There would be few people who could argue that the current forced re-shaping of our education system has and will continue to challenge the very fabric of what education and schooling looks like. This is not limited to a national level, but globally, as education systems worldwide consider and put plans in place to replace the structure of teaching as we know it. In Victoria, following a government directive, schools are preparing to deliver learning online for Term 2. It appears that the other states and territories will be delivering learning online for all or some of Term 2 to the majority of students.
Developing Rapport Online
There is a longstanding history of the role of the teacher and pedagogical structure and delivery in western education systems. This was grounded in the original Didactic and Dialectic methods of Plato and then his student Aristotle in ancient Greece. However, as the current health crisis deepens and we see lockdowns in place in every culture across the world, how do teachers and schools adapt to what cannot be guaranteed to be a one-off experience (as there may be another extensive forced closure)?
Most teachers would undoubtedly attest to the importance of the relational construct that exists between teacher and student. This relationship is a pivotal aspect of our learners’ development and one about which we may reminisce fondly (or perhaps with frustration) when we think of the teachers who have played a part in shaping our future and current lives. I was reminded of the value of this in my experience teaching within the tertiary sector where my teaching units were based wholly online. There were no face to face contact hours required between teacher and student. Not one. I faced a new challenge-it was like nothing I had ever experienced as a classroom teacher. How do you engage with someone behind a screen? How do you interact, develop rapport and engage with learners within a virtual world?
I appreciate though that my tertiary education experience is somewhat different to what we are experiencing now. Teachers will generally have had at least a limited amount of time to develop some level or rapport with their learners. Some teachers may have taught a student previously; some may come with enough reputational collateral to have the luxury of commanding a learning space through pure reputation alone. But how does a teacher work with students who may not have the maturity to self-regulate or the meta-cognition to manage their own learning?
Technology as a Tool of Enablement
Although the education sector is not shy of using technology as a tool for enablement, delivering learning online as a more permanent structure is not something with which many of our primary and secondary schools would be familiar. There is an art and science to creating online learning activities and this is something that cannot happen overnight. How does a teacher optimise learning experiences for students who are studying in a learning environment in a blended online course relying on both synchronous (‘in synch’) and asynchronous (‘out of synch’) technologies (Yamagata-Lynch, 2014)?
COVID-19 (and its disruption to everyday life in nearly every country) has given those within the education sector (whether they wanted it or not) an opportunity to rethink what teaching and learning can and might look like in the years ahead. If the current crisis is a forced trigger of an immense re-design, the role of the school, the teacher and the learner must also be re-imagined. Within more recent literature related to synchronous communications, Asterhan and Schwarz (2010) pointed out that there is little discussion regarding how to effectively support learners in synchronous online learning environments. You might then assume that many Australian teachers are walking into something of an abyss in the weeks or months ahead.
Moving to Online Education Delivery-Considerations for the Future
There is no doubt that many educators will have (perhaps begrudgingly) moved their delivery to an online platform due to school closures. The reality is though that there may have been little consideration (and let’s face it-who would have had the time?) as to how this could and would be constructed in a way to maximise the teaching and learning experiences.
We are following a routine steeped in several hundred years of tradition: subject specific lessons that are divided by a marker-a Pavlovian-like bell that lets the teacher and the learner know when they must finish what they are doing and start something else.
Although pre COVID-19 there was much talk about developing 21st century learners with 21st century competencies, there has been little movement in rigid structures such as curriculum and assessment to elicit this. On top of this, school leaders were considering the additional factors that they must take into account, and currently do, to govern and manage risks for all members of their community. These are considerations that do not magically disappear in a digital teaching environment and are not limited to the physicality of a school.
The School Day Post COVID-19
What will Business as Usual (BAU) look like in schools at the end of all of this? Do you stick by the mantra that this is once in a generation? Or do you challenge the norm and take it as an opportunity to evolve?
The ‘normal’ school day and school year have evolved only marginally over the past two centuries- arguably not enough given the significant research now available investigating optimal learning conditions and environments for our learners. There has been discussion about the length of the school day, starting and finishing times, length of school holidays and so on. As a school, to have the courage to buck the norm and do something different poses a series of strategic risks. What the current situation allows is an environment for schools to try something different without fear or judgment in terms of bucking the norm.
In a conversation with a former colleague of mine last week, he revealed that beyond the current forced closures of schools, he and his school’s Executive Team were looking at re-designing their timetable and pedagogical strategy for 2021 to develop a four-day face-to-face teaching program/one-day online teaching program in their secondary levels of the school. Quite radical might some say.
It is undeniable and not in doubt that, when we return to ‘normal’, many of us will be left with a memory of a time and experience that we most probably don’t want to repeat. Regardless of the driver, it is important that educators realise that online learning cannot rely on traditional forms of planning and delivery usually applied within a four-walled classroom setting. Schools must consider how schools support their staff to build opportunities for:
The requirement for teacher training is paramount in ensuring staff are upskilled accordingly and have both the physical and technological resources required to fulfill their duties. Schools must also consider risks in relation to isolation and mechanisms for peer support.
It’s hard to know what BAU might look like in six months, 12 months or two years’ time. The core purpose and value of education will remain unchanged - but how this might look and feel, only time will tell.