You Can Teach Online without Being Ruled by Technology
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
By Monte F. Bourjaily, IV
I’ve been preparing to teach online this fall since schools closed and remote teaching began in March. I thought I was simply being pragmatic about the pandemic; I realize now that I was also trying to deal with my sadness and anger both at losing my ability to interact in person with my students and at having to change how I teach.
The truth is, I worry about my ability to motivate my students in an online environment, feel insecure about teaching through technology, and fear losing sight of the teaching and the learning for which technology should simply be a tool, not the focus. This has led me to a lot of self-study and reflection about how to connect with my students online. My emerging “epiphany” is a recognition that good teaching remains student-focused, centered on what I want my students to learn and why, with technology playing a supporting role.
This brings out two huge challenges. First, as moving online creates great change and uncertainty, we must simultaneously let go of the control that teachers and students have come to expect. Second, we teachers must develop lesson plans and students must work on content while we both learn to use and control the technology central to our success.
I want to start with what a lot of people may think is the hardest part about teaching online: the technology. My advice? Keep it on a leash. This summer, I took a practical course that forced me to use unfamiliar technology and construct lessons for an online environment. There’s a lot of great technology and students know how to use some of it better than teachers do. Unless the course is on technology, however, it still has non-tech core content. The technology just helps us teach and learn it, replacing books and paper with programs, screens, pdfs, and new tools.
Begin with the content and skills we want students to learn. This is Lesson Planning 101. Next, select technology you think will help them do that. My best advice is start with what you know, and then learn a few new tools you think will help you build your instruction. Don’t get distracted by all the suggested technology, including free teasers for paid programs we can’t afford. The appeal of new tech to help our students learn is powerful. It may be better, however, to explore new ways to use existing applications. For example, I recently learned ways to design a Google Doc as a HyperDoc and make a Google Slide deck into a self-contained website. Also, don’t worry about the mistakes you will inevitably make.
Two very important words in the new vocabulary created by online teaching are synchronous and asynchronous. In the spring, many of us thought synchronous meant in class, while asynchronous meant homework. This was deeply flawed. In Fairfax, some of us had 45 minutes/week of synchronous time, much of which was consumed reconnecting with our students and checking on their welfare, rather than teaching content. A better understanding is that synchronous time is the time we spend working together in real time and asynchronous time is when students work on their own schedule, alone and in small groups.
Referring to student-directed time as asynchronous recognizes the reality that real learning and progress in any effort require significant independent work. It also allows us to create time during asynchronous time to make sure our students are safe and in good spirits. It designates synchronous time as the period to share and extend learning through real-time interaction. Finally, it allows us to plan the work we want students to do and how we want them to practice and learn in a way that allows them to use asynchronous time to prepare for productive synchronous time. As school systems increase synchronous time for the fall (Fairfax, for example, will expect students and teachers to work synchronously four days a week from 8:10 am to 2:55 pm in 80-minute increments), we’ll need to refine further what asynchronous work looks like in, and beyond, the defined synchronous periods so that students and teachers work productively and don’t burn out.
But how do we structure synchronous and asynchronous time to encourage and equip students to work independently? I believe it’s an opportunity to redefine teaching and learning in a way that increases student agency and engagement.
Students must know how to plan, organize their work and exercise self-discipline. As teachers, we aspire to help our students be independent learners, but do we too often assume they already know how to manage their seven-course workload or will learn by doing? In face-to-face instruction, we can intervene when students don’t understand or have not organized their work or time effectively. The separation inherent in remote education demands that we explicitly cultivate our students’ independence. They can’t depend on us to see that they are off task and redirect them or ask them how they’re doing. Instead, we must include in our instruction organizational skills like work planning, creating checklists, and time management systems. We need to establish a welcoming communication system through which we reach out to students, but also invite them to ask questions and communicate needs. It may be daunting even to read these suggestions, but think of your own struggles to manage time and stay focused working from home. Now consider a student’s intensifying procrastination anxiety as she or he falls further behind.
In addition, students need explicit instruction in skills we use in our disciplines, like close reading, annotating, writing, brainstorming, conceiving effective questions, and organizing information to derive meaning. Students must value, hone, and become confident using them. Incorporating technology can entice students to practice skills, offer choice that gives them control over their work, and introduce novelty to keep them engaged. Project-based learning in an online environment becomes a way to help students practice using skills and technology as if they are at play. Or, more accurately, to see these tools as the means to “play” with content, to engage with it with increasing rigor and independence. The analogy to play and decision-making brings the experience closer to that of the basketball or soccer player practicing skills and playing in scrimmages or games, or the musician practicing to coax out precision, beauty and emotion for her future audience. As students’ confidence increases, their engagement and empowerment will, too. Ultimately, work with skills and content merge, like the transition in reading where decoding gives way at some point to fluency. (How many adolescent students and adults were “late blooming” readers or continue to find reading frustrating?) Even at the highest levels of high school instruction, we assume students have skills they either don’t or haven’t mastered. If we want independent learners in an asynchronous environment, we must teach the skills that will increase their confidence and in a way that will draw them into the work.
Some of us resist teaching online because it feels foreign or even challenges our identity as teachers. While this reflects my own feeling, I see an opportunity to make some improvements in the way I teach and the way my students learn. I think of my courses as mountains I guide my students up as we climb together each year. I teach my students how to climb, building their skills and confidence and, hopefully, having fun along the way. I can’t climb for them or simply tell them how to climb. They must do the work themselves and, like with climbing, do it safely. Like climbing, teaching is collaborative. By teaching and encouraging students to make choices, we are affected by them. This may be terrifying, but, for a student, inviting choice honors their perspective and can win their participation.
In the online environment, cultivating students’ capacity to climb independently is even more critical, because teacher and student are not physically together for the observation, feedback, and reassurance typical of the classroom or the mountain trail. I think we need to worry less about the technology and worry more about explicitly teaching the organizational and discipline-specific skills that will equip students to succeed on their climb. It requires that we figure out which technology we can use comfortably, or grow comfortable using, to create and maintain those connections that will help us do what we love most—teach.
Bourjaily, a Fairfax Education Association member, teaches social studies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.