The new reality of online learning

Posted by Learnovate

In many ways, Dr. Ann Devitt could not be more suited to the role of Academic Director at The Learnovate Centre as her background and areas of expertise straddle both education and technology. Ann is a language graduate with a PhD in computer science and her research focuses on technology enhanced learning in particular for language and literacy teaching and learning. She is currently Principal Investigator on an Irish Research Council funded project on Family Digital Literacy in collaboration with the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA).

“The Academic Director role is a perfect position for me as my interests lie in education and learning but I am also a technologist. My role in Learnovate will be more on the education side of things but I have the background in technology to understand and appreciate what technology can bring to enhance different learning contexts,” she says.

With more teachers and educators relying on technology to engage with their learners as a result of Covid-19, we asked Dr. Devitt to share her advice and thoughts with us.

Nessa McEniff: What advice do you have for teachers struggling to make the abrupt transition from school-based learning to remote learning in the middle of a school year?

Ann Devitt: Teachers are in such a difficult position, especially if the students are not engaging with them. It can be hard to know if students are enjoying the school work, are doing OK and just working away or if the entire family is struggling. The best piece of advice I can give teachers is to keep the relationships alive. The relationship between the teacher and the student is the most important thing – ensuring they feel valued and that there is trust with the teacher.

It is very different for different age groups. Younger learners need more scaffolding and direction whereas older learners could be more self-directed. For all ages, it is really useful to help students set their own goals for learning.  Teachers can support this and provide feedback on how students are doing in achieving those goals.

Also, ”delivering” feedback is definitely useful but only if the learners know how to engage with the feedback.  Ideally they should be supporting students to set their own goals, to assess themselves and generate their own feedback loop with the teacher’s input.  This becomes a much more effective and motivating learning context.

There are many issues with realising this vision at the moment, not least the digital divide where a lot of families are struggling with poor broadband, a lack of devices to do the work and, in many cases, the parents are busy trying to keep up with their own work. The advice here is to keep it really simple, when it comes to technology. Keep the technology bar as low as needed to allow access and to  maintain contact. Check in with parents or students to find out what resources there are available and other constraints on time and resources.

Teachers need to look after their own mental health as well because apart from their own stresses they can be worried about the home situations of the students who are not engaging. A lot of students rely on schools not only for their education but for more fundamental things, like breakfast and lunch and a safe environment and it can be a real worry for the teacher if they cannot get in touch with these students. The main focus should be to ensure that the relationship remains open to offer support, even if the student isn’t doing the schoolwork.

Nessa: Is it different for teachers at primary and those at second-level?

Ann: It is very different for primary and second-level students. Second level students can often work independently – with online classes – but primary students may need a lot more support from parents. The relationship between the teacher and the students is mediated by the parent and there is a lot of pressure on parents at the moment. I am a parent of 3 primary children so I am very aware of this.  Teachers need to be mindful of the pressure parents are under and not overwhelm them. Keeping it simple, giving clear instruction and interesting activities that link to real life. Ideally some of the work would be easy for the students to work away on on their own if parents are working and don’t have time to sit with their children.

At second-level, students have more drive to work independently but, on the other hand, they have a lot more going on in terms of various teachers and subjects. Ideally, there should be integration between teachers but that can be hard to organise, especially now. Think in terms of long-term projects that have clear success criteria so the students have a clear path to work towards. Give the students examples of what good looks like. Show them a mock-up of a peer’s work so they can judge for themselves what a good project looks like. A useful cycle for project work is to begin by analysing exemplars with the students to define agreed success criteria, doing the assignment, maybe with draft versions, and with a feedback cycle that could include self or peer assessment against the success criteria.  At that stage teacher feedback can be targeted on what actions the students can take next to address those well understood success criteria.  This maximises teachers’ time as feedback is linked in to the process of developing work, not delivered as an endpoint and not used.

Nessa: What do you see as the biggest challenges involved in online teaching?

Ann: Relationship building. While the work can move online, it is very difficult to move your relationship with the student online. The teacher has to maintain this relationship, sustain it and build it. The longer you are teaching online, the harder it is for the teacher to keep the personal touch and the humanity in their teaching.

Nessa: What pieces of technology or programmes can help teachers during Covid-19?

Ann: There is so much helpful technology out there.  So much in fact that it can feel difficult to decide what to use.  The first thing the teacher needs to do is ask themselves: what do I and the students need to achieve? Look at what you want to achieve and then see if there is a programme or a piece of technology that suits your needs. Often people feel they need to be on a certain site or using a piece of technology because its gamified and cool and everyone else is using it but it only works if it’s useful to you and your students.  For example, something as simple as text messaging can be the best tool ever for language skills because it gives a real context to use the new language skills.  It’s not rocket science and it does the job you need it to do.

Nessa: As teachers can no longer fill up the whole school day, what do you think parents should be doing to help fill the void?

Ann: Parents know their children best. The most important thing is to ensure their child is not scared or stressed and is happy. Parents are under huge pressure and they might have lost their jobs or be working from home and I don’t think they should put more pressure on themselves to fill the void. But there are simple things they can be doing. Mindfulness colouring is great; just sitting quietly and colouring. It quiets the mind. Shared reading is always great, depending on the age of the child, asking questions about the story helps with problem-solving skills. Getting exercise is important – whether that is dancing or practising GAA skills. We have produced a number of short videos for parents on how to support their children’s literacy and numeracy learning in their every day lives at home.  These times are difficult so we all need to remember, we are all doing what we can and lots of that is good.

Nessa: What about the problem of students who don’t have the same access to the technology and equipment necessary for online education?

Ann: There have been studies showing a digital divide with some families not having access to the resources they need.  The reality is probably worse than the early results are showing as most people filling out these forms have access to technology and broadband and generally have the time and the mental space to do so.  In collaboration with Learnovate, on the Family Digital Literacy project we are running a national survey of primary parents on home learning and access to devices.  We are using a range of ways to support hard-to-reach parents to fill in this survey so we get a more complete picture of what resources parents have available for home learning.  The Department of Education, Home School Community Liaison Coordinators and other initiatives like Trinity Access Tech to Student are doing great work also in getting resources to the people most in need.  If this goes on for much longer though we need some consistent practices and supports for this and we hope our parent survey will help identify some of the needs.

Nessa: Will this enforced remote learning make online education more palatable or appealing to teachers? What can we learn from it?

Ann: The amount of upskilling that has been done in a short space of time is unbelievable. This includes teachers who might have previously not seen it as part of their role or perceived themselves as not very techie. Now, everyone has to do it so the skills level will have developed hugely and they are more likely to integrate it when the schools reopen. In collaboration with Learnovate, Trinity Access and colleagues in the School of Education, we are also running a national teacher survey to explore the changes in practice during the Covid-19 shutdown.  It is really interesting to see how teachers view the changes they have been making.

There is no doubt that teachers have upskilled and we might be more aware now of where technology can help us and where it might be able to solve gaps.

Nessa: What has TCD been doing since the Covid-19 outbreak hit to assist instructors in the move online, either on or off campus?

Ann: The Institution has been very successful I think in moving teaching and learning and all assessment online since March.  Feedback from students across the college has been very positive and we have all worked hard to make sure the student community feels well supported to complete out the year successfully.  There is now intensive work on-going in planning for the next academic year which is likely to include some face to face and some blended elements.

At the School of Education specifically we have been doing a number of things to support parents and teachers.  As I said above, I led work with colleagues in the School of Education, Marino Institute of Education and the Limerick & Clare ETB to create ‘Literacy on the Loose’, a series of seven easy and accessible videos to help parents who are home schooling their children. We followed this with ‘Numeracy in the Now’ which was six short videos focused on maths and was led by Dr. Aibhin Bray, in the TCD School of Education.  We are running the webinars for these with education centres nationally.  We are also just finalising some resources for parents in multilingual families and in collaboration with Learnovate resources for schools to optimise their communications with parents.  Upcoming webinars are on our research events webpage.  We are trying to address the needs we hear about coming from educators.

The Learnovate Centre also has created six guides on the subject of assessment through collaboration online covering approaches to distance assessment, giving and getting feedback online, fostering collaboration for online learning, generating engagement for online lectures, supporting learners through online tools and the importance of setting expectations. Learnovate researchers also published an infographic outlining their Top Tips for Distance Learning.  These are in use by the TCD academic community and also have been shared nationally through the National Forum for Teaching and Learning.

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About Dr. Ann Devitt:

Dr. Ann Devitt is Assistant Professor of Modern Languages and Director of Research at the School of Education and Chair of the Research Ethics Committee for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. She is the Academic Director of The Learnovate Centre and has extensive research experience in both academia and industry. Having worked in the language and speech technology industries for a number of years in Europe, she returned to academia to complete a PhD in computational linguistics. After this she worked as research fellow in the telecoms industry where she has a number of patents and publications. In 2008, she joined the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin. She was a recipient of a Fulbright TechImpact Award in 2016 and has twice received commendations in the Provost’s Teaching Award.