Learning from Dystopia

You probably know the books. Or maybe the movies.

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the stories are set in a dystopian world where some aspect of society falls apart. In one, teenage tributes are sent to fight to their death in a televised arena. In another, factions of the population are divided by their abilities. In the last, women become properties of the state and are forced into sexual servitude. While the books (movies?) are all entertaining in their own ways, they also present a troubling glimpse of what society could be.

But they also present a troubling glimpse of what society is. At least that was the conversation I shared with a couple of colleagues in a mini-book group we’ve organized to read The Manifesto of Teaching Online together. One of my colleagues teaches a dystopian literature course on campus and offered a unique perspective of what we can learn from reading these novels. Rather than just providing scary stories of some twisted possible world, she explained, the stories offer a lens to view the world we live in currently. When it’s done well, dystopian literature reveals the ills of society by distorting them and reflecting them back to the reader. But the distortions and reflections aren’t offered just for entertainment value alone. Instead, they’re offered as an educational tool. We can learn from dystopian fiction, or we can be doomed to experience it firsthand.

Clearly, I’m not an expert of dystopian literature. And that’s probably a huge oversimplification of our book group conversation. If you’re wondering how we got to books about dystopian worlds when we’ve gathered to discuss a book about online teaching, it actually wasn’t that much of a leap. Our discussion about online teaching led to a conversation about the global pandemic which eventually led to dystopian literature. See. It doesn’t seem THAT far-fetched. And like most of these conversations I have with my wicked-smart colleagues, this topic has bounced around in my head for the last week or so. Not that we’re living a dystopian world. Not really. There are no tributes fighting to their death on television. There are no groups of women walking around in red dresses and white hats. There are no zombies.

But it’s hard to argue that our current educational world isn’t kind of dystopian-like. Face-to-face classes have been largely canceled at most educational institutions. Few of us have stepped foot on our campuses in months. Most of our interactions with students and colleagues are mediated via a synchronous tool that a large segment of the population didn’t know existed twelve months ago.

Our students are struggling. Our colleagues are anxious. We all feel isolated.

So, what can we learn from this? Think about it. Eventually, we’re going to go back to some more normal version of things. Are we just going to hit the reset button to March 2020 and go back to teaching and learning exactly the way we’ve always had? Or are we going to see the distorted world that is being reflected back to us and learn from it?

Incorporating SEL Online

I started teaching a graduate class this week. I know it’s winter break at many institutions but our university offers a winter semester and I’ve traditionally taught a class called Online Learning Environments in our graduate program during the semester. There’s usually a handful (or more) of graduate students who are hoping to use their vacation to get take a class or two to progress in their programs. Since I do better when I’m busy, I’m happy to oblige.

I’ve taught this class the last four winters. The class has traditionally culminated with the design and development of an online unit that my graduate students can use with their students. In past years, I’ve built the unit around there being some inclement weather event where schools are shut down for a week or more. With the inclement weather shutdown, the teacher needs to teach their students online and have to purposefully go through an instructional design process to analyze students’ needs and build a unit that incorporates good online pedagogy,

It’s funny. Looking back at previous iterations of the course, I’d always have students who would balk at the fictional nature of the activity. “When would we really need to create a week or two of online instruction?” they’d ask. With the global pandemic upon us, I’m doubting I’ll get any push back from my graduate students this winter.

But I’ve also reframed the activity. The students are still designing and building an online instructional unit but instead of focusing on some fictional inclement weather event, they’re purposefully implementing social emotional learning into their teaching. With so many schools moving to remote, hybrid and online modalities, I’m finding lots of teachers know how to create lessons and activities for their students online. The challenge now becomes teaching online in a way that also supports students’ well-being and promotes a safe space for them to learn. As I’ve written in other posts, I worry a lot about how the isolation from online teaching and social distancing is impacting our students and it’s critical for teachers to support students’ social emotional aspects through good design.

I know that social emotional learning (SEL) may be new to some readers, so I thought I’d provide some resources. PBS LearningMedia has created some great videos addressing the Core Competencies of SEL and the Indicators of Schoolwide SEL. In my class, students don’t necessarily have to teach SEL to their students through their online instructional units. Instead, I want them to build SEL practices into their online teaching. If you’re wondering how you could do this with your students, here are some ideas:

30 Ways to Integrate SEL During Distance Learning
28 Social Emotional Activities that Support Distance Learning at Home
5 Tips for Supporting Students Socially and Emotionally During Distance Learning

These resources cover a bunch of different grade levels and academic contexts, so some of them may not be appropriate for every setting. Others may need a little tweaking to fit the academic setting in which you work. Regardless, it’s important that we all intentionally build in SEL practices into our online learning environments so our students’ well-being is supported.

A Manifesto?

In a meeting a few weeks ago, a colleague recommended that I read The Manifesto for Teaching Online. Authored by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, the Manifesto is the third iteration of the group’s efforts at articulating their shared values and their political and philosophical perspectives on online learning. The group’s first Manifesto was published in 2011 and the second was released in 2016. Despite working in online learning, I somehow missed the earlier versions.

I ordered the book while I was still in the meeting. With a few clicks, the book was on its way and it arrived at my doorstep last week. The Manifesto has been staring at me from a corner of my desk for the last few days and I’ve purposely been avoiding its gaze. It’s the end of the semester and I still have a ton of grading to do. And I need to prep a winter class that starts in a few days.  I can’t be distracted from the work at hand. Besides, I agreed to read the book with a few colleagues over the winter break.

And then a little voice inside my head called out. “Maybe you could take a quick glance… That wouldn’t be TOO distracting. And besides,  you could still read the book more fully and deeply with your makeshift reading group in a week or two…”

So, I read the introduction. And immediately, I’m put on notice that this isn’t going to be a book about instructional design or about the best practices for setting up an online course template. Quoting Bruno Latour, the authors set the stage for the book;

“[A manifesto makes] explicit (that is, manifest) a subtle but radical transformation in the definition of what it means to progress, that is, to process forward and meet new prospects. Not as a war cry for an avant-garde to move even further and faster ahead, but rather as a warning, a call to attention, so as to stop going further in the same way as before toward the future.” (Latour, 2010, p. 473)

And it’s clear that this manifesto is designed to challenge those of us working in online education to question our practices, to reexamine our terminology, to assess our use of technology and to consider our place in the larger social, political and educational world.

While I stopped at the end of the introduction (I promise, valued reading group colleagues…), I’m certain that it’s going to be a wild ride that is going to cause my head to hurt.

And now, I have to get back to grading….

The Roomers and The Zoomers

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, many local schools and districts have adopted a hybrid learning approach where groups of students attend class either virtually or physically during different days of the week. The most common approach has students in one letter group (usually last names starting with A-L) attend physically on Mondays and Tuesdays with the other letter group (last names starting with M-Z) attending remotely during those days. After custodians clean classrooms and other common spaces, the letter groups switch, so that the M-Z group attends physically on Thursdays and Fridays, while their A-L classmates attend virtually.

Although the intent is to provide diverse opportunities for learning while still maintaining social distancing guidelines, this hybrid approach creates two disparate groups: The Roomers and The Zoomers. I wish I could take credit for the terms, but I heard this Roomer/Zoomer distinction from a teacher enrolled in one of my graduate classes. As he described it, The Roomers are those students who engage with their teacher and classmates in the face-to-face learning environment on their respective days. The Zoomers are those students who engage through Zoom on their assigned days. While most students spend some days as a Roomer and other days as a Zoomer, the teacher’s assessment was clear: The Zoomers are getting the raw end of the deal. In his observations, the Roomers are able to engage in rich classroom experiences while the Zoomers usually passively watch.

In response to this teacher’s assessment, I thought I’d offer some suggestions to bridge the Roomer/Zoomer divide and to make the learning experience rich for both groups of students.

  • Engage both groups via technology. With tools like Kahoot, Nearpod, Classkick and Pear Deck, a teacher can create a common experience where Roomers and Zoomers engage with their classmates and their teacher in similar ways. A teacher can simultaneously project the technology in the face-to-face classroom while sharing the screen via Zoom while students engage through the smartphones, laptops or tablets.
  • Foster collaboration across groups. Since teachers and students must maintain social distancing guidelines in face-to-face classrooms, many small group activities are being abandoned, but they don’t have to be.  Teachers could create break-out rooms in Zoom where Roomers and Zoomers collaborate together. For example, a think/pair/share activity could pair a Zoomer with a Roomer in a break-out room. After having a few minutes of small group discussion, either student could present to the larger group.
  • Plan for different modes of interaction. Rather than focusing just on the students in the physical classroom, teachers could plan to engage both groups initially before giving the Roomers and Zoomers different tasks best suited to their respective learning environment. Maybe the Roomers are given a physical task to be completed in class while the Zoomers engage with a related activity online.
  • Utilize help. Lots of classrooms benefit from the expertise and support of teacher’s aides, student teachers, interns and co-teachers. These individuals could play a role with engaging the Zoomers or Roomers strategically, based on the day’s activities and lessons. Maybe a student teacher parallel teaches a lesson tailored to the students in the Zoom environment while their cooperating teacher is teaching a similar lesson to the students in the face-to-face classroom. This way, both groups receive rich learning experiences that draw on the affordances of the respective environments.

These are just a few ideas to bridge the Roomer/Zoomer divide. If you have some other strategies, feel free to comment below.

The Mindful Online Teacher

A few months ago, I gave a keynote presentation at a conference for K-12 online teaching organized by my home institution, Millersville University. Since I had forty five minutes in the limelight, I used the presentation to highlight some principles for “mindful online teaching” that I had identified through my work with different teachers and districts locally and nationally. These mindful online teaching practices include:

  • Lead with empathy.
  • Build community.
  • Foster control & maximize value.
  • Reduce entropy.
  • Be a trim tab.

As schools take a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, many are re-evaluating their delivery systems in the wake of increased COVID infections. Some schools have decided to forgo face-to-face instruction and move to more online modes of delivery. With this pivot to online delivery, I thought it would be good to share the keynote here. 

Keynote Presentation: The Mindful Online Teacher

Feel free to share the video with your colleagues. My hope is that it offers some ideas for making the online learning environment a more supportive space for students amidst some really challenging times.