The Science Circle sponsored a colloquium on online education, Experiences of Teaching Online from Different Perspectives, on January 8, 2021. With the mass exodus of students from the physical classroom due to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, learning online has become the new norm. Teachers have literally been caught up in a revolution. While online activities and computer-based learning has grown over the past two decades, no one was prepared to go to 100% online teaching and learning. The colloquium sought to explore the effects this unprecedented and rapid change has caused.
The participants were: Dr. Phil Youngblood (Vic Michalak in SL), Dr. Maria Droujkova (Mariad Hax in SL), Dr. Cynthia Calongne ( Lyr Lobo in SL), and Wade Roach, who is an American High School science and engineering teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Also, we have some observations by a student, Karthik Prathaban (Jude in SL), that are included in the Comments below.
A caveat: Video conferencing software has recently matured to the point where it has become the essential primary tool for online classes. There are many products that are used for this but the Zoom application has become the Kleenex of video conferencing tools and I will use Zoom as the default.
Dr. Youngblood teaches at the college level and he has gathered some observations contrasting classroom with online learning.
Face-to-Face Settings. Positive – Natural communication environment, full range of communication options. Negative – Must travel to collocate, vehicle costs (gas, parking), away from home or work, same place, same time (a luxury).
Remote (including Online) Settings. Positive – Locate where you want or need to be, less need to dress up, chat while others are talking. Negative – Network connection, bandwidth, hardware, software, tech expertise, background interference, distraction, noise. He also shared some student comments concerning remote learning. Positive – “interactive, close to f2f”, “made sure we understood”, easier to focus and ask questions, “did not require face cam/mic”, “needed to be home for family.” Negative – “hard to pay attention,” distractions at home, not as much interaction with other students.
There are unique advantages to online activities, especially if using a virtual world. Dr. Youngblood said, “We have witnessed during presentations, field trips, and visiting exhibits together that interacting in virtual worlds breaks down physical distances and social barriers, enables participants to represent themselves in a wider range of ways, to interact in chat without disrupting a speaker, and to create persistent imaginative visuals to support and reinforce education.”
He made a significant observation about the human aspect of any teaching setting, “How the class is taught may not always matter, but how the teacher presents it and interacts is always important.”
Dr. Droujkova focuses on teaching mathematics and identified two areas that required attention when switching to online learning. “Fatigue – I need to make sure people don’t get exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. That takes a whole big checklist in task design! Technology – It’s entirely unpredictable. For example, I am on Google Fiber (very fast), and I couldn’t see half the slides at the event due to lag.”
Overall, she said, “We can build better stories and better futures. The future is a pattern that emerges from our current choices. For my part, I am working on making advanced mathematics accessible to everyone in kind ways. Day to day, that means supporting informal learning communities run by and for parents, teachers, and students. From where I stand, the future looks like a bunch of friendly math circles and their alliances.” For example, please visit: https://mathcommunities.org or https://aimathcircles.org.
Dr. Calongne talked about the need to provide support for students who “tested positive for Covid-19 or who had family who died from Covid-19 and other medical conditions. I adopted flexible policies to accommodate the needs of students and their families. This had an impact for online discussion in smaller classes.”
“In my virtual world class, taught for a university in OpenSimulator on the Lobo grid, I participated in class activities using a cognitive apprenticeship model to strengthen their learning experience. The challenges were to provide support and engagement synchronously for 13 students from both undergraduate and graduate programs and from any discipline.”
In summary, Dr. Calongne said, It is important to recognize the need for “face-to-face and emotional connections in the classroom, so if health issues prevent campus classes, we recommend better tools for simulating classroom experiences and bridging with field trips and opportunities that are not possible in a physical campus.” This echoes Dr. Youngblood’s comments where he mentions the ability of online activities to go places the real classroom cannot.
Mr. Roach teaches in a high school environment and describes how his world changed. “My district took a normal 6 period class day over an 18 week semester and turned it into 2 quarters of 3 classes. Each class is a 90 minute Zoom meeting four times a week with Wednesday being an asynchronous day where teachers are in staff meetings, professional development, and designing and implementing curriculum.” That is three 90 minute Zoom classes each day with a day for preparation each week. Beyond using Zoom as his main tool, he uses a long list of other applications to present content and create collaborative and interactive assignments.
He identified several issues that are probably more common when teaching at the primary and secondary levels than at the college level. The software students use must be approved by the school district. This limits the teachers options. Also, virtual world software may be difficult to have approved due to technical requirements and fairly steep learning curve.
One aspect of Zoom, that everyone has video, has evolved over time. “In the beginning… students would have videos on but very quickly it reduced down to just a few students showing their videos. Sometimes this is a legitimate bandwidth saving option but moreover it has become a social norm to not show video. This is where I think the avatar that we have in virtual worlds would improve the interactions.”
“As a teacher it is very difficult to see if a blank screen with a name on it is actually doing work. The other big problem is cheating. Students can google many of the traditional things we used to test so I work on more metacognitive problems (how do they know that that is a correct way to solve a problem).”
In summary, Mr. Roach said, “Overall, I think that we managed the online education well and it does feel like if we wanted to make some progressive changes to the way we educate our children this would be a good time to try to implement them.”
A digression: When I began teaching a graduate online course in 2000, two-way, video conferencing was not a practical option for students scattered across the state. The course my colleague and I taught was hosted by a course management system and we held a weekly Q & A session via one-way streaming video and text chat. We had a set that made us look like late night TV show hosts. Students would ask questions via text chat and we would answer them via the live stream. This format was great fun and the students liked it.