In recent talks, I have been struck by how many teachers are limiting the power of online learning to a distance model. The statements I have heard most often are:
- Online learning is something students do when they are away from class.
- We go to online learning when the school is operating a restricted timetable.
This type of thinking makes online learning the 'stop gap' for when regular teaching practice is disrupted. It limits what digital options can do for teaching and learning. Both students and teachers can benefit so much more from digital learning being part of their everyday experience.
Rethinking the regular programme
Firstly, online education needs to be part of the regular classroom programme. Students need to develop skills for getting the most out online learning (including discussions, polls and other means of communication), and teachers need to develop their online practice to meet their learners' needs. This is hard to do when you only use online learning as a 'stop gap'. It's much easier to do when the students are with the teacher in the class, benefitting from the teacher's expertise while using an online platform.
Keeping the goal in mind
The goal should be to have students experience an online environment that functions as well as a face-to-face classroom context. Online learning is not second-rate learning and has multiple flow on effects for student achievement. Students who are confident will be more engaged as they will not feel they are being set adrift in the times when face-to-face is not possible. They don't need to be excluded or fall behind others who are in class.
Quality matters in online learning. A bad online experience is the result of a mixture of poor online practice and online content.
Good content is more than having a number of resources and emailed instructions to class. Online learning is much more than allowing some students to video conference as part of their learning. If your students were in class and you just dropped some resources and a list of instructions to their desks, I don’t think it would be a very good lesson. In a face-to-face class the teacher typically does a lot of talking, explaining, reexplaining, relating to contexts and helping students make connections in learning. This is the art of teaching, and it needs to be recreated online.
Good online learning practice comes from thinking about what the teacher does face-to-face, and considering how this can replicated online.
- When the teacher drops by your desk to check how you are going — the online equivalent would be a poll or a direct message.
- When a student doesn’t understand a concept and asks a question, the online equivalent to asking a teacher would be an online discussion attached to the work in question.
- If a teacher wants to stop the class and explain something again, an online equivalent would be the use of talk channels, or in-course message boards.
- When the teacher wants to check understanding after a video, an online equivalent could be some tasks or related activities that collate class information for the teacher.
Using the tools in the Learning Management System to achieve what a teacher does face-to-face is good practice.
Using a learning journey
Good online learning delivers the learning journey through a Learning Management System (LMS). A great LMS provides a well-organised pathway through learning, including giving the students access to resources you might ordinarily use in class as well as so much more. Targeted and well-written, student-centered text and multimedia is directed at the learner, and covers the kind of things you would if you were teaching face-to-face. When using the right LMS, the teacher can spend more of their time one-on-one meeting the needs of students.
Not just the same; better!
The time has come for schools to take online learning as seriously as all other aspects of teaching practice.
We need to move past relegating online learning to a distance model. Let's instead discuss ways to make online learning not only as good as a face-to-face lesson, but something that provides more benefits to the individual student (or teacher!) than the current typical classroom model. Let's bring this up in communities of learning and share good practice. Every school should be thinking about this. Incorporating online learning into the classroom won't make it just as good as a face-to-face lesson - it will be better!