Very suddenly, it seems, our educational contexts were transformed because of Covid19. All learning contexts at all levels of education have had to deal with very different teaching realities. Online teaching and learning by choice are much different realities than online work through crisis planning. A crisis like a pandemic also includes very undesirable elements such as new pressures, resource limitations and anxieties about the unknown. Nevertheless, my observations reinforce my belief that educators persevere. Even though many are exhausted, or soon will be, onward educators go. Making time for self-care and the care of our colleagues as well as our students have truly become vital priorities. Our quest for more equitable learning environments demands that we consider these myths as well.
John Ross (2011) shared some significant myths about online professional development. I substitute the words teaching and/or learning which seems very timely now that we are dealing with learning for both educators and students using online, hybrid and/or synchronous and asynchronous models. Myths can illuminate areas that leaders, in particular, must consider in their planning and support of others. I reflect on a few of these myths in the following. After many years in public education as a teacher, principal and superintendent, I presently work as a sessional instructor with doctoral students in an online program for Western University. This has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me illuminating new opportunities and challenges in learning and teaching.
Online professional teaching and learning is easy. As Ross points out, just because there are many choices offered in terms of on-line learning, this does not mean we as consumers are prepared for the learning involved. It is not so much about the technology as how it is used. It is not easy work and is intense when done well. Is this not the same issue for our students in elementary, secondary and higher education right now? A task shared online is not the same as understanding the task deeply and knowing how to demonstrate what we know. The good news is when we share high-quality content and engage the learner in rich learning experiences, we can challenge learners in critical and effective ways. Creating these experiences requires facilitated learning and time. Even the assumption of access to high functioning technology is inherent and also needs to be checked.
Teaching online is like teaching face-to-face. This is no doubt a myth. Ross suggests that highly successful on-line learning providers emphasize the need for rigorous training of online facilitators. This is exactly what much of Ontario’s teaching force requires but has not had time to acquire or truly integrate. One difference that stands out is that in a face to face environment, educators can use the benefit of visual and verbal cues which are a strong source of assessment information. Without access to these cues our most vulnerable learners are definitely compromised. We need to learn and employ new strategies to gather useful formative assessment information online.
Online learning has learners glued to the computer. In contrast to sitting in a chair in a classroom for the better part of a day or at a table with peers, developing effective on-line learning needs to reasonably expect shorter time periods for on-line engagement with follow-up time to practice a new skill or reflect on a new concept. All stakeholders need breaks from screens for both mental and physical health. Subsequent to that, coming back to a group online reflection and sharing experience can motivate and enhance understanding. This demands some flexibility in timetabling and lesson planning which also requires practice and confidence on the part of the instructor. The design of online learning is very important if we are to gather useful evidence of learning and engage learners deeply. Flexibility in teaching and learning hours can be challenging with the realities of contractual duties. Quiet, supportive learning environments for students at home cannot be assumed and this reality must be mitigated.
Online learning is isolating and lonely. The feedback is clear. A great sense of community can be developed online. Collaborative activities and frequent opportunities for an exchange of communication online are just as vital online as in face to face environments to build a sense of collective purpose as well as a sense of competence and confidence for all concerned. Sadly, what is clear is that without support, teacher burnout will follow and student disengagement is a real threat.
Online learning is less rigorous. As Ross suggests, rigor is different than ease of learning. Rigor is dependent upon the use of appropriate learning designs, critical learning activities and strong instruction. Rigor requires instructors to be involved in ongoing learning as well. The ability for students to experience rigorous learning requires our political and senior leaders to have reasonable learning expectations and offer time for learning to those working with our most important resource – our students. Are we effectively supporting professionals who work with learners in ways that recognize the weight of their present responsibilities? The health of our educational contexts involves much more than preparations for Covid19. It also requires healthy and motivated learning professionals and realistic learning expectations for all stakeholders. Rigor needs a healthy environment to surface and be sustained.
A myth represents a different lens that has its roots in the experience of some. However, perceptions matter. I offer these considerations as I continue to learn about how to make my own seminar and course design more effective. I know there is much more to learn about how to learn and teach best online as well as in face to face environments. How technology is used to serve learning is the crux of the issue. Are we after quality of learning or quantity of activity these days is a question I am asking myself. Sometimes, to serve our students best, we need to slow down to the speed of learning and give ourselves time for reflection as individuals and professional collaborators within and across educational contexts.
Time will tell what we take forward from this great disruptive period in our lives both professionally and personally. We already know that many stressed parents do not have the time for focussed support for their children online so we can’t assume we have equitable learning opportunities in hand at all. If a desired outcome is deeper learning, this demands that we share reflections and look at the supports for teaching and learning with a much more critical lens.
Ross, J. (2011) Online professional development: Design, deliver, succeed. Corwin Press/Learning Forward.