Sunday, September 11, 2022

Towards a HyFlex Model of Teaching and Learning in Adult Language, Literacy, Numeracy and Digital (ALLND) Education

In October 2020, I published a series of notes and slides on a presentation I gave for the Learning for Employment (LfE) Consortium in Western Melbourne about developments in my initial online learning model which was hastily prompted by the appearance of COVID-19 and subsequent need for classes to migrate online. 

The presentation focused heavily on the need to facilitate collaborative work and communicative opportunities among Adult Literacy, Language, Numeracy and Digital Skills (ALLND) students rather than keeping them in isolation at home "studying" with a paper based workbook or electronic equivalent. It also outlined the logistical problems of delivering and retrieving print based materials to and from students which I immediately identified as a limiting factor for learning. The low level of effective group interaction was also indicated in the approaches I had observed taken by many providers of adult education, forced as they were to pivot to online delivery for the first time with some teachers having little or no training or experience.

I explored and presented ways in which greater levels and types of interactions between teacher and student, student and student and even students and family members or friends could be introduced into learning. A brief recapitulation of parts of this approach:

De-Centred Virtual Classroom

Click on the graphic for a better view
A mini-class convened by the teacher in which students review and screen share their work. The teacher can start the process and teleport out to other mini-classes or sessions.

Teaching students to form online study circles and mini-classes in which they direct some of their own learning has been a valuable addition to whole class synchronous sessions over the last year or so.

Time carved out to work individually with students on materials sent electronically, learning plans, review of writing, conversation and the like (while others may be engaged in their study circles or be doing some self paced work) provided a third pillar to the initial approach and subsequent developments. 

Read more about my approach at:


Click on the graphic for a better view
A one-on-one session in which teacher and student negotiate a learning plan.
A de-centred approach allows for time gains, a broader spread of teacher attention and arguably, better outcomes for all.

The attendant problems associated with the distribution, collection and correcting of print based materials during that period - as well as the issue of many teachers not knowing how to facilitate an effective virtual class, was on my mind. I did, however, see the practical side of producing sufficient materials or  "workbooks" for students but knew activities had to be created that were effective and not just limited to reading comprehension and flat grammar exercises. Why wouldn't we maintain similar classroom practices and norms by including interactions through technology that were communicative, pair or group centred, that engineered potential for some joint research, sharing and review of work? What simple tools were available to allow students to continue learning together? It was not just about using new technologies but thinking carefully about the nature of tasks being set and how to include group interaction rather than the individuals being left to navigate materials alone.

The new situation also provided an opportunity to test other ways of teaching - not always having to be the one who is front and centre of attention but to be more dispersed orchestrating different kinds of learning structures ranging from individual one on one to formations of students planning and meeting themselves whether it be on the phone, through email, chat, WhatsApp or Zoom. 

Click on the graphic for a better view
This is video snippet gives some idea of how I typically designed activities using Google Docs to which students could be assigned to work together on a common project or task.  The activity being discussed is one in which the paired students work individually and together on parts of a challenge - in this case, locating and finding out about the teacher's favourite icecream. They need to describe it, find out where it is produced, where it is available and how to get to the supermarket where it is sold. (The range of transferable language and technology skills here are fairly obvious).

The students also have a further opportunity to talk about their  answers and the set tasks as a whole group in a second  ZOOM class scheduled for later that week. So you can see that the material is covered in a variety of ways, with a range of skills being developed and many inputs being included from across the class over the week. The video also provides the students with points of comparison between their answers, those of the teacher and other answers from other workbooks the teacher might share with the class in the video (or in ZOOM later on).

It also provides precious time gains for the teacher, convenience and
structure for students as they work individually and collaboratively.

View some of the video at:

The results I am still getting from students, their satisfaction with the flexibility and variety it provides got me thinking how my teaching might look in the longer term. 

What I asked myself then as Covid restrictions eased and students started returning to f-2-f classes in limited numbers was  "why would we now jettison the changes and gains made during the worst of the pandemic?" Did a return to the bricks and mortar classroom mean abandoning more flexible ways of working? Why would you give up the possibilities that online learning provides - even if you are primarily operating out of the face to face classroom?

Is actual attendance always the best option for those who might also work, live remotely, have limited transport options, have disabilities or struggle with illness, have complex family and caring arrangements? There are those who can attend some days but not others. Of course there are very real advantages to be gained in attending an actual class and there are activities and personal interactions that cannot be easily replicated virtually. But why can’t we work and develop pedagogy somewhere in the middle? Why can't we design an approach that caters to variety of complex, adult needs and circumstances?

A Hybrid Approach 

There was a brief period in 2021 when f-2-f classes were able to return for one day a week. 

Two other days of class were conducted online. 

In that time I found myself wanting to use the f-2-f time we had together as best we could for certain activities but not de-couple the learning from the types of communicative online activities that were working so well. I also anticipated that some students would not want to attend or could not attend due to COVID-19 (10 of the 15 students I taught in that time fell sick) so how could I cater in these complicated circumstances? 

Click on the graphic for a better view
Continuing to access materials in the face to face classroom with a workbook of QR codes. 
Students attending remotely were able to access the same workbook through Google Docs.
Activities were designed to include students attending face to face and remotely. They worked collaboratively through learning circles. Some activities were individually based and could be completed by the "absent" students in a self paced fashion.
The next logical step would have been to stream the class live to those attending remotely and facilitate some of the activities synchronously between the two groups. The aim was to maximize possibilities for student interaction through a rich blend of study activities and learning arrangements.

The students were mostly able and willing to work from home but now instead of being able to connect with others virtually, they would be be excluded for the duration of their time in quarantine. This is an obvious downside of a delivery mode that requires all students to be physically present at the same time and in the same place. If you are going to have a face to face class, students who are either sick or unable to attend physically, still need to be to attend or keep up some other way. 

I created workbook is sent to the online students by email or WhatsApp - there are links and QRs and instructions about making contact and communicating with the teacher and other class members so the work can be completed in a similar fashion to the way it is in the "real" classroom but in a much more flexible, time friendly fashion.

Either way, the students were working f-2-f and online with most of the collaborative activities being designed to allow students who could not attend to plug into work groups out of hours. 

What my model tried to achieve was a blurring of the boundaries between the f-2-f classroom and online classrooms - learning is approached from both angles no matter where the students are located and what time they have available. 

I now realise we were moving towards a form of “Hyflex” teaching and learning which unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to continue developing.

As it turned out, the surging pandemic put an end to that brief blended experiment and the students went back to studying fully online for the rest of the year as infection numbers soared. 

Predictably, the pivot to returning online was not a problem for them. It was simply a return to the online modes in which they were well versed. The structure and arrangements for learning were clear and well understood. The learners took up from where they left off the term before. Ironically, there was less disruption to learning for those who fell sick during the brief period in which we were able to return to class physically. 

The question now is could the hybrid model described above be taken that step further? Could we actually transform delivery by providing students with even greater levels of choice and access? Imagine being able to also stream to remotely located students on top of using the other strategies described. 

This is the crossroads at which I now find myself but fear the almost total snap back to face to face delivery across all sectors of education will preclude the potential for further developing the hybrid model which worked for both me and my students in 2021.

What is Hyflex?

HyFlex is an approach which tries to combine or mix a use of modes to maximize opportunities for study. It is a form of teaching in which some students are in the classroom and others attend remotely - or both. There are different graduations and levels of synchronous and asynchronous, individual and group work as well as engagement with the teacher which takes place. By streaming the class in real time another option is added to students participating remotely. 

In a recent forum, I addressed the concerns of parents of immuno-compromised children who were nervous about their kids returning to the f-2-f classroom because of escalating prevalence of Covid across the community - at the time of writing almost 40 000 cases a day!

I commented:

What is disappointing right across Education - regardless of the sector - is the missed opportunity to introduce a HyFlex approach that could cater to a range of students with varying and diverse needs. By HyFlex, I mean forms of delivery which are either

1) fully face-to-face,
2) part f-2-f / part online,
3) fully online with real time streaming to students remotely located at home or elsewhere
4) fully online self paced
5) flexible, customised variations of the above which students can move in and out of. 

We have the technology to roll out such a model and with some thoughtful planning and teacher PD, could revolutionise the way we deliver across the educational spectrum. But that’s not going to happen is it, with the great snap back to the tired status quo of traditional schooling? Why are we so stuck on pushing an industrial era model of education that is largely out of date, inflexible and incapable of properly serving us at such a critical time?

Imagine if we could organise these delivery variations and provide a whole range of students with genuine choice and flexibility? 

I have no doubt that the level of planning and preparation would add greatly to workload of a teacher. An issue that needs a lot of attention in itself. Hyflex also involves a investment in technology for live streaming but I think even more crucially, a very substantial upskilling of teachers. 

And yet what alternatives do we really have in such uncertain times? 

The centre will not hold as far as traditional, classroom delivery is concerned. 

Post Script September 2022: Now in what some (erroneously) call the “post-pandemic” period, most students have returned to long days of face to face study. Absenteeism is rife, teachers are regularly sick themselves and at times educational programs seem to be at crisis point - right across Education. 

It appears, however, that inventive, flexible ways of moving forward do not actually have much traction or support. There has been a definite shift back to the classroom and almost dismissal of online delivery as a failure or at best a necessary evil or last resort in the event of a total meltdown. 

Ironically, the health emergency exposed a great deal that was wrong with education and offered some new ways forward. My personal sense of the situation is that the opportunity to create a more responsive teaching/learning pedagogy is quickly disappearing as we move back to “normal” life and learning again.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Interview : Australian Council of Adult Literacy (June 2021)


This interview also appeared in Profiling literacy and numeracy specialists : Dale Pobega (June 2021)

How did you start your career in LN?

I returned to Australia in 1990 after living and working overseas for most of the preceding decade. I taught English and worked in journalism and publishing mainly in Latin America. While I was completing a second degree in Melbourne I taught Adult Literacy night-classes at a local Community Centre. I knew straight away that this was the field for me as there was a very pressing demand in the community at the time for classes and a real need for dedicated teachers to work with adults. I then went to work at the Duke Street Community House in Melbourne’s West which was a very forward-thinking organisation at the time and where I taught for the next 25 years with a couple of interesting ”sabbaticals”. There was a stint with the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council (VALBEC) in the mid-90s as editor of their journal “Fine Print” and as the writer/producer of “The World Times”, a VALBEC / Oxfam “simple-English” newspaper on development issues funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.  That work provided me with an entree into a new-fangled thing at the time called the “internet” and I immediately saw its potential for teaching and learning. I secured a position as Manager of an Online Learning Networking that operated out of the then TAFE Virtual Campus in the early 2000s. The rest is history – I continue to do work that straddles language teaching and E-learning. I currently teach EAL at Wyndham Community Education Centre for part of the week and do E-learning consultancy, teacher training and educational project work the rest of the time.


What motivates you to work in this profession?


The adult students I teach – they’re the ones who motivate and inspire me. Their struggles negotiating an increasingly complex world that demands a great deal in terms of a spoken additional language, literacy, numeracy and digital skill is very real to me. My own parents had very few opportunities to learn due to the dislocating factors associated with war, poverty, migration and disability. In my own students today I see reflections of them. That inspires me to stay where I am needed and do the best I possibly can as a teacher. I also find my work endless fascinating. There is a lot to learn about language. I’m a keen learner of languages other than English myself and have lived for a long period overseas so like my students,  I have some idea what it is like to be at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage.


How have you developed your professional skills and knowledge over time?


I’ve kept a blog (on and off) for about the last ten years dedicated to documenting my work and I think that kind of reflection is important. It helps me to focus on what I could possibly do better and moves me in new directions. Stepping back and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t is important to me. I’ve always been an active member of language and literacy communities, particularly online ones, from the early days of subscribing to mailing lists to nowadays regularly contributing to Wyndham CEC’s Digital Learning Centre.  I also joined LinkdIn last year. I’ve joined a range of ALLN and E Learning groups from across the globe. I always thought LinkdIn was just a type of Facebook for Corporates in search of greener pastures – I’m surprised at how useful it has been in terms of making contacts, discovering new networks and accessing resources.


Can you describe any key points in your career that have helped shape the way you work in delivering LLN or foundation skills?


I think my long engagement with technology to facilitate learning going right back to 1990 has been central to my approach. I have always incorporated some form of online learning into LLN classes. With the emergence of the Internet I immediately understood how crucial Digital literacies would become for all of us. And the pace of change in terms of key skills and literacies relating to technology shows no sign of abating. Many Adult Community providers – at least here in Victoria –  were very well placed in the 90s to be leaders in the field of online and blended delivery but somehow did not manage to build upon that success – during the late 90s and early 2000s the few community based learning networks operating out of the TAFEVC were, in my opinion, the most outstanding.


It’s interesting that the health emergency prompted by COVID has forced us back into that online space through necessity and what I think the experience showed was that many of us were not really set up or adequately prepared to meet the challenge, though there were islands of great creativity and skill amongst some providers. I just hope we don’t drop the baton this time round and that we take the opportunity to re-think our traditional models of provision and develop some new ways of moving forward as a sector.


How do you renew your ideas and practices?


Last year I became a mentor in the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Professional Development Program (ALNPP) funded through the division of Adult Community and Further Education (ACFE). It is an ambitious program promoting ALLN practice within the preaccredited education sector  and was delivered entirely online. It was interesting being the facilitator working with a range of participants – some new, many seasoned and highly skilled – who were drawn from across the field and the state. We met weekly online and worked through modules based on Theory, Frameworks, Practice and Reflection – it became a really valuable forum for learning and reassessing some of my own positions and assumptions about literacy, numeracy, teaching and learning in general. Being a facilitator or teacher always makes me realise what others can and do teach me. I’m always learning. I’m a student as much as I am a teacher.


I think too that as practitioners we all  need to be aware of the changing demands of our work — ie. understanding there are new things to teach adults and new ways of teaching. The Digital world with its own sets of skills and literacies, are now a very important part of what we need to know as teachers of language, literacy and numeracy more generally. Knowing the potential and limitations of technology, being open but remaining critical of these advances – while always keeping the interests of adult students struggling with language in mind – is really important.


What professional development do you value?


Like everyone else I’m strapped for time. I am often too busy to attend formal, face to face PD and I actually don’t like losing time with my classes or having someone else substituting when there is so much work to cover. So the PD has to be online and preferably bite size. During the first phase of COVID using Zoom for meeting with colleagues to do required validation and moderation was very convenient and I found more tends to get done than if you meet face to face. My only regret is that a lot of PD  – apart from participation in accredited course work of some kind –  is not captured and recognised professionally. I’d like to see a system of  micro-credentialling operating where all of the PD we do is officially recognised and becomes a part of a bigger whole that has actual currency. I also read a lot and keep abreast of developments through a range of online networks, including peak bodies like ACAL, ACTA and ALA.


How can vocational trainers prepare for LN needs in their classroom?


Mmm …”vocational trainers” – what are they? I’m not sure we should consider any teaching work as being something that can stand  outside its obvious connection to language, literacy and numeracy.  I don’t think you can separate content from the form of presentation or technique in anything you teach. By that I mean all teachers are, in a sense, LLN teachers because how can you facilitate learning if you aren’t able to assess your students’ English language, literacy and numeracy for yourself – in effect, to know who they are and what they are capable of as learners? How can you teach any subject unless you have knowledge of LLN and the skills to break it down and support learners ? This was something I discussed at length with the participants of the recent ALNNP program I taught for ACFE. It is all about breaking down complexity, recognising the particular literacy and numeracy difficulties of individuals in your classes and hopefully not throwing up your hands when you encounter problems.


During the first phase of COVID I was freed up to spend much more time than usual working with each student in my class on their individual learning plans. Rather than just eliciting glib responses from students about goals, challenges, needs and the like, I had a lot more time to genuinely find out about them and to assess in a meaningful way what they could and couldn’t do, to find out what their broader long term goals were and to set some tasks we could work on together – just me and that particular student. Students have particular goals and needs that have been articulated but then they are referred to LLN classes with a standardised curriculum and a standard set of assessments. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a contradiction of sorts. You wonder about issues of relevance for that individual and the time wasted – sometimes years – spent in classes where they don’t learn the particular literacies they actually need to realise those vocational goals.

Changing the current model would involve a lot more time being made available to teachers to work with individual students, many more resources – in fact, probably having more than one teacher – and it would also mean developing a more nuanced curricula approach that genuinely takes individually articulated goals, needs and facilitated learning into account. I don’t see that happening very easily, certainly not in the accredited education space.


Can you recommend a particular resource or professional reading to support vocational trainers meet these needs?


I designed a Digital Literacies Unit for my delivery of ALNPP and relied heavily on the ideas of Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis’ in the theory section. Their works “Literacies” (2016) and “E Learning Ecologies (2017)” are invaluable and have deeply resonated with me. In fact, they have established a very interesting space for learning communities on their CGScholar site and on their own website, “Works and Days” have linked many extra resources and companion readings to their books that are freely available.


Kalantzis and Cope actually discuss the future of education and offer five theses about the ideal directions they feel school, tertiary and vocational education need to take including the most controversial thesis : #1 There will be no pedagogical differences between learning in person and learning online.  It is a thesis I personally – to the surprise of some – do not accept when it comes to adult literacy and numeracy learners but is a part of a broader and timely discussion that ACAL has so bravely entered into about the advantages and disadvantages of online provision during the initial lockdown phases of COVID.


Literacies (2nd Edition) 2016

by Mary Kalantzis  (Author), Bill Cope (Author), Eveline Chan (Author), Leanne Dalley-Trim (Author)

Cambridge University Press; 2 edition (5 July 2016)


E-Learning Ecologies: Principles for New Learning and Assessment

by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis | 17 February 2017

Routledge; 1st edition (17 February 2017)


Dale’s blogs

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Notes on Blended Learning (1) From Online to Blended ... and back again

Approach to online / blended learning in a nutshell over Semester 1, 2021

What impressed me about my own students over this period was their ability to quickly pivot back to full online learning mode during the sudden Lockdown at the end of Term 2. 

I think this is due to the skills they developed studying online over such a long period which have not been lost and are being maintained via the current blended learning model now being followed.

Here is a simple curriculum outline with some explanation as to how classes operated during Term 1 (fully online) and then transitioned to a blended model (one day face-to-face and two days online) thereafter.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Learning Circles - Extending Study Skills

Click on the images to get a better view

Students in this learning circle are practising screen sharing. They have started learning to create and schedule their own Zoom get-togethers for the purpose of doing collaborative work. They are also practising their spoken English both inside and outside scheduled class times. 

In face to face classes we are used to dividing students into various groupings to practice drills, work together on exercises and the like and yet in ZOOM it is easy to fall back into a much more traditional and narrow model (teacher front and centre stage orchestrating all of the interactions) in a situation that is hard to effectively manage.  Of course in Zoom and its video conferencing counterparts, there are break out rooms, a chat window, sometimes a whiteboard and these can be used for the purpose of facilitating small group discussion and collaboration. This is, however, not the case for all versions of these synchronous conferencing programs across operating systems and devices. The tools mentioned (breakout rooms, chat, whiteboard) are variously located across different interfaces or totally lacking, so planning and using them is problematical.

So there is a problem related to the narrowness of interactions possible with virtual "real time" meetings in which the whole class is present. What about the engagement we might like students to have with one another outside of the main group or scheduled class? 

One of the strengths of online learning is supposedly its flexibility but I wonder if this is in fact the case when it comes to employing synchronous environments? At best, they serve a purpose alongside asynchronous, planned activities that come before them and after. They are an opportunity to "meet" and for participants to bond, but I wonder if we are over-estimating their actual pedagogical value?

As I mentioned, it is hard for the teacher to manage large numbers of learners in a single, virtual space. Over the last year, I have been considering how to take better advantage of environments like ZOOM by thinking outside the box of its use as a total substitute for a face-to-face class - something it can never effectively be.

In this Learning Circle, these students work with the teacher on an activity that was more difficult for them. I started by creating a ZOOM meeting for them to meet and send the link via email or text. As their skills develop the plan is for them to learn to meet independently. In the first instance, they learn to work together through a simple exercise and to share their screens. Soon they will do this alone. Learning Circles can fulfil a number of purposes to suit the range of language levels and digital proficiency that may exist in the same class. 

The skills developed in Learning Circles are recycled back into the whole class meeting online. R. shares her screen with the whole class at a session in which work book exercises (completed in pairs) are being reviewed. She learned to do this in the previous week during her scheduled Learning Circle session with a limited number of classmates. What is interesting about this small grouping of students who meet socially, discuss or share homework, etc. is that it broadens learning possibilities for the whole class (17 in total). A greater range of activities can be done -- before, during and after scheduled Zoom sessions -- as students gain confidence, develop their skills and ability to work within the environment more efficiently and creatively. 

The Learning Circles concept came out of an earlier experiment aimed at improving the way student and teacher worked with Individual Learning Plans. I believe the virtual space provides much better opportunities for a student to work with a teacher one-on-one. 

See my article, Bringing Individual Learning Plans to Life Online

These sessions led to setting learning goals and I found that some students had very similar goals and interests - why not pair them up? 

Why not have them working together - sometimes with me, at others times together or alone? 

So there has been a natural kind of evolution happening that had its roots in this one-on-one work I was doing with students earlier last year. I'm very pleased with the progress made so far.

It will be interesting to see where this leads as students become more confident and proficient with the platform (ZOOM) as they assume the driver's seat and use it differently from the way it was presented to them as a "classroom" managed by the teacher.

There is some way to go getting all students involved and up to speed with the skills required to do this, but so far, students who started out studying online last March because of COVID are now up to the challenge.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The ALNPP and Digital Literacies 2020

The Adult Literacy and Numeracy Professional Development Program (ALNPP) is a course for those working in preaccredited education across the state of Victoria, Australia, through the division of Adult Community and Further Education (ACFE). 

For 10 weeks at the height of Victoria's lock-downs (August to November) participants from across the state met and worked through a wide range of topics across four broad areas - Theory, Practice, Frameworks, Reflection, Resources.

Digital Literacies

The development of a fifth major area for investigation - Digital Literacies - was an addition to the course I delivered for Wyndham Community Education Centre.

As the Australian Council of Adult Literacy (ACAL) has recently stated

Digital skills are increasingly being discussed and incorporated into programs and funding models. ACAL has started a conversation around whether digital literacy is different to digital skills/ the mechanics of using technologies. We are suggesting that digital literacy is the interaction between literacy and numeracy practices within/in technological contexts – digital literacies.

The ACAL definition seems a bit arcane to me but (I think) basically posits the idea that "Digital Skills" are the mechanics and "Digital Literacies" are the contexts in which communication using those technologies takes place. I think of the difference in terms of the types of "knowing" the French distinguish. Digital Skills are  a kind of "savoir" = "how to do" and Digital Literacies are more akin to "connaĆ®tre" = a kind of "deeper knowing" or more nuanced acquaintance. In this case it would involve understanding not only how to use a technology, platform or tool in the mechanical sense but understanding when it is best used, for, by or between whom and why you would use it.

There is a good discussion of the distinction here.

It was precisely the exploration of this intersection between "digital skills" and "digital literacies" that I was keen to explore with the group.

The approach taken involved an exploration of theory and practice specifically in relation to:

*Critical analysis of Kalantzis and Cope's Five Theses on the Future of Learning;

*Critical analysis around the practicalities of migrating f-2-f classes into various online environments;

*Critical consideration of the Digital Literacy Skills Framework (DLSF).

Access the Digital Literacies Unit website here :

Other Delivery Components

The course delivery also included these extra components :

*a supportive orientation stage consisting of a video guide, printed manual and tutorials for those new to to online conferencing;

*a rigorous communication strategy directing participants to readings, discussions , recordings, and resources before, during and after weekly conferences;

*a private archive of conference session recordings for for those who could not attend a particular session and subsequent reference, research and review;

*a program of "guest participants" (experts in a particular field) who would attend and participant in group discussion, leave a posting and other resources for the group to bounce ideas off. Many of the participants themselves also volunteered to do "mini-presentations" on aspects of the course which they felt they had particular expertise.


There was a great deal of feedback collected. It was overwhelmingly positive and reinforces my impression that teachers, not only in the fields of adult literacy, numeracy and language education, but much more generally, are looking for opportunities to extend the range of their practice. Once they are presented with examples of what can be done online, they seem keen to forge ahead. 

As one participant put it ...
The introduction of Digital Literacy to the ACSF and how it will affect our approach was magnified in this time of Covid.  I could not have imagined 6 months ago that this topic would have generated so much discussion within the group.  I was reassured that my concerns within this space were somewhat echoed by others.  However, it was not a tone of despair, it was a feeling of 'How as trainers can we do this better?'  The digital literacy unit offered some answers.  Why would you simply create a pdf of existing resources to deliver training?  The opportunity to deliver in a whole new way that actually enhances the learning experience is within our grasp, however the learner must stay central to the decisions surrounding the development of such platforms.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Online Learners Overnight ... the Next Step

This presentation was delivered on 15 October 2020 to the Learning for Employment (Lfe) consortium, Melbourne, Australia.

The focus was on changes made to the model of delivery associated with migrating my own adult EAL class online from the beginning of the COVID-19 health emergency in March 2020. Developments and refinements to the model continue. 

PS. Click on each slide for a better view. There are links to short video snippets accompanying some slides.

PPS. the commentaries below are lecture notes - more "stream of consciousness" than crafted composition


Then e-learning comes along, and the old school seems to change. We don't have to be in the same time and space to learn. But pedagogically, things stay much the same. The cells of the timetable become the cells of the learning management system, blocks of time in the syllabus, day after day, week after relentless week. In “flipped classroom” videos, the teacher still mostly talks and the student mostly listens. The communications architecture is still one-to-many. Didactic knowledge transmission has gone online.

—- Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, ‘Five Theses on the Future of Learning’


"Why we go back I can do all online? We working together just like in classroom, why we go back?”

—- M., Adult ESL learner, surveyed about study preferences for 2021 in an imagined COVID free situation


Slide 1 : Frontispiece /Intro

...Even if COVID went away tomorrow, isn't it time to reconsider the traditional teaching set up that has been with us for the better part of a century now? How useful, flexible and satisfying is traditional classroom delivery for busy adults who are also searching for work and have a range of other responsibilities and issues? As the astonished disbelief of my student, M., demonstrates, not all adult learners are so keen to get back to the traditional bricks and mortar classroom as many would assume.

Shouldn’t we be taking the opportunity of this period to reform the system? Students need to start genuinely owning and managing some of their own learning and teachers need to start developing a range of skills to help them (and themselves) adapt to online and blended environments that are going to be with us into the foreseeable future.

Hopefully this presentation can provide some pointers.

Slide 3: Changing direction 

My initial model was influenced by the belief we would be returning to the classroom within a few weeks! Little did I know it would be most of 2020 ... and who knows what the future holds?

Let’s take the use of print based workbooks during the first lockdown phase. While others rushed to produce them and struggled to distribute and collect them I had serious doubts about the whole strategy.

The logistics of their delivery, retrieval and correction are very problematical.

1) When exactly do the workbooks reach the student and get returned to the teacher - either through arrangements for pick up and drop off, or the postal service? Both systems became progressively problematical during the restrictions as direct personal contact between students and centres was cut due to OH&S considerations. It was also costly, risky and slow asking students to make use of the postal service to return photocopied work.

2) Aren’t there issues around “correcting” work in any case? Is corrected student work really revised by the student when it is returned? In my experience the answer is usually "no” so just like “homework” which has limited value in most cases, this exchange is essentially a time wasting exercise for both parties. 

Or was it just a way of proving work had been set, done and returned to please management, funding bodies and the like regardless of whether learning was actually taking place?

All of this went against the rich collaborative work and communication amongst students we normally facilitate in class. I was determined to involve the students themselves in working together and reviewing their work amongst themselves - and not just have me receiving homework to tick and return.

Sure, there is a role for the teacher - but the time for direct review of student work and progress by the teacher is better spent with the student face to face whether it is actual or virtual - see my discussion about online mini-lessons with students below)

Multiple dialogues and lots of group interaction are key. Learners should not be confined by the narrow one-to-many teaching approach : this transmission model is amplified in an online situation with studying online becoming a very lonely place for students stuck at home.

My approach attempts to encourage pair and group work, to build relationships and communication between students.

My “workbook” is really an "anti-workbook" of sorts - it is more an occasion for setting up situations for inter-student communication and collaboration rather than focusing on content which the individual consumes in isolation from others. It should be a jumping off point for actual practice in the macro skills rather than a lonely and tedious form of busy work.

Slide 4: More points of communication

The first version of my workbooks were also focused heavily on content (as the slide above illustrates) although each activity had some ‘talk’ engineered around them. Students used the phone and later video chat to talk about their answers with one another but more you interaction was needed.

Something interesting started happening almost of its own accord during that first phase - the students themselves were restless for more interactivity and began photographing and sending the work by email and SMS to me on their own volition. I also noticed that a few were starting to use video chat clients and the like to communicate and socialise with one another.

Overall the work returns were actually patchy and only the most technologically savvy or best supported students were reliable. 

There was a downside to these electronic returns - a huge increase in collecting, correcting, responding and filing it at all hours throughout the week - in fact, it became overwhelming.

In response to these developments and challenges I started to reconfigure my workbook, reducing the amount of content and setting up more points of communication (by phone, video chat, and later, Zoom) with each activity I designed. 

The workbook was in PDF - a huge advantage over its paper-based counterpart as it could be reliably and quickly distributed by email without delay. But it occurred to me that these efficiencies afforded by the technology could be better (See Google Docs discussion below as an instant channel for distribution and interaction)

Slide 5:  Towards plasticity  

Imagine, a workbook which could ....
  • be delivered to the students instantly;
  • be completed and corrected effortlessly;
  • be a document in which a range of other media, links and resources could easily be embedded;
  • be shared with more than one student with strategies developed to get them working together and communicating with one another.
Imagine a workbook that did not require printing or returning;
  • that could be read on any device and require no installation of software;
  • that is not just a workbook but more of an environment in which students and the teacher "meet" to share, edit and comment on each others'work;
  • that is linked to a series of cloned copies that can be shared and be moved between by the teacher and even other students;
  • that is totally free. 
That workbook is already potentially available in the form of Google Docs.

Slide 6: Interconnected Activities

The reformed learning cycle aimed to be like the dynamic structure of an Ecosystem rather than be an inert, management system. A learning cycle in which the parts flow into one another and work together (activities in the workbook prompt communication between students who must work together to complete it.

 The workbook prefigures extension activities done in Zoom or followed up on discussion boards or through quizzes ... and a range of other platforms / use of apps  --- and these in turn, flow into others and this worked well, as long as there are not too many difficult layers for learners to navigate (multiple logins, difficult interfaces, etc) 

*Supportive use of "low-tech" (phone!) to support activities and encourage peer interaction

*More time can be carved out during the week for short one-on-one sessions with the teacher. 

Time to review and check on students individually is important so a key "affordance" of online delivery is that there is time and space for this to happen, unlike the classroom, in which the group is pushed along a certain path together and assessed at the end of the cycle regardless of whether they are ready or not.
Slide 7: Google Docs as a communicative learning environment 

Google docs can be used as an environment or location in which work is done collaboratively with interactions between students and teacher almost being synchronous.

The workbook can be stand alone and self paced to a degree - it can be downloaded and worked on offline whenever a student chooses. However, it was the potential for devising “real time”, “plastic” virtual structures for collaboration and direct communication between students that most interested me.

I developed a range of workbook types : individual workbooks and assessment booklets, pair work and larger group workbooks. 

The latter types prompt the teacher to think about activities in terms of interaction not just content to be consumed and completed by each students individually.

Using Google Docs as the workbook medium, they can actually be released simultaneously. If all students are logged on and have their workbooks open, the teacher can literally line them up across her screen and jump between each workbook, correcting, commenting and observing as students work in pairs or teams. Imagine being able to talk to the student while she and her partner work together - not possible as yet 

For now the teacher can enter into a “chat” dialogue with the student(s)  in the margins with the workbook using the Comments tool.

Google Docs can also be used as a good channel for written assessment - When an assessment task or booklet is completed in Docs it can be instantly converted to PDF and be sent to the assessor via that student's unique email address thus providing a certain level of reliability as regards authentic authorship.

The 2 step verification process which is required to take out a Google account helps to verify the identity of the student - it is almost as good as an electronic signature,  and cannot be easily exploited.
Slide 8: Three types of Google Docs workbook

As stated above, I have designed three types of "workbook" 

1) individual (mainly for assessment);

2) pair workbook - students working collaboratively on information gap type activities - incorporate use of phone and video chat into pair activities - use as a base for group activities in Zoom ; 

3) Group Workbook - students working on larger projects of 3,4 or more. There is no reason you could not design a single class workbook in which everyone works on the same page (something I am experimenting with now) with the smart use of designated tables.
Slide 9: Mini-lessons as a more effective mechanism for teacher review and observation of student work

By scheduling a day in which students generally work together on a combined project in preparation for an online, whole class conference, time can be carved out for individual sessions with students. 

This is something not afforded the teacher and student in the traditional, time bound, face to face classroom in which every student is more or less pushed through the same program at the same time, in the same place and at the same pace! 

These mini-lessons or reviews evolved out of my individual work with students negotiating and overseeing learning plans which you can read about here.

Slide 10: Zoom Classes - beware the danger of allowing it to become a totalising classroom surrogate

Two scheduled Zoom meetings (1.5 hours Monday afternoon - picks up on activities collaboratively done by pairs or groups on Monday morning through the Shared Google Doc  workbook. 

2 hours on Wednesday - consolidates/extends work done on Tuesday in pairs or groups and shared through the Google Doc Workbook.

Zoom should not be used like some kind of “nanny-cam” - it is being used as such in many programs as a substitute for f-2-f classes. Again, just another way of proving the class is happening (you’ve got your students there and captive as you do in the f-2-f classroom) ...with little to show for actual learning?

There is a danger that this use of Zoom reduces possibilities for the development of other flexible and creative strategies, use of other platforms and products. Zoom is not a classroom replacement. 

It provides an opportunity for some whole class socialisation, some role play through breakout rooms, some review through Sharing - but that’s about it. 

It has its use as a virtual place to meet but the more I think about it, the more I am starting to think we need to move away from its application as a totalising “classroom surrogate” and start teaching students to use it to convene their own meetings? 

*Why not teach students to use Zoom as a convenient recording tool for their own presentations, role plays etc? 

*Why not re-purpose it as a tool for student initiated collaboration rather than always using it to ape the outdated practices of the traditional classroom environment? 

Zoom needs to be used sparingly and amongst other tools and strategies so a productive and flexible balance is struck.

Slide 11: "Correction" and Review revisited - video use / mini-lessons

Correction and review videos - short screencasts produced by the teacher which allow students to review activities in their own time. 

Why not use synchronous environments productively/creatively rather than a teacher led opportunity for dry, lock step correction of exercises dished out to students via workbooks? 

Yet again, another mechanism in which we see platforms like Zoom being used to replicate the worst of the traditional classroom in online learning environments. One on one mini-lessons can be used as an opportunity for students to ask questions about aspects of set work they do not understand. 

Better still, why not use peer review incorporated into activities themselves as another strategy for review and correction?

12. Links, readings, reviews ...

Disclaimer: the views expressed and approaches taken are my own and not necessarily those of any organisation for which I work or am contracted.