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Are experienced online teachers best-placed to help in-person teachers cope with suddenly having to teach online? Maybe not.

lecturingI recently downloaded What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. This is an open edited book, freely downloadable from the AACE site, for teachers of teachers whose lives were disrupted by the sudden move to emergency remote teaching over the past year or so.  I've only skimmed the contents and read a couple of the chapters, but my first impressions are positive. Edited by Richard Ferdig and Kristine Pytash, It springs from the very active and engaged AACE SITE community, which is a good indicator of expertise and experience. It seems well organized into three main sections:

  1.         Social and Emotional Learning for Teacher Education.
  2.         Online Teaching and Learning for Teacher Education.
  3.         eXtended Reality (XR) for Teacher Education

I like the up-front emphasis on social and emotional aspects, addressing things like belongingness, compassion, and community, mainly from theoretical/model-oriented perspectives, and the other sections seem wisely chosen to meet practitioner needs. The chapters adopt a standardized structure:

  • Introduction. 
  • What We Know. 
  • Lessons Learned for Research. 
  • Lessons Learned for Practice. 
  • What You Should Read. 
  • References

Again, this seems pretty sensible, maintaining a good focus on actionable knowledge and practical steps to be taken. It's not quite a textbook, but it's a useful teach-yourself resource with good coverage. I look forward to dipping into it a bit more deeply. I expect to find some good ideas, good practices, and good theoretical models to support my teaching and my understanding of the issues. And I'm really pleased that it is being released as an open publication: well done, AACE, for making this openly available.

But I do wonder a little about who else will read this.

Comfort zones and uncomfortable zones

The other day I was chatting with a neighbour who teaches a traditional hard science subject at one of the local universities, who was venting about the problems of teaching via Zoom. He knew that I had a bit of interest and experience in this area, so he asked whether I had any advice. I started to suggest some ways of rethinking it as a pedagogical opportunity, but he was not impressed. Even something as low-threshold and straightforward as flipping the classroom or focusing on what students do rather than what he has to tell them was a step too far. He patiently explained that he has classes with hundreds of students and fixed topics that they need to learn, and he really didn't see it as desirable or even possible to depart from his well-tried lecture format. At least it would be too much work and he didn't have the time for it. I did try to push back on that a bit and I may have mentioned the overwhelming body of research that suggests this might not be a wise move, but he was pretty clear and firm about this.  What he actually wanted was for someone to make (or tell him how to make) the digital technology as easy and as comfortably familiar as the lecture theatre, and that would somehow make the students as engaged as he perceived them to normally be in his lectures, without notably changing how he taught. The problem was the darn technology, not the teaching. I bit my tongue at this point. I eventually came up with a platitude or two about trying to find different ways to make learning visible, about explicitly showing that he cares, about taking time to listen, about modelling the behaviour he wanted to see, about using the chat to good advantage, and about how motivation differs online and off, but I don't think it helped. I suspect that the only things that really resonated with him were suggestions about how to get the most out of a webcam and a recommendation to get a better microphone.

Within the context in which he usually teaches, he is probably a very good teacher. He's a likeable person who clearly cares a lot about his students, he knows a lot about his subject, and he knows how to make it appealing within the situation that he normally works. His courses, as he described them, are very conventional, relying a lot on the structure given to them by the industry-driven curriculum and the university's processes, norms, and structures, and he fills his role in all that admirably. I think he is pretty typical of the vast majority of teachers. They're good at what they do, comfortable with how they do it, and they just want the technology to accommodate them continuing to do so without unnecessary obstacles.

Unfortunately, technology doesn't work that way.

The main reason it doesn't work is very simple: technologies (including pedagogies) affect one another in complex and recursive ways, so (with some trivial exceptions) you can't change one element (especially a large element) and expect the rest to work as they did before.  It's simple, intuitive, and obvious but unless you are already well immersed in both systems theories and educational theory, really taking it to heart and understanding how it must affect your practice demands a pretty big shift in weltanschauung, which is not the kind of thing I was keen to start while on my way to the store in the midst of a busy day.

To make matters worse, even if teachers do acknowledge the need to change, their assumption that things will eventually (maybe soon) return to normal means that they are - reasonably enough -  not willing and probably not able to invest a lot of time into it. A big part of the reason for this is that, thanks to the aforementioned interdependencies, they are probably running round like blue-arsed flies just trying to keep things together, and filling their time with fixing the things that inevitably break in the process. Systems thrive on this kind of self-healing feedback loop. I guess teachers figure that, if they can work out how to tread water until the pandemic has run its course, it will be OK in the end.

If only.

Why in-person education works

The hallmark technologies (mandatory lectures, assignments, grades, exams, etc, etc) of in-person teaching are worse than awful but, just as a talented musician can make beautiful noises with limited technical knowledge and sub-standard instruments, so there are countless teachers who use atrocious methods in dreadful contexts but who successfully lead their students to learn. As long as the technologies are soft and flexible enough to allow them to paper over the cracks of bad tools and methods with good technique, talent, and passion, it works well enough for enough people enough of the time and can (with enough talent and passion) even be inspiring.

It would not work at all, though, without the massive machinery that surrounds it.

An institution (including its systems, structures, and tools) is itself designed to teach, no matter how bad the teachers are within it. The opportunities for students to learn from and with others around them, including other students, professors, support staff, administrators, and so on; the supporting technologies, including rules, physical spaces, structures, furnishings, and tools; the common rooms, the hallways, the smokers' areas (best classrooms ever), the lecture theatres, the bars and the coffee shops; the timetables that make students physically travel to a location together (and thus massively increase salience); the notices on the walls; the clubs and societies; the librarians, the libraries, the students reading and writing within those libraries, echoing and amplifying the culture of learning that pervades them; the student dorms and shared kitchens where even more learning happens; the parties; even the awful extrinsic motivation of grades, teacher power, and norms and rules of behaviour that emerged in the first place due to the profound motivational shortcomings of in-person teaching. All of this and more conspires to support a basic level of at least mediocre (but good enough) learning, whether or not teachers teach well. It's a massively distributed technology enacted by many coparticipants, of which designated teachers are just a part, and in which students are the lead actors among a cast of thousands. Online, those thousands are often largely invisible. At best, their presence tends to be highly filtered, channeled, or muted.

Why in-person methods don't transfer well online

When most of that massive complex machinery is suddenly removed, leaving nothing but a generic interface better suited to remote business meetings than learning or, much worse, some awful approximation of all the evil, hard, disempowering technologies of traditional teaching wrapped around Zoom, or nightmarishly inhuman online proctoring systems, much of the teaching (in the broadest sense) disappears with it. Teaching in an institution is not just what teachers do. It's the work of a community; of all the structures the community creates and uses; of the written and unwritten rules; of the tacit knowledge imparted by engagement in a space made for learning; of the massive preparation of schooling and the intricate loops that connect it with the rest of society; of attitudes and cultures that are shaped and reinforced by all the rest.  It's no wonder that teachers attempting to transfer small (but the most visible) parts of that technology online struggle with it. They need to fill the ever-widening gaps left when most of the comfortable support structures of in-person institutions that made it possible in the first place are either gone or mutated into something lean and hungry. It can be done, but it is really hard work.

More abstractly, a big part of the problem with this transfer-what-used-to-work-in-person approach is that it is a technology-first approach to the problem that focuses on one technology rather than the whole. The technology of choice in this case happens to be a set of pedagogical methods, but it is no different in principle than picking a digital tool and letting that decide how you will teach. Neither makes much sense. All the technologies in the assembly - including pedagogies, digital tools, regulations, designs, and structures - have to work together. No single technology has precedence, beyond the one that results from assembling the rest. To make matters worse, what-used-to-work-in-person pedagogies were situated solutions to the problems of teaching in physical classrooms, not universally applicable methods of teaching. Though there are some similarities here and there, the problems of teaching online are not at all the same as those of in-person teaching so of course the solutions are different. Simply transferring in-person pedagogies to an online context is much like using the paddles from a kayak to power a bicycle. You might move, but you won't move far, you won't move fast, you won't move where you want to go, and it is quite likely to end in injury to yourself or others.

Such problems have, to a large extent, been adequately solved by teachers and institutions that work primarily online. Online institutions and organizations have infrastructure, processes, rules, tools, cultures, and norms that have evolved to work together, starting with the baseline assumption that little or none of the physical stuff will ever be available. Anything that didn't work never made it to first base, or has not survived. Those that have been around a while might not be perfect, but they have ironed out most of the kinks and filled in most of the gaps. Most of my work, and that of my smarter peers, begins in this different context. In fact, in my case, it mainly involves savagely critiquing that context and figuring out ways to improve it, so it is yet another step removed from where in-person teachers are now.

OK, maybe I could offer a little advice or, at least, a metaphor

Roughly 20 years ago I did share a similar context. Working in an in-person university, I had to lead a team of novice online teachers from geographically dispersed colleges to create and teach a blended program with 28 new online courses. We built the whole thing in 6 months from start to finish, including the formal evaluations and approvals process. I could share some generic lessons from what I discovered then, the main one being to put most of the effort into learning to teach online, not into designing course materials. Put dialogue and community first, not structure. For instance, make the first thing students see in the LMS the discussion, not your notes or slides, and use the discussion to share content and guide the process. However, I'd mostly feel like the driver of a Model T Ford trying to teach someone to drive a Tesla. Technologies have changed, I have changed, my memory is unreliable.

bicycleIn fact, I haven't driven a car of any description in years. What I normally do now is, metaphorically, much closer to riding a bicycle, which I happen to do and enjoy a lot in real life too. A bike is a really smart, well-adapted, appropriate, versatile, maintainable, sustainable soft technology for getting around. The journey tends to be much more healthy and enjoyable, traffic jams don't bother you, you can go all sorts of places cars cannot reach, and you can much more easily stop wherever you like along the way to explore what interests you. You can pretty much guarantee that you will arrive when and where you planned to arrive, give or take a few minutes. In the city, it's often the fastest way to get around, once you factor in parking etc. It's very liberating. It is true that more effort is needed to get from A to B, bad weather can be a pain, and it would not be the fastest or most comfortable way to reach the other side of the continent: sometimes, alternative forms of transport are definitely worth taking and I'm not against them when it's appropriate to use them. And the bike I normally ride does have a little electric motor in one of the wheels that helps push me up hills (not much, but enough) but it doesn't interfere with the joy (or most of the effort) of riding.  I have learned that low-threshold, adaptable, resilient systems are often much smarter in many ways than high-tech platforms because they are part-human. They can take on your own smartness and creativity in ways no amount of automation can match. This is true of online learning tools as much as it is true of bicycles. Blogs, wikis, email, discussion forums, and so on often beat the pants off learning management systems, commercial teaching platforms, learning analytics tools or AI chatbots for many advanced pedagogical methods because they can become what you want them to be, rather than what the designer thought you wanted, and they can go anywhere, without constraint. Of course, the flip side is that they take more effort, sometimes take more time, and (without enormous care) can make it harder for all concerned to do things that are automated and streamlined in more highly engineered tools, so they might not always be the best option in all circumstances, any more than a bike is the best way to get up a snowy mountain or to cross an ocean.

Why you shouldn't listen to my advice

It's sad but true that most of what I would really like to say on the subject of online learning won't help teachers on the ground right now, and it is actually worse than the help their peers could give them because what I really want to tell them is to change everything and to see the world completely differently. That's pretty threatening, especially in these already vulnerable times, and not much use if you have a class to teach tomorrow morning.

The AACE book is more grounded in where in-person teachers are now. The chapter "We Need to Help Teachers Withstand Public Criticism as They Learn to Teach Online", for example, delves into the issues well, in accessible ways that derive from a clear understanding of the context.  However, the book cannot help but be an implicit (and, often, explicit) critique of how teachers currently teach: that's implied in the title, and in the chapter structures.  If you're already interested enough in the subject and willing enough to change how you teach that you are reading this book in the first place, then this is great. You are 90% of the way there already, and you are ready to learn those lessons. One of the positive sides of emergency remote teaching has been that it has encouraged some teachers to reflect on their teaching practices and purposes, in ways that will probably continue to be beneficial if and when they return to in-person teaching. They will enjoy this book, and they may be the intended audience. But they are not the ones that really need it.

I would quite like to see (though maybe not to read) a different kind of book containing advice from beginners. Maybe it would have a title something like 'What I learned in 2020' or 'How I survived Zoom.' Emergency remote teachers might be more inclined to listen to the people who didn't know the 'right' ways of doing things when the crisis began, who really didn't want to change, who maybe resented the imposition, but who found ways to work through it from where they were then, rather than where the experts think (or know) they should be aiming now. It would no doubt annoy me and other distance learning researchers because, from the perspective of recognized good practice, much of it would probably be terrible but, unlike what we have to offer, it would actually be useful. A few chapters in the AACE book are grounded in concrete experience of this nature, but even they wind up saying what should have happened, framing the solutions in the existing discourse of the distance learning discipline. Most chapters consist of advice from experts who already knew the answers before the pandemic started. It is telling that the word 'should' occurs a lot more frequently than it should. This is not a criticism of the authors or editors of the book: the book is clear from the start that it is going to be a critique of current practice and a practical guidebook to the territory, and most of the advice I've seen in it so far makes a lot of sense. It's just not likely to affect many of the ones who have no wish to change not just their practices but their fundamental attitudes to teaching. Sadly, that's also true of this post which, I think, is therefore more of an explanation of why I've been staring into the headlights for most of the pandemic, rather than a serious attempt to help those in need. I hope there's some value in that because it feels weird to be a (slight, minor, still-learning) expert in the field with very strong opinions about how online learning should work, but to have nothing useful to say on the subject at the one time it ought to have the most impact.

Read the book:

Ferdig, R.E. & Pytash, K.E. (2021). What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved March 22, 2021 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/219088/.

Jon Dron

Jon Dron

still learning, never learning enough
About me

I am a full professor and former Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of...

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