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Online Learning, we begin to believe, is within our grasp. We plunged, crisis mode and did the best we could as teachers. Slowly we began to get the hang of it – or so we thought. The closest to the classroom, we hoped. Maybe that’s where we are going wrong.

You cannot replicate the classroom in online space. There is no reason to do so, other than your own prior beliefs and memories. And ancient administrator’s rules. That world, that classroom is not where we operate now, so there is no reason to stick to it’s rules. There is no bell every forty minutes, unless we bring it in. There is nothing that says a class should be for 40 students at a time, unless we bring it in. Nothing says that the teacher needs to dominate the conversation, unless that is their personal need and validation. There is nothing about teaching and learning online that needs to look like it did in the classroom. Because the room, and it’s walls are gone.

We operate across waves and screens, a screen each. One for each of the teachers, and (hopefully) one for each of the students. It is simultaneously less complex and more complicated.

Less complex, because we have moved from the 3 dimensional world of the classroom to the 2 dimensions of the screen. The signals we receive are much fewer than in the physical classroom. Much less for the brain to deal with. In a real classroom you were aware of the body language of each student, the cross currents of relationships, the distractions. There was weather, light, sound, touch, indeed even smell – all the five senses were at work in a physical classroom. Only two of them are on call during an online classroom. This should mean it is less work.

Not so. It is less input, but that only makes online learning more complicated. This is our brain on pattern matching overdrive, desperately compensating for the information it knows it needs but cannot access across this virtual divide. Students are looking for more visual clues, more auditory tonality from the teachers. They look for non verbal feedback from their cohort – am I alone in not getting this? Should I ask a question? Does my friend get it – can I ask them later if they do? Am I the only one who thinks this is obvious? And so on. The isolation of online learning is real, because the support systems have fallen off. We are seeking to do the work of five senses with just two. (Though many might be glad to not have to use smell in most cases!). Students compensate for this lack by messaging each other, by seeking more information points, to keep their engagement at par with what they remembered of the classroom. It’s not the same. It works against them if the teacher is trying to maintain the pace and process of the physical classroom. Because messaging takes 10x the time it does to exchange a glance across a room. What worked earlier for the cohort (both for work or pranks), now is a clunky interruption of pace. And it lowers engagement, naturally.

Teachers are in a tougher spot not just because they get this naturally. But because they are also similarly handicapped in running their session. This is a loss of powers, almost a handicap for them. They are as bereft as the students but with higher expectations of themselves. Not just they, the entire ecosystem looks to them to get it right. This is seriously a tough ask, and anxiety is natural. So now, their brains are dealing with anxiety, with content and delivery, with a new mode, with less information and connect and with higher visibility and judgement. This is a recipe for frazzle.

What does a teacher to under such circumstances? Either assert their power – via roll calls, tests, judgements, relentless pace, or by calling their position. None of this is going to work. Because online is a democratic medium. Whatever power you try to pull towards yourself by restricting rights (muting participants is quite popular), by enabling screens or not or retaining control of tools during the session, it’s not going to work. You are not just operating in a multiway system, you are operating in a multi system way too. Students can opt out of your system, or partially opt in, while also engaging in other systems of communication, or disconnect.

This makes the task of online teaching even tougher. Because it is seen as a model that places the teacher in charge, in the centre of this circle that progresses learning. Sitting within the circle are students, and indeed the school system, curriculum, assessments and the works. But all of these are supposed to be juggled by the teacher. To use another metaphor here, the teacher is supposed to be the magnet at the centre, while students arrange themselves neatly as iron filings do around a magnet.

Not going to happen.

Students are people, not filings. Students are young people, full of ideas that they care about, not caring about how they fit into the linearity of school. Online space has given them a freedom that they were not trained for – yet. This disruption is neither good nor bad, it just finds us underprepared. This is when things could go wrong, as we think we are beginning to figure it out.

For twenty years, since the Y2k crisis, and then the internet, it has been obvious to all but school systems that education will also turn online. Edutech grew into a multibillion dollar industry, often so removed from the philosophy and practice of education. Tech vendors survived school bastions, making chinks but not quite changing anything. Schools protected the learning process from online learning, so no one evolved. No one figured out how to get it right. The ones who tried, well, kept trying. So we did have some data, lots of writing, many arguments. But the main school system came to online learning only when covid struck.

No wonder teachers did not know what to do. Their power is gone, their control tools are gone, their sensory inputs are gone. Their classroom is gone, their routines are gone, their students are still there – often barely. What should a teacher do, to make it work?

Here’s a formula for you – try it?

  1. Keep it simple. Teach only one thing in one session. Do not have more than one or two learning objectives per lesson/session plan.
  2. Keep sessions short. There is no need for long lectures for learning. Do less to achieve more. Ten minute sessions give or take 5, that’s enough. Less is more.
  3. Keep separate sessions for discussions. Have discussions in smaller groups. If you have more teachers available, share this work.
  4. Talk less, listen more. Keep it conversational. Not preachy.
  5. Watch successful youtubers for your student age group to pick up tone and pace. They’ve worked out what works. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use their hooks wisely.
  6. Do not, I pray you, do not try to replicate the classroom in online space.
  7. Try this once: pretend that you’ve met your class in a social space, and are having a good conversation with them. This is easier for teachers in the ‘west’ than for teachers in Asia, Africa etc. Reflect on how you’d handle that – and you’ll find yourself in a more comfortable place.
  8. Don’t let the students see your fears, but it’s okay to share ignorance in order to create co-learning journeys. You may not know every app, and every feature, but you can learn, just as they did. “Can you hear me?” is not a trigger for a co-learning journey. “Let’s get this going together” just might work better. “Let’s get this done” is possibly even a step to shared purpose. Figure out what works for your group. But do not be the one pulling them along. That’s too much for one human. This has to be about getting it done together, about shared purpose. (It’s not easy, it’s incredibly difficult. You know what’s toughest? Doing this consistently, continually, day after day)
  9. Don’t ever shout online. That’s a step away from going viral in a way that will give you little room to recover. Do not lose your temper online. Modern voice systems make your voice sound horrible at that pitch, just don’t do it.
  10. Role model what you want to see. If you want them to listen, demonstrate how its done. If you want your class to be animated, role model that. If you want your session to be reflective, slow down your pace and deepen your voice. If you want your class to be respectful, respect them consistently. As with every class, you do it ten times, you’ll see a response once. We dealt with it in physical classes, we will work it online too.

Good luck, we are in for the long haul. And we will survive this and more.

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