Teaching Online

Phone Cartoon clipart - Computer, Laptop, Black, transparent clip art

The following five blog posts address different sets of considerations for teaching online. Some of these may be more or less useful than others depending on your familiarity with the pedagogical literature and the stage you are at in your thinking, so I’ve posted summaries below. I’m not an EdTech specialist by any means, but given how quickly many courses are being adapted I hope this my be of interest to some. Most of these reflections are relevant to teaching online, but some include bringing technologies into the classroom, which may be helpful for those teaching within social distancing guidelines. I owe a huge amount to Calum Thomson, who teaches Flexible, Distance and Online Learning at the University of Salford; and also Svetlana Nasibyan who I worked with on the projects discussed below.

If you do find any of this helpful and want to discuss any aspect of it further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – T.Redshaw1@Salford.ac.uk.

  • The Digital Student: The first blog post is an introduction to some of the thinking around the identities, habits and capabilities of students in contemporary society. Are most students now ‘digital natives’ whose brains have been wired in a completely new way by their interactions with technology? No. It is worth reflecting on this claim critically however as it raises a few basic questions that can be helpful to think about in relation to the student experience in online teaching.
  • Digital Teaching Practices: This is a more reflective post I wrote in relation to ‘flipped classrooms’ in virtual learning environments. VLOs like Blackboard are obviously good repositories for learning materials, but there remain many difficulties when it comes to stimulating interaction. One solution here is problem-based learning – setting students tasks to undertake that they then discuss/present to one another in a webinar.
  • Collaborative Learning Online: If there is one central argument that runs through this blog it is this: for online learning to be effective it must be collaborative. This is backed up by much of the literature (see for example, Gilly Salmon’s work which prioritises ‘online socialisation’ as a prerequisite step for effective learning in online environments). It also makes intuitive sense – sat alone at our computers, it is easy to switch off or get distracted. In this post I reflect on ways to avoid this from happening in our online teaching.
  • Student Development: This is very much a follow up to the previous post on collaborative learning. Where the previous post focuses on strategies for collaborative learning, this summarises some of the ways you can measure the success of these teaching methods by reflecting on the development of your students through their different stages of learning.
  • Problem-Based Learning: In this final blog post I reflect on two experiences – one as a student undertaking a problem-based learning task; and one as a teacher delivering an online session based around a problem-based learning task. In both cases the theory discussed in earlier posts is put into practice. Personally I found the socialising aspect very engaging and motivating and hope my students feel the same in when I bring them into my teaching next semester.

The Digital Student

What is a ‘Digital Student’?

In the late 1990s as the Dot-Com Boom was reaching new heights and the ownership of personal computers increased rapidly across the world, education scholars began theorising a fundamental shift in processes of learning. In a paper that came to encapsulate much of these debates, Marc Prensky (2001) went as far as to claim

It is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up

This new generation of students had grown up in an environment permeated by digital devices that radically altered their learning experience. The young people of this new era were ‘native speakers’ of a new type of communication founded on instant access to vast archives of information. They communicated via networks that allowed for non-linear learning processes; assigned a new weight of meaning to images and graphics; and felt more comfortable multi-tasking. Most significantly for Prensky, this generation were distinct from their teachers in all of these respects.

Educators, Prensky claimed, remained rooted in traditional modes of communication and learning, unappreciative of the new skills possessed by their students and slow to adapt to emerging digital environments. This perceived divide signalled the arrival of a ‘digital student’, a student whose adept mastery of new technologies presented considerable challenges for fusty old teachers and outmoded education systems more broadly.

Nearly twenty years down the line, it is perhaps this divide drawn by Prensky and his hyperbolic descriptions of ‘digital natives’ that appear dated. Yet his underlying argument concerning the challenges digital technology poses for educators remains pertinent, as do his concerns regarding the changing nature of the student learning experience. New ways of presenting and consuming information are undeniably important considerations, including non-linear learning processes. So what does a contemporary digital student look like? And what challenges do they pose for educators?

Today’s Digital Student: A fellow traveller rather than native?

Reflecting on my own experience as a teacher in higher education, today’s ‘digital student’ strikes me less as a highly skilled ‘native’ fluent in a new mode of communication, and more as a fellow traveller trying to navigate stormy seas. Today’s digital society is a world away from the Dot-Com Boom years, characterised instead by precarity and crises. While students often do begin university life with a range of digital skills, they are also mindful of how rapidly such skills become redundant in persistently turbulent labour markets. Reflecting on experiences inside the classroom, this distinction between Prensky’s ‘Digital Natives’ and today’s digital student stretches further.

Three tips to manage your Technostress | by Jaya | YellowAnt
Tackling techno-stress among students is increasingly a key role in HE teaching

Firstly, while many students are familiar with digital devices and standard interfaces, each new cohort requires time to adjust to the networks and programmes they are required to use at university. Far from struggling to adjust to the skill levels of digital ‘natives’, my experiences have been much more oriented towards helping students acclimatise to their new digital environment and develop their digital skills, often involving a pastoral role relating to the anxieties that this can involve, particularly around times of registration and assessment.

Of course, many students are indeed adept at navigating university systems but in this respect my experiences reflect the many ‘digital divides’ that exist, where various aspects of a person’s background can affect their familiarity and capability with digital technologies, beyond the generational focus of Prensky (DiMaggio et al 2001; Van Dijk & Hacker 2003). Understanding and addressing digital divides is now an integral part of teaching in higher education, and needs to be factored into our considerations for taking teaching online.

Secondly, while Prensky’s argument outlines a clear distinction between the digital proficiency possessed by ‘natives’ and the ineptitude of ‘immigrants’ (let’s leave aside this metaphor’s unsavoury political undertones for now) in my experience the spread of digital skills among students is a much messier phenomenon.

There are certain digital practices a student simply could not pass a module without, mostly relating to the successful navigation of Blackboard and basic library systems. There is then a range of different skill-sets students develop, from the innovative creation of multi-media content to the ability to successfully organise networks of fellow students online.

Guiding these various pathways in digital development, or attempting to incorporate them into teaching strategies, are increasingly important challenges, and they don’t fit neatly within the ‘native/immigrant’ model. Instead, classic sociological concepts of students accumulating technical capital or developing their technological agency may be more helpful.

Indeed, such an approach appears to underlie the Joint Information Systems Committee’s (JISC) digital capabilities project to enhance pedagogy, which identifies six distinct pathways in which students and educators develop their ‘digital literacies’. Such a framework is helpful when considering the actionable steps educators can take to respond to the needs of today’s ‘digital student’.

Seven element of digital literacies

Digital literacy provides a more effective framework than Prensky’s for understanding today’s digital student not only because it is better suited to the broader socioeconomic tensions in contemporary digital society – including its various digital divides and developmental pathways – but also for reasons immanent to Prensky’s argument.

Prensky strayed too closely to technological determinism when assessing the impact of new digital devices. This observation has since been made by many scholars, including Steeples and Jones (2002) who subsequently launched a more empirically grounded research programme to investigate practices of ‘networked learning’ to interpret how people are interacting with new machines in educational contexts, rather than being transformed by them.

With all this in mind, the approach I’m taking in my teaching this semester, as I move many lectures and seminars online, is one based on flexibility and collaboration. This is discussed in more detail below but the aim is to provide online spaces in which students are able to bring in devices and techniques of learning that suit them. For inductions and early sessions for example, organising games that draw on different software programmes will, I hope (!), reveal much about which kinds of activities (e.g. quizzes or group tasks?), devices (e.g. do they all have smartphones and enjoy using them?), learning tools (e.g. do they like Padlet? Mentimeter?), and communication (text-based chat or audio?) they are most comfortable with. This might make for a chaotic early session, but I think it may lead to a solid foundation for the rest of the semester that takes digital divides and developmental pathways into account, while also ensuring some online socialisation.

Digital Teaching Practices

The first bits of teaching I delivered in higher education involved leading one-hour seminars with undergraduate students. Before arriving at the seminar, students were expected to have attended and reflected on a lecture as well as having read a particular book chapter or peer-reviewed article.

The seminar was designed to be a space for students to share and deepen their understanding of these materials and my role as a teacher was to guide these discussions, creating and sustaining an environment in which students felt comfortable talking with one another analytically. The importance of these small seminars was evident in the students’ assessments, the majority of which were polished and elaborated versions of the discussions they had in these classes.

A key advantage of the seminar is its flexibility. It’s a space for student-led, interactive engagement that is productive of learning processes that are mostly unstructured and veer off in many directions and subgroups that can continue after the formal class has ended. Being able to offer this space for students is therefore crucial, and this will involve quite a bit of creativity during the pandemic. Understanding what flexibility means in this context, and why it is important, may therefore be quite helpful.

Flexible GIF - Find on GIFER

Flexible learning is rooted in John Dewey’s writings on social psychology, in particular his notion of ‘progressive education’ that recognises learning spaces as social environments that can instil autonomy among young people and thus serve as the foundation for a strong functioning democratic society (Aubrey & Riley, 2016).

As such, learners must be ‘actors’ who discover their capacity for creativity and independent thought, rather than ‘spectators’ passively engaged in rote learning. The role of the teacher thus becomes that of a facilitator, creating opportunities for learners’ self-development by establishing stimulating environments oriented around participation and problem-solving.

Learning thus becomes flexible as teaching responds to learners rather than rigidly following a preset structure. What this looks like in practice has been limited historically by cultural and political forces that have sought to conserve traditional models of education (see video below: Robinson, 2010; also Aubrey & Riley, 2016). However, Dewey’s influence is clear in the more recent and increasingly popular theory around ‘flipped learning’, which sets out a framework for what such progressive, flexible learning may look like in practice.

Ken Robinson: Traditional models of education have stymied creativity and flexibility

While Dewey’s ethical imperative for democratisation is largely absent from theories of flipped learning, they advance his pedagogical focus on creating interactive environments that stimulate learners to engage creatively with learning materials, encouraging learners to be ‘actors’ rather than ‘spectators’.

Flipped learning is defined by the Higher Education Academy in terms very similar to those I used to describe my early teaching experiences in seminars:

Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted, so that students are introduced to the learning material before class, with classroom time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities facilitated by teachers.

Reflecting on this literature I noticed that the part that differs most significantly to my seminar experiences relates back to Dewey and the focus on problem-solving. Time in the classroom is used not only to reflect on learning materials, but to allow learners themselves to problematise these materials on their own terms.

Implementing Flipped Learning

The key to implementing flipped learning is to avoid the temptation to structure classes too much and focus on ways of prompting conversations rather than leading them. One reason this can feel quite uncomfortable is that you lose control of the conversation, and it inevitably descends into multiple discussions between students about unrelated topics. However, I think this can be a helpful stage in establishing good lines of communication.

In the ‘Four Pillars of F-L-I-P’ (FLN, 2014) this is identified as allowing for the generation of a ‘learning culture’ in which ‘students learn in a manner that is personally meaningful’. The focus for the educator in flipped learning is one of observation and feedback, rather than structure and guidance; one of ‘controlled chaos’ in which the teacher is not leading discussions but sat outside of them, ready to respond to learner-led developments by adapting the learning environment or learning materials.

A key method for implementing this is problem-based learning, and I think this is a particularly well-suited method for online environments. I talk through two examples of this below, but in a nutshell it involves designing a goal-oriented task for students to work on and allowing them to achieve that goal in whatever way they deem best. Working online means the students are already sat at computers, meaning they can delegate a range of different tasks to each other while staying in communication. Examples include

  • Research based tasks (i.e. finding and synthesising information on a topic/question)
  • Dilemma based tasks (e.g. which theoretical/methodological approach is most suited to X)
  • Hypothetical scenarios (e.g. as a team you must pitch a policy idea to the government).

In each scenario, you can pop in and out of the virtual chat rooms you have set up for the students to see how they are getting on. There is a literature on ‘e-tivities’ and problem-based learning online which is particularly helpful, I’ve listed some of this below. In particular, I would recommend Savin-Baden (2007) and Salmon (2013). I also discuss some of this in the final blog post.

Collaborative Learning Online

One of my colleagues at Salford, Daiga Kamerāde, has a brilliant way of engaging students with quantitative methods – a topic that doesn’t often capture the imagination of learners in social science – and she does this through collaborative learning. Daiga organises weekly seminars in which students are provided with several tasks to undertake independently before completing a test.

The success of these seminars lies in their design: each student is provided with the necessary instructions and materials, and each student has access to a computer. How they complete the tasks is left to the learners themselves who, more often than not, self-organise into groups to help each other, sharing insights and ideas to complete the tasks quickly and effectively. What my colleague has achieved (and very well I might add!) is the design of a social learning space facilitated by digital technology. This is something I am reflecting on quite a lot ahead of the next semester, both for modules where teaching is moving entirely online, and for those that will be face-to-face but with restricted interactions due to distancing guidelines.

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Social Learning Spaces

Contemporary theories of social learning build on the influential work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work emphasised the primacy of social interaction, dialogue, and problem-solving in mental development (Pritchard & Woollard, 2013). Vygotsky’s work underpins much of what is now known as the social constructivist theory of learning, which focuses both on learning as a social process, and knowledge as a human creation constructed via social and cultural means.

In practice, this has influenced the design of social learning spaces as the basis for various teaching strategies and, in the digital age, this has entailed the use of computers to facilitate social learning, resulting in the development of a new field in pedagogy aimed at interpreting and advancing such computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL).

CSCL brings together studies in computer-mediated communication and constructivist learning theory and now constitutes its own distinct and growing research area (Brandon & Hollingshead, 1999; Stahl et al, 2006). The pedagogical practices it focuses on are increasingly popular in teaching and learning, particularly for adult learners, for whom the greater flexibility and accessibility of online learning spaces are most advantageous. CSCL practices are not without their problems, with a study by Capdeferro and Romero (2012) identifying various ways in which frustrations arise among learners whose teaching is digitally mediated. However, with careful reflection and a clear strategy, I believe these practices can be very effective and personally I am looking into using them to enhance my teaching beyond the pandemic.

Building on Vygotsky’s theory of social learning, Miriam Clifford (2018) outlines 20 collaborative learning tips and strategies for teachers. While all are insightful, and many reflect aspects of my colleague’s teaching strategy described above, there are three in particular I find most relevant to CSCL and my own teaching. Firstly, Clifford identifies a number of free online tools for collaborative learning, such as Stixy, Google Groups, and Mikogo. Each provide user friendly platforms for online communication in small groups. Such tools are essential for facilitating small, learner-led groups undertaking problem-based tasks. In an online context, studies support this focus on small groups, particularly when tasks are directly related to assessment (Brindley et al, 2009), such as my colleague’s implementation of weekly tests.

A second strategy outlined by Clifford is to use real-world problems when designing tasks for group work. Rather than constructing hypothetical scenarios, Clifford urges teachers to take inspiration from the everyday problems and issues students face. Again, this reflects the practices of my colleague who ensures her tasks relate to understanding key concepts or methods in terms of how they can be used by the students in their dissertations. Students then search the internet, as well as the learning materials made available on Blackboard, looking for information that feels relevant to them, before sharing their findings with their peers. In these classes I have witnessed students delegating tasks among themselves based on who in the group is more likely to use a particular method before explaining their findings to each other. Here, the students are effectively employing the ‘jigsaw technique’ unprompted – where specialised roles are allocated to individual group members – in order to complete the tasks quickly and move on to the test.

A final aim I have come to in my reflections on CSCL is to find means of preventing the forms of frustration identified by Capdeferro and Romero (2012) by following another of Clifford’s strategies: allowing groups the space and resources to reduce anxiety. Both computer-mediated communication and the learning of difficult concepts can generate anxieties among learners that significantly inhibit the learning process. A key priority therefore in designing a social learning space, whether online or offline, ought to be the inclusion of stress-reducing activities to create a relaxed learning atmosphere. In online spaces this can be more difficult, but as Capdeferro and Romero emphasise, by ensuring learners have informed and realistic expectations of the tasks and the requirements of their peers – and by performing a proactive role in monitoring collaborative activities – teachers can prevent and alleviate stress among learners.

Student Development

As noted many times already, a key obstacle when it comes to online teaching is ensuring active engagement among students. Digital technologies already provide important tools for achieving this, with applications such as Padlet facilitating collaborative writing in and outside of the classroom, and Mentimeter providing enjoyable forms of surveying and presenting the thoughts of the class. The primary benefits of these activities are social: they encourage interaction around learning materials between teachers and learners, and facilitate group-work among students. As discussed in the previous blog post, such instances of social learning constitute key ways of motivating learners. For this reason I have found it helpful to reflect further on the role of the teacher in understanding social learning, not just as a basis for achieving the learning outcomes of a module, but in terms of cultivating the broader development of students and their abilities. This begins by returning to the work of Lev Vygotsky, and concludes with a reflection on supporting development through the use of digital technologies.

Child Development Theories: Lev Vygotsky
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)

Vygotsky (1978) challenged theories of learning in which the mental development or maturation of learners is understood as a separate process to that of learning. In these theories student development is seen as a distinct underlying biological process that influences but is not influenced by learning. He also challenged theories that conflate the two processes. For Vygotsky, it is social learning that precedes and guides mental development. As social animals, ‘human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them’ (1978: 39). Consequently, supporting learners for Vygotsky was a matter based not on assessing their current abilities, but one of understanding their potential for development within social spaces. This is the basis for Vygotsky’s concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD).

The ZPD concept is particularly relevant for this discussion as it outlines the role of a teacher as one defined by guidance and collaboration. While Vygotsky acknowledges there are basic tasks a learner can perform individually based on their abilities, learning and development occur when a learner is able to work collaboratively on a task with, and under the guidance of, a ‘more knowledgeable other’ that would usually be a teacher but may also be a peer. To support learners, teachers should aim to identify ‘processes that are currently in a state of formation, that are just beginning to develop’ (1978: 38). Such processes are vital to learning and development and exist within the ZPD as tasks learners may not be able to do individually but can do with guidance, thus demonstrating the potential to master.

Monkey Cracks Nut - what could go wrong? - YouTube
Capuchin monkeys – a classic example of social learning in the animal kingdom!

As learners develop their abilities and acquire skills via guided and collaborative learning they progress through stages of competence and require support at each of these stages. Stuart Dreyfus (2004) theorises five such stages, where learners progress from ‘novice’, through ‘advanced beginner’, ‘competent’, and ‘proficient’, to ‘expert’. Dreyfus defines these stages and outlines ways in which one may recognise the stage a learner is at, as well as identifying the processes by which one progresses from one stage to the next. Combined with Vygotsky’s theory, the role of a teacher in supporting learners is further clarified: teachers must guide learners through stages of development by assisting them with tasks they cannot do unaided, until they reach a stage of experience in which said tasks are mastered and understood intuitively. At this stage, these learners can assist their peers (often more effectively than teachers!)

The key takeaway points I took from Vygotsky and Dreyfus for my own teaching practice are: the necessity to focus on identifying the potential of students and recognising the stages of their development; ensuring students are rarely left to undertake tasks they can already achieve as individuals; and devising group tasks that fall within their collective ‘zone of proximal development’ – tasks they can achieve together, prompting peer-learning and collaboration.

In relation to digitally-mediated teaching, this involves remaining mindful that technical skills are themselves a key part of learner development and that levels of digital skills and the different learning styles of students will affect how successfully they can navigate such tasks (Rakap, 2010). As such, teaching begins to involve ‘technology stewardship’: using technology to respond to the needs of a group engaged in social learning (Wenger et al, 2009). This can involve:

  • Identifying technologies the students are already using. What apps are your students using? Is there a way you can bring that in to later classes or assessment? (e.g. if they like TikTok, why not let them make TikTok videos to present ideas in later webinars? Sure, you might not want them to use this for assessed work, but building on their existing technical practices is more likely to increase engagement)
  • Regularly review your use of technology and be flexible. After the first few sessions, ask students which devices they are using most (phones, laptops, tablets?) and which platforms they find the most straightforward (does Padlet just confuse them?). It’s likely some will have found alternative devices or platforms that work better for them, is there a way you can change upcoming classes to include them?
  • Regularly reflect on how your own preferences may be shaping your teaching design. E.g. why did you choose to use Mentimeter? Because the students like it, or because you like it? When checking in on students doing their group work, make a note of what they are using and discussing, can you bring that into your teaching design?

Problem-Based Learning

As part of completing a course in flexible, distance and online learning, I was tasked with two problem-based learning (PBL) exercises: firstly from the position of learner, and secondly from the position of teacher. PBL tasks have been found to increase rates of information retention due to the practical application of knowledge that they involve (Schmidt, 1983). They also align closely with the imperatives of many of the pedagogical approaches for online learning discussed above. In the following I summarise my two experiences as learner and teacher as practical examples of the ideas discussed so far.

For the first PBL task I was in the role of student and required to create a video presentation based on a hypothetical scenario: a fellow student and I would be pitching a new online programme to the university senior management team. We were given advice on a number of ways we could make the video, and decided to create a live-recorded video presentation in a filming studio in Crescent House.

Making a presentation in a studio in front of a green screen

Several advantages of undertaking a PBL task as a mode of learning became clear in this assignment, in ways that resonate with key approaches in the pedagogical literature.

From Conole, G. (2012: 273)

Grainne Conole (2012) summarises these approaches effectively. Both ‘associative’ and ‘connectivist’ learning focus primarily on the individual. This is more obvious in the former, which is based primarily on setting structured tasks for individuals to complete, but individual learning processes sit at the heart of the latter too.

Connectivism, as outlined by Siemens (2005), is an approach founded on nurturing the capacity for individuals to navigate networks of information, build connections within networks of people, and understand environments as shifting and fluid entities. There is much to learn from this perspective, especially in relation to collaborative group work centred on the use of innovative digital media, in which both the organisation of the task and the form of assessment require the successful navigation of various computer networks.


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