A week of online teaching & learning

Reading time – 6 minutes.

Looking back at my last post, it’s a sobering moment to reflect on how much has changed in such as short time.

At the end of my first week of ‘proper’ teaching in the new-normal, many things are different but many are still the same. Technology has allowed a transformation of how I’m delivering education to my students, and I wonder how this will shape how I teach when we all return to the physical classrooms.

As a school, we had started the transition to using more of the online aspects of Office 365 in September, so the hard work of implementation was already well advanced before the lock down. One of our fortnightly T&L breakfast clubs had been on the use of Teams for bringing disparate groups of students together (e.g. committees), so some familiarises of the pros and cons has been covered.

In someways we were lucky with where our Easter holidays had been placed – we had one week of remote schooling before two weeks off. In that first week, staff and students were mostly getting used to the technology, and how we were going to setup at home. A lot of work was then done over Easter to develop the policies and systems to allow us to bring, as far as possible, a consistent approach in the first week back of the summer term.

In that first week, I decided to have a ‘live’ element in every lesson for all those students who could make it online. I wanted to recreate the classroom as far as possible, and have the interaction with the students. This gave me the interaction that is central to my teaching, and the reassurance for the students that they aren’t in this on their own. I can only imagine the huge range of environments they are having to work from, and all the strains of trying to ‘do’ school from home. It was gratifying to have almost 100% attendance in all my lessons.

I’m still learning the most effective ways of communicating with classes, and individuals within those classes, but these are some on the things I have learnt so far:

  • Microsoft Teams: Keeping the structure simple at the start has been helpful. Each class has their own Team set up. I’m uploading a copy of the Powerpoint and any other resources into the Files area on a lesson by lesson basis. While this will inevitable lead to some duplication over time, for students it gives them just one place they have to go to for each lesson. With seven lesson per day to contend with, I want to minimise the hurdles for them.
  • Lesson structure: We’ve shortened our lessons slightly to 40 minutes (down from normal 45 minutes). Despite 3 years teaching these shorter lessons, I still find it tricky sometimes having taught 1 hour lessons for so many years. The lessons have all been well structured and following a common ‘Theory’ – ‘Practice’ – ‘Feedback’ structure. I do a little teaching and modelling, they do some questions for practice, then we go through the answers together.
  • Student communications during lesson: I’ve tried it both ways – allowing them to ask questions over mic, and through the Teams chat window. Both work pretty well. Generally, I have mics off during the Theory part of the lesson. I’ve set up a spare TV as a second screen connected to my laptop so I can keep an eye on the Chat window if they are asking questions there, which I can respond to straight away or leave for a few minutes. During the ‘Practice’ time, I’ve allowed mics-on and they’ve been good about not talking over each other.
  • Microsoft Whiteboard: This software has proved invaluable. Being able to write live for the students, demonstrate and model what I’m talking about with them seeing is replicating well how I spend a lot of the time in the classroom. I can import copies of documents, so worksheets and other sources can be replicated and annotated. This is replicating how I use my visualiser a lot in the classroom, so the students are experiencing something they have seen often. I’ve done whole past paper run throughs as well with this software. It gets a bit laggy when there are lots of pages, but it is an effective system.
  • Screen recording: I’ve been making videos for a while so am relatively comfortable with this technology. The simplicity of Microsoft Stream in producing these has been gratifying.
  • On-screen pens: Many years back I bought myself a Wacom tablet, which had been gathering dust for a while. When I couldn’t find my Surface Pro pen, I got it back out, and it has proved invaluable. As above, it has allowed me to replicate the modelling of answers on worksheets online, as I do in the classroom on paper with a visualiser. I did get myself a new Surface Pen which adds back the dimension of writing directly on the screen. However it isn’t ergonomically fantastic writing on the screen in laptop mode. If I need the keyboard and Pen writing, I’m using the Wacom beside the Surface Pro.
  • Student’s returning work: I had a bunch of past papers already photocopied before we went on lock down, and a plan for when the students would be doing them in the run up to study leave. Thankfully, there was time for me to distribute them all before we left school, so the Year 11s and 13s have these all at home. I still want to be marking some of these, rather that just a recorded run through or distributing mark scheme, so I’ve been getting them to send some of their work back to me. Microsoft Office Lens works very well in them taking pictures of each page, stitching it together as a PDF and returning through the Teams Assignments. It is irritating that PDFs can’t be annotate through Teams, but I’ve found the annotation tools in Foxit PDF Readerto allow me to effectively mark and feedback  on their exam papers.
  • The lowest tech device I’ve used so far is an old Tally Counter – downloading and annotating all the worksheets from all the classes wasn’t proving that time effective, but I still wanted to add up numbers of correct answers. Tallying on a piece of paper was proving a bit of a faff – the mechanical Tally Counter has proved very handy. I could be converting or writing some assessments through Form, but at the moment having them work on the resources they already have with them is proving more efficient. We’ll see how this one develops over time.

Three full days of online teaching down. We don’t know how many weeks or months this will go on for, but I’m certainly working on the assumption we’ll be like this for the remainder of the academic year.

I’m under no illusions that the novelty of the new systems and good-will all around are helping grease the wheels as the moment. As we settle down, I’m sure there will be other issues around motivation and engagement to deal with. However, my first experience has proved generally positive, and the students seem engaged and enthused in their education. I miss being in the classroom with them though – this experience is a visceral reminder of how important the social aspect of teaching and learning is – how much communication there is beyond the words we use – how much the environment shapes what we do and think.

I look forward to being back in the physical school, but for now remote schooling seems to be working.laptop

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