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.

https://acal.edu.au/toward-a-definition-of-digital-literacy/

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 "connaître" = 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 :

https://sites.google.com/view/alnppdigitalliteracies/home


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.









Feedback 


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’ https://tinyurl.com/y4gtpg7n

***

"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.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Adult Learners Week 2020. “The World is Crazy Time” : Adult Learners Speak For Themselves About Studying Online


A shorter version of this article was published in the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council's journal, "Fine Print", November, 2020

***

Why is it assumed that older learners with very basic digital, language and literacy skills are incapable of studying online?

 "They can barely organise a folder of work let alone use technology", someone at a webinar I recently attended stated with dismissive certainty. "We really need to get back to the classroom."

How jarring that pronouncement seemed to me when I compare it to the experience of my own ACSF Foundation level 2 learners who for 17 weeks now have been adapting well to the online environment. It was revealed in the course of that webinar, by the way, that those learners unable to organise a folder were working at Foundation Level 3 - draw your own conclusions).

Moreover, it is frustrating for those of us who have always integrated technology and the teaching of digital literacies into our practice that we are still being confronted by resistance. There is an obvious and timely need to initiate adult basic education students into ways of learning mediated by technology. These skills and literacies - that first step of learning to operate in a digital world - are those increasingly required in the workforce as well as other domains of social and civic life.

Throughout this posting I want you to hear the voices of my adult learners. I want you to read what they have to say about the migration of their class online, their own experiences, challenges, discoveries, fears and preferences. 

These surveys were conducted at the end of June after ten straight weeks of their learning online from home. I have already documented the very basic face to face training the students received in Term 1 prior to the periods of restriction. I have also documented the evolving strategies and approach I have taken to initiating the students online elsewhere. (Scroll down through earlier postings for more).

The surveys are a part of the students' Individual Learning Plan Reviews. The reviews were conducted using a Google Docs template which was cloned for each individual student, thus allowing me to comment and elicit further information in near "real-time" conditions as they worked on the doc through a typical school day. 

My questions in bold, verbatim student responses in red ...

(Click on each Survey to enlarge for better reading)


Observations: 

This student understands that working online can potentially provide a better mechanism and time for review than it normally would in a classroom setting.

She refers to assistance sought and negotiated in the set up phase which improves her ability to work with others.

The student refers to her own emerging capacity for problem solving  ..."If I don't understand I look and look again and I work out myself. My learning better" 

The student is appreciative of the time savings she has to dedicate to study alongside other daily responsibilities  ..."If I go to school with my daughter I have to wait 50 minutes to pick me up Travel is a problem. Not online."


Observations: 

The student is aware of the advantages online study affords her because it is flexible ..."I can housework and study at the same time."

The student recognises the power, plasticity and immediacy of the tools she is using online to learn ..." Google docs, Video Rooms and Google Video [YouTube] too. I liked Google Docs because I can do anything in that and send it straight away to my teacher. It was very fast."

The student does, however, feel (at this point at least) that activities involving speaking and listening are better suited to the classroom, whereas reading, writing and grammar are better learnt online.


Observations:

The student expresses her frustrations learning online at home where she has to share a laptop with other family members during the lock down ..."At first I was finding it hard. Because everyone home at the same time ... I [wish] I have my own laptop."

The student is becoming more organised as an online student, she is managing her learning better .."I learn to check email and follow lesson every day. So much and you have to keep an eye on it."

The student misses her classmates and teacher but is developing an appreciation that social contact can still be made and sustained through synchronous online means ..."I miss my friend in class but maybe we meet again. Sometime i talk with my class friend in video chat and you too. That's nice."

Observations:

This student was slow to start and initially found the experience of going online overwhelming. He refers to the difficulty of studying with just a mobile phone (I refer to this at greater length in my previous posting). At a certain point he was able to get access to a computer and a friend helped him to set up. Arranging to get access to a computer and connecting to the internet must have been difficult (and I suspect expensive for him) considering restrictions, his material situation and limited ability to speak English. By the end of the term, however, his skills had developed substantially. The student would prefer to go back to class but points out that he "learned a lot and can do so much with computer now. IT was good experience."



 
Observations:

Here is a student who would prefer to go back to the classroom. What I notice in his response is a desire for connection, something he feels is missing by not being able to come to school and learn amongst friends. This student is the youngest in the class and  lives alone. I am sad that there was not much I could do to help him sort his problems ... "No one helping me at home." 

I later discovered that like the other (male) student above, this student still only has a mobile to work from. He liked the Video Chat and he and I used this a lot to communicate throughout the term because I knew he needed extra contact and attention. Interestingly, he liked the assessments - unlike most of the other students! 


Observations:

The student is receptive to and appreciative of the frequent teacher communication required to keep up class enthusiasm and to keep learners on track while being mindful of the need to always be patient and kind :-) in such stressful times.

Again, there is mention of kids being used as a resource and support to learning ..."practising with me" 

This student likes both the classroom and studying online and it occurs to me that most students are capable of deciding for themselves what they think is the right balance for them when it comes to a choice between studying in a classroom, online or a blend of both. It really does depend on their individual circumstances - and yet we insist on endlessly pursuing the one size fits all arrangements of scheduled, classes in four walled classrooms.


Observations:

Whether in a classroom or online ..."together is the best way"

"I had good time teacher and the world is crazy time. We are students and continue study we are lucky thank to you"

***

For me, this period of teaching and learning raises some questions ...
  • What arrangements will providers make - if any - for those learners uncomfortable or unwilling to return to the classroom even when the health situation is presumed to be safe?  Nearly all older and vulnerable students surveyed expressed their fear of COVID-19 and did not want to return to an unsafe situation.

  • Will providers continue to offer online study an an option to those who prefer it? 
  • Are traditional classrooms really the most effective, efficient or flexible learning environments?  Scheduling long days of instruction - often 6 hours a day for the most of the week - is a huge imposition on the time of adult students also searching for work and having a range of other responsibilities such as families to attend to. 

  • Does this questionable use of time in which most of the day is dedicated to attendance make for better quality learning? What are its impacts on quality teaching practice? Would some of this time be better spent planning lessons and following student progress? Would some of the time be better spent by students completing work at home instead of struggling through a long day and returning home exhausted?
  • How prepared and willing would providers be to continue online delivery for adult basic education and EAL students? I suspect this could be a very marketable and strategic point of difference for those who can - there would definitely be a demand. The question of whether most providers have staff equal to the challenge of providing the service, are sufficiently capable or willing to change administrative and management practices to the degree that is required, is another question.
  • How prepared and willing are funding bodies to facilitate new arrangements and ways of delivering? This too would entail a revolution in thinking about models of provision, compliance, administration and management.
The world certainly “is crazy time” and I think there is a heavy responsibility weighing on all of us in the field to ensure our adult learners continue to receive an uninterrupted, quality education. That this education may need to be delivered differently should not be considered an impediment. 

The sample survey returns convince me the way forward is not too hard and that students themselves are looking for more flexible, convenient and relevant ways to learn in any case. 

Reading back over the students' reflections I feel deeply moved. It has been - and continues to be for me as a teacher - a long, hard slog where things in the virtual classroom sometimes go wrong, just as they do in the bricks and mortar classroom, but mostly go right. There is a lot more work required at the level of preparation and assessing progress than usual and there has to be an enthusiasm for experimenting and developing new techniques appropriate to the varying virtual spaces in which teacher and students find themselves. But this sea change in thinking, practice and organisation is not impossible.

I hope these student voices make an impression.

These are the words of my fabulous, resilient adult learners who take their education just as seriously as you or I. I have no doubt they will continue to soar. 

I wonder how long it will take others involved in adult literacy and language education to catch up with them?


(Adult Learners Week 1 -5 September, 2020)







Friday, August 21, 2020

Devices and Design : Improving online learning experiences for adult students with low level digital skills


A reflection for Adult Learners Week 1 - 8 September 

I'm thinking 🤔 a lot about the devices my students are actually using in this period of the health emergency to participate remotely - at least 3 of my 14 only have mobiles (though luckily all Smartphones). 

This obvious ‘disadvantage’ has led me to start designing my lessons “to maximise viewing for mobile”. It’s also part of a strategy to give students with varying levels of digital competence choices in terms of the type of ‘workbook’ they wish to work in. 

Nearly everyone has graduated to working through Google Docs now (I can even correct, comment and chat with them at the same time as they write!) but there is the option for anyone to either download the workbook in Word or PDF. 

The PDF version is probably the best alternative for those struggling to view and work with the document through a tiny screen. It is also a basic ‘entry level’ alternative for students new to class who might be overwhelmed and are only capable at this stage of downloading and printing out. It is easily printable for those who want to write by hand, photograph the pages and return it to me by txt or email. 

Some interesting observations from the end of Term 2 gleaned from my students’ learning plan review/interview sessions:
  • 3 of then 13 had their own dedicated devices, apart from a mobile, peripherals (printer) and had a good internet connection (predictably those performing at the top of the class);
  • 4/13 had devices, peripherals and connectivity they had to share with other family members which limited their ability to study;
  • 6/13 had very limited access - usually just a mobile phone and a small amount of data on often over-priced phone plans. Half of these learners also had no other family members to help or support them in setting up hardware or negotiating technological problems and challenges (they are the students typically performing at the bottom of the class - another predictable correlation).
So you can see the logistical difficulties my adult learners have been working against for 16 weeks now. There have been, however, improvements and advances made. Three students from the most disadvantaged group have in the last 5 or 6 weeks either bought or got their hands on laptops or tablets and now have home internet plans. 

It’s the three remaining students with unchanged, resource poor situations who concern me. If there were no health emergency , if there were no lockdown or curfew, I’d be on their doorsteps. 

And yet there is a silver lining  - or at least some personal consolation - to this dark cloud hanging over us. I would never have gained such an insight into my students’ lack of resources - in effect their material poverty - nor devised the strategies I have to ensure our class continues and actually functions better than in did in the f-2-f environment we had in Term 1, if it were not for the prolonged time afforded us to learn together online.




 



Friday, June 26, 2020

Week 11 —- Assessment “Crisis” - Some thoughts about my approach during COVID



Managing assessment remotely with language learners who are challenged by the technology is hard. Not only language but digital skills are being developed in less than ideal circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been insufficient preparation for the students to easily engage with the media through which the assessments are being delivered. Progress is being made. I think it is observing my students develop the skills to access and return the materials, rather than the tasks themselves, which is most fascinating - and valuable. 


There are now ‘smart’ automated means to assess, analytics that can applied, a range of whizz bang apps and platforms potentially at a teacher’s disposal. And if only I had a software engineer as a volunteer to help me out ...my worries would be sorted.


Though seriously, in this situation where crisis management is the order of the day, one has to ask how realistic it is to incorporate more interactive and automated tools from a distance with my low level learners? 


Like Kalantzis and Cope I dream of a day when the ability to track learner progress formatively through Artificial Intelligence and intensive data collection at each point of a learning cycle becomes common. This will be a time when summative assessment approaches will be left for dead, or at least be subsumed into an over-arching, formative assessment process. 


Put simply, those dreadful, one-off, classroom staged, paper based tests that we pretend are somehow indicative of broad skill development over time really need to go. As ‘assessments’ they actually provide us with very little information about what students know or are capable of doing.


Our goal should be to make assessment integral to all learning insofar as continuous feedback would be provided and progress tracked. Assessment would then become so pervasive that it all-but disappears. Literacies are an ideal site for the development of such a seamlessly integrated learning and assessment environment. What if we move all assessment data collection into the space of learning? Then all we would ever measure is the substance of learning. There could be no need for after-the-event inferences, because what we are doing is measuring learning itself, at its source. And the more data we collect, and the more we view this data through the greatest variety of lenses, the more valid and reliable our assessments will become.


From Cope, B., Kalantzis, “Technology-Mediated Writing Assessments: Paradigms and Principles.” Computers and Composition 28:79-96.


But reality intervenes. I feel I am in an odd situation with my learners who have been thrown into the online “deep end”. 


For me, the approach has been to design and collect a number of varying, formative tasks which have been prepared for through research and work with others. The assessments have been returned to me across the term, I correct them, collate them and convert them into complete PDFs for each individual. I am limited by having to make reference to a range of Elements, Required Knowledge and Skills outlined in standardised tests. So there are obvious constraints and parameters to work within. I am stuck with one foot in the world of a tired traditional approach, the other online (with my head in the clouds?)


On the practical delivery level, all assessment tasks are finally transferred to a shared folder that my coordinator can access, download and process at her end.


I have to admit, my dreamy head is spinning. 


It has taken me a lot of time gathering all the parts, collating and converting. (In the future all of this could be done by a bot or some form of AI - oh yes, please 😂) but I’m stuck having to cope with this alone for the time being. 


There are a range of technical challenges and I’ve brought in some ‘industrial strength’ conversion and compression software to deal with huge file types emailed or messaged to me by the students and/or their “home-schooler/helpers”. These helpers are usually their  (grand)kids and this impressive collaborative work, (considering my students knew little or nothing about ways of conveying files electronically), is precisely the type of relevant, hands on learning we should be promoting.


There are also official cover sheets requiring signatures and various sections that need to be completed by the teacher that need to be integrated for compliance purposes. Pages are missing, further communication has had to occur - and that takes a lot more time to rectify than it normally would. 


It should be remembered that my adult language learners do not (as yet) have the skills to work in the same way as young, tech savvy college students. 


They started studying online with a single week’s notice and very limited training. At best what can be hoped for is the gradual initiation into ‘smarter’ ways of working. 


What’s required is a revolution in our approach to both classroom based teaching and assessment that I believe will eventually filter down into the adult literacy, language, numeracy and basic education field.


Again, I am in agreement with Cope and Kalantzis, 


...curricula and assessments in their traditional formats and media are in need of updating in order to make optimal use of the affordances of these digital spaces, and to create learning and assessment environments which are manifestly contemporary in the communicative options they allow.”


(Op.cit)