the institutions should follow virologist Marc Wathelet’s advice to government ministers in Belgium (above): leave the teachers alone to get on with it! Help if necessary, advise advisedly, avoid hectoring and bullying and above all treat them like adults. I understand that institutions are worried that unprepared teachers may not respond sufficiently or promptly to students (there have already been complaints from some students that they have not heard a peep from some teachers and wonder what is going on). But what I see is too much “hand-holding”.

(Update: Well lookee what we have here! Forbes.com article on Trusting workers to get things done. “The role of a leader is to hire smart people and then get out of their way.” – Steve Jobs)

As an example of too much hand-holding, one teacher I know told me how belatedly noticed that he had made an error in one of his Moodle courses, quickly logged in to Moodle to fix it before the classes went live the next day, only to find that it had already been fixed! By whom? Some administrator or tech-person or little elves had reviewed all the courses of all the teachers, fixing all the errors and problems they found on the way. Ooh! That’s nice!

His reaction was predictable: “well, if someone’s going to go around fixing everything for me, hey! I don’t need to double-check! I don’t even need to read all the friendly emails and attachments! If I get something wrong or miss something out, someone will cover for me.”

I don’t even have to floss! Irresponsibility encouraged

In another Forbes article, a list of the new rules for remote work, #8 states,

8. Focus on outcomes rather than monitoring activities

Supervisors who lack experience managing remote workers might seek to keep close tabs on employees—asking them to keep their webcams on all day or alert managers when they take quick breaks. Or they might send emails at 4:45 p.m. to test whether workers are still online. Neeley says this type of micromanaging, which was found, for example, in a Wall Street Journal editor’s leaked memo, sends a hidden message to workers: We don’t trust you.

“It’s terribly intrusive and tone deaf,” says Neeley. “Managers who don’t see the people they’re managing are struggling. They feel like they’re losing control, and their insecurities are creeping in.” She urges managers to let go of commanding by fear and trust they’ve hired competent people who aren’t slacking off.

One caveat: While most workers thrive with a hands-off approach, Choudhury’s research suggests that junior workers who are new to a company may need additional supervision and guidance while working remotely.

But in general, rather than monitoring every move employees make, companies should establish work goals and measure individual productivity based on output, he says.

“If you’re on a team in a traditional company, one imperfect measure of productivity is showing up to work every day,” Choudhury says. “Now companies don’t see their workers, so the immediate priority should be to make productivity more objective and measurable to the person, so you don’t worry people are free-riding.”

The New Rules For Remote Work: Pandemic Edition by Dina Gerdeman, 27 April 2020

Failing to see the forest for the trees.

In this blizzard, it’s very easy to get lost in the trees and fail to see the forest.

Teachers (and no doubt students, too) are getting smothered with an avalanche of emails, many of which seem to fall very close to the category of “the bleeding obvious“.

From https://sorenandersson.com/the-art-of-looking-the-other-way/

It’s not teachers’ primary job to learn or to use the technology or this or that activity. It’s not the primary purpose or duty of students to hand in assignments; these are means to an end, not ends in themselves.

Fly the airplane!

It becomes more important than ever (and when is it not important?) to see the big picture, see where you’re going, and not get bogged down in the minutae. As a pilot friend of mine often tells me, once you’re airborne, the pilot’s primary job is to fly the airplane whatever happens. Lost an engine? Fire in the hold? Deal with it or delegate it but don’t forget to fly the airplane.

In all this busy-ness and confusion, I want to remember what my primary job is, what the equivalent is in my situation to the pilot’s first duty, to “fly the airplane”.

An opportunity to improve my teaching

Although there is undoubtedly a lot of work involved in learning new tools, I’m taking it as an opportunity to improve my teaching.

A key Mombusho directive for online classes is that many opportunities be given to students to interact with teachers and other students.

One of the first things many teachers and institutions are doing is to survey the students about their IT situation: do they have a pc at home? Do they have wifi? Etc. The universities which are doing this also post a summary of the results for teachers to see and to take into account. (Some students are accessing everything from their smartphones without Wifi.)

In this new situation, teachers need to gather information from students, even if it’s a social gesture, a reaching out to them to ask how they’re doing and how they’re feeling, etc. The survey tools are great for that.

The various survey and quiz tools give me a great opportunity to improve my teaching by asking questions more often than I usually do. It takes a bit of effort and improvisation to figure out how to coordinate and interleave the questions with the assignments: with some learning platforms (like Moodle), it’s possible to lock activities until some other action has been done or activity has been completed. So you could post a link to a video with questions to be answered, and collect the answers in a survey or form, and lock the form until students had watched the video.

Depending on the tools at your disposal, you could put students in groups and let them discuss the video before giving them the link to the survey or publishing the assignment with the questions. Or you could give them the questions first. Teaching online means the teacher must now think more carefully and distinguish more distinctly between what the teacher will do (and when) and what the students will do, and when. As Stannard ppoints out, homework activities lend themselves to gathering information, lower-order thinking activities; whereas online “in-class” activities lend themselves to higher-order thinking activities, such as developing and demonstrating understanding, synthesizing ideas, summarizing, and interacting, and applying their knowledge to their own or to new situations. If they take notes during this session, or if those “notes” can be made available to them afterwards (e.g. a text file of the chat, or a pdf or screenshot of the comments generated).

This in turn can be the basis for a further activity, collating all this info and putting it together into an essay or presentation of some kind.

All of this requires many decisions to be made, decisions which require the teacher to reflect on what they’re doing, what they’re trying to accomplish and why, and the answers can be new ones because now the environment has changed.

Many teachers unused to teaching online are asking questions like “how do I take attendance online?”, or “I have a paper handout I want to give to my students; how can I pass it out to them?” They seem to want to reproduce their face-to-face classes online. I’m not blaming them: they may be older, less able or willing to learn new tools, less able or willing to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. I’m an old enough dog to know how much resistance there can be to learning new tricks.

The point I want to make is that, being forced to suddenly turn one’s face-to-face classes to online classes is an opportunity to think again about what one is trying to achieve. For many, taking attendance is done out of habit, or because the institution requires it. But is it an end in itself, or does it have a purpose? If it has a purpose, what is it? What is the purpose of students attending class? Is it not to learn a skill or acquire knowledge or understanding? If so, then why not make demonstrating that skill or understanding the exit test? Students pass the class if they demonstrate their understanding or ability.

In other words, why not take this opportunity to be more conscious about what we are doing? Am I focusing on outcomes or monitoring activities? What is the purpose of this activity? Could it be better achieved by having students listen to a lecture, watch a video, or by asking them to self-reflect?

Most platforms have a survey tool which automatically collates and in some cases analyses responses. As obtaining this kind of information is a key element in MEXT’s requirements for online education, why not learn how to use it, and have students become familiar with it, too?

As the above infographic from a CUP article on dealing with school closure says, “some activities are instant, which keeps the students motivated.” This advantage should be exploited to the full.

Asking questions in class is always problematic: few students will answer unless called on; a few will dominate and others may gratefully stay quiet. With an online survey, everyone can participate, at their own time, and in private (only the instructor will read the responses).

Are you specifying goals to be attained, or just filling the timetable?

From “Take Your Teaching Online 2020” NILE course (free!) “Teaching Online Courses” Activity 5

There are teachers trying to use online tools to do what they’ve always done in the classroom. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. Taking attendance in the traditional way is not easy, even using Zoom. And teachers must consider students’ Internet connections: not all will be on Wifi.

Rather than taking attendance, why not require students to perform some task or produce something that will demonstrate what they’ve learned, understood or mastered. Unfortunately, many teachers simply go on teaching the way they were taught without thinking about what they are doing or why.

Are you focusing on outcomes or monitoring activities?

Online teaching is not simply a digitalized version of your face-to-face class

Online teaching is not a rather inferior and vastly more complicated and time-consuming way to do what you’ve always done (although that’s a natural starting-point). As you become familiar with the various tools at your disposal, you will probably begin to see that teaching online allows you to do things that you could not easily do in the classroom, and indeed you can do things better online.

Quiz on British musician

Here’s an example I just made: an online quiz using Google Forms (following the instructions in this video) and centred on a video of a certain well known British musician.

Because the quiz is online, I can ask all kinds of questions that will require students to use a search engine and other exciting tools like Google Earth. (See Russell Stannard’s exciting suggestions for how to use this for online teaching.)

I’ve tested this quiz and discovered that students may need to be prompted to find the answers themselves: they may assume it’s a test to see if they know the answer or not. They may not immediately see it as an opportunity for exploration. Accustomed to the face-to-face classroom where it’s understood you do exactly what the teacher says and don’t go off on your tangents, students may not realize that they now have more freedom to use their initiative and follow their curiosity, that they are actually expected to. For example, the student I tested this quiz with stopped after reading the “fill-in-the-blanks” question because she did not know the answer. So I had to prompt her to think how she could find it using the Internet.

This is the kind of independence that I think the MEXT document is referring to, and a quiz like this (and I’m not touting this as a model example, by any means) can quite easily require students to stretch their wings a bit and figure some important things out for themselves: not just the answers to the questions but also how to find the answers, type in what search term in the search-engine, will it matter what language you use (the “test” student did not realize, for instance that the Japanese Wikipedia entry on Sting and the English Wikipedia equivalent are not translations of each other, but independently written articles).

Can you imagine trying to do such a quiz in the classroom? You would first have to get and then keep everyone’s attention throughout the quiz. Would you ask individual students to answer? How would you respond when they say “I don’t know”? Would you say “get out your smartphones”? What if one or more students don’t have one, or they simply refuse, not seeing why they should have to use their precious data packets for class work when they’ve already paid hefty school fees?

Russell Stannard, in reflecting on lessons learned from 11 years of flipped classrooms, points out that “If you deliver learning in a different way, you need to reflect this in the assessment”. Delivering online classes necessarily requires students to become a bit more autonomous and to develop some of the habits of autonomous learners: figuring things out for themselves or getting help from friends and not expecting the teacher to do everything or answer all the questions.

In a recent article by Cambridge University Press, a mother of young children had this to say about the effects she saw on her children of learning from home:

The children are really making the best of a new and challenging situation and still trying their best. I feel they are also learning to be more self-reliant and resilient. They have started to ask each other for help academically, which has led to stronger sibling relationships. They have been more open to talking about their lessons, which has meant we can have some good family conversations. My daughter has also had time to consider her university options independently, rather than being influenced by what her friends might say. …

They have all shown that, although as parents we worry about them constantly, they are stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for. They have the ability to be more independent in their studies. They can be very active in searching for information and answers themselves, rather than expecting to be given the answers.

An interview during school closures – adapting to a new way of teaching and learning 24 April 2020

This potential, too, should be exploited to the full.

Grand Design 2040

In fact, one of the many documents that was sent my way in the last week or so quoted a government document titled “Grand Design 2040“. In the main document “2040 nen ni muketa koutou kyouiku no gurando dezain” (2040年に向けた高等教育のグランドデザイン) 26 Nov 2018, it states that one of the primary goals of Japanese higher education should be to nurture autonomous learners, and that this sudden shift to online learning was a great opportunity to do just that.

Mediocrity in the name of fairness

Having used Zoom myself for a number of years, I immediately saw its potential for online education: it provides a way for students and teachers to “meet” each other, see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices and a simulation of a face-to-face classroom (and all without the hassle of getting up early and riding a packed commuter train for an hour or so; what’s not to like?). So I enthused about it to my colleagues and set about learning how to use it as a host or administrator. Motivated students can no doubt be relied on to maintain pace even without face-to-face or “live” interaction, merely communicating asynchronously in writing, although even in that case I would say that at least an initial video-call or even phone-call might well have a highly positive affective value. All the more so when you have majors taking a compulsory English class. Will many of them drop out in droves because of the lack of the human touch, the person-to-person communication, what the Japanese call “skinship” and which they value so highly?

Some institutions have embraced video-conferencing technology, while others have big concerns about using it, including security concerns, concerns about imposing an unfair burden on students without laptops or computers (for instance those not living at home), or worries that students will expect all teachers to use it and want to know why some do and some do not.

You still here? (Thanks for reading, Mum!) More posts coming soon, shorter than this one, promise.


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5 thoughts on “Online teaching? A great opportunity.

  1. Thanks for this post. As I read it, I felt that you have covered all the bases (to use a baseball metaphor) and thought deeply about the issues. And there is good advice and helpful links to boot. Again, thanks.
    For the record, I personally floss every day!

  2. Thanks for reading and the feedback. As you floss daily, I know you’re not stuck in groundhog Day. Maybe you raise your own crop, in Montana, maybe?

  3. Thank you, Marc. Very much appreciated to have some contemplative thoughts, outside information, while constructing and implementing new ways. It seems all are waiting, moving gingerly, fearing mistakes and accountability. Personally, it seems best to make classes as independent of institutions as possible, with redundancies I can monitor and control. Let the universities and vocational colleges do their own surveillance, without interfering with teaching and learning they don’t fully understand. Their surveys will have different hidden purposes and questions, as well, but that’s okay. Just keep those items in their own lane of traffic.
    And for a series of articles to exercise one’s mind about values, truth, what’s best and how one may consider any topic, here is a page from the BBC. Fine article, dancing around an issue, and a scroll to the bottom reveals many more titles. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24077633

  4. Nice to hear your thoughts more deeply. I agree with many of the sentiments presented, particularly this being an opportunity for change. Though, I’m not particularly hopeful that the Time=Productivity paradigm will be replaced by Results=Productivity anytime soon. Like Barack Obama said when he was talking about society’s and change , you can’t turn the ship around 180 degrees, but maybe you can alter it by 2 degrees or so.

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