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.

They aren’t bad students.

In talking with some teacher friends and colleagues, one thing is clear: these aren’t easy days for students. Let me provide some back story.

  • I met with a middle school teacher recently who told me that a third of the students in his school were failing one or more courses.
  • In a conversation with a high school counselor, she communicated that she sent out three times the number of failure letters that she’d usually send out in the first marking period. Additionally, most of the students were being notified that they were failing multiple classes.
  • Personally, I’ve had two students who withdrew from my class with an overall percentage less than 20%. As we enter the final weeks of the semester, at least a quarter of my students are at risk of failing for the semester.

The simple explanation would be to chalk it up to unmotivated individuals who haven’t developed the time management skills to be successful students. They’re simply bad students.

Except they’re not. In most of these cases, they’re just students who have been unexpectedly thrown into online/remote/hybrid learning. Despite their efforts, they’re struggling to keep things organized, to stay motivated and to learn. Add in a global pandemic and the isolation resulting from social distancing and you have a perfect storm for the large-scale academic struggles we’re witnessing. They’re not bad students. The perfect storm has created a bad environment for learning.

As we navigate this challenging time, it’s critical that we as educators try to focus on what’s important and that we work to find additional strategies and opportunities to support our students. Remember, they’re not bad students. The global pandemic has created a bad environment for learning. And that’s going to require some innovative approaches and solutions.

Luckily, I came across The Danielson Group’s Framework for Remote Teaching. If you’re not familiar with the original Danielson Framework of Teaching, it examined 22 different teaching components across four different domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities. The Danielson Framework is one of the most widely used tools for supporting teacher professional development nationally.

But the Framework for Remote Teaching is different than the original Danielson Framework. Instead of focusing on 22 components, the Framework for Remote Teaching only focuses on eight across three domains: knowing and valuing students, building responsive learning environments and engaging students in learning. The Framework for Remote Teaching even provides specific strategies to help teachers better support their students’ learning in these trying times. Besides offering some innovative solutions for engaging students in synchronous and asynchronous spaces, I think the Framework for Remote Teaching also communicates something really important. In this current environment, teachers may not be able to do it all.  Let’s focus on the most important aspects that foster student learning. This change in focus may not help every student be successful in this difficult environment for learning. But the strategies the Danielson Group offers may help us better support our students as they navigate the difficult waters ahead.

Revisiting the Past

I posted my first 8 Blog post in November 2009. The great thing about consistently blogging for eleven years is that I’ve discussed so many topics and innovations over the years that this space serves as a cool time machine for me to go visit the not-so-distant past. While these posts can provide a cool lens for viewing our past, it can also help us re-examine our present. Take this post from 2013. In it, I write about being “a worm in horseradish” and how people have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living. I’m going to reshare the post below, without commentary. As you read, remember this post was written in May 2013, long before remote learning and global pandemics. Enjoy.

Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice.  In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it.  He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu.  Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”  In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept.   People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.”  This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students.  After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms.  One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches.  Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices.  The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation.  No one was working on a laptop or a iPad.  He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations.  One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional.  The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.

It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places.  We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences.  While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly.  Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently.  Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead.  On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around.  In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out.  While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started.  At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on.  At another institution, she was a freak for having one.

My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university.  The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses.  Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way.  Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed.    Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.