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Teaching remotely: First thoughts

Written By: David Preece
4 min read

The second half of the Spring half term has always felt a bit manic. This half term, of course, has been unforgettably altered. I’ve never thought about teaching remotely before, and I’ve never considered how I’d do it – what are my first thoughts?

ICT Heroes

First, I have to pay tribute to the immense work behind the scenes of thousands of ICT support staff – and commercial tech providers across the country. We’ve seen huge effort from them, and massive injections of time, energy and resources to transition to a virtual learning environment in a very short space of time. Firefly’s virtually overnight server upgrade, school ICT teams rolling out new software, training staff and students, and re-writing Acceptable User Agreements to reflect this brave new world – you guys have made all of this possible, and I am enormously grateful.

Validation of VLEs

With a sudden shift to online learning platforms, I think that the institutions and students for whom the transition will be most successful are those who are used to it. Of course, no school runs a VLE with the expectation that there won’t be a physical one alongside it, but I think that places which have experience with a VLE will find the adjustment easier. For us, we’ve used Firefly for some time, and staff and students alike are broadly confident in setting tasks and returning work. For me, the opportunities of the pages and virtual creation of work have enabled an almost unlimited virtual textbook of activities, resources and tasks to be created – but that has been done in my Department over years, rather than a short period!

Wherever possible, institutions should stick with what they know – for us, Firefly has meant we have an obvious asynchronous learning platform. By contrast, our intent to deliver some interactive components has meant that we’ve had to bring Microsoft Teams online, and to do so in a very short timeframe. Here, the key is anchoring to the familiar – people are comfortable with our well-established use of Office 365, and this forms a logical extension of that platform in a way that isn’t particularly intimidating. While some people are having great fun and playing with interactive quizzes, the short term experience is that – once more – the familiar routines are the most sustainable.

Blessed by booklets

One of the key challenges I think remote education faces is the lack of connectivity – you don’t know what your students have in front of them, and how they are engaging, writing it down and making progress as you go through your ideas and share your screen if you’re teaching ‘live’. A properly planned task can control that asynchronously, but the benefit of booklets has been magnified using the lens of remote teaching. Students find it much easier to work through what we’re discussing, and because you know in advance what they are seeing, I’ve found it much easier to plan what I want to teach, and how I want to navigate from idea to idea.

We are people, and whatever we do, we do it better together.

Start with your subject

When we sat down at the start of this to think about what we could do, our first thought as a Department was “what do we want to teach?”. We recognised early on that this wouldn’t – couldn’t – be “business as usual”, but we wanted the starting point to be about what we would be trying to think about in Geography, rather than what we could do with the technology.

This helped us come up with week plans, that we sent to students at the start of the week. This is what we’re doing, this is where we’re going – do this and bring it to our interactive session here, do this afterwards, here are your resources. The clarity of our planning was helpful for them: they could see where it all fitted, and could manage time and resources.

Go back to your teacher planner. What would you want to do across the period of learning – what’s the narrative and the story? How do you connect the experiences – what can they do for themselves, what might they need guidance on, and what might you need interactivity and direct instruction for? Now plan your technology to support that – how can you make that learning possible?

Collaborate not isolate

By and large, teachers are a funny lot. We don’t like unnecessary workload, but will spend hours crafting “our own” resources because we don’t feel like we could teach from someone else’s lesson resources.

Online learning is no time for that: where possible, try and get time for your department to plan together – and even better, to share out the responsibility for year groups, tasks or sections of work. If someone’s made an awesome video explainer for coastal landforms, how can you share it for all students? How can you share the quiz?

Unlike our normal classrooms, there’s no cost to photocopying loads more, or physical wall separating us from seeing someone else’s teaching! Use this to your advantage – mix up the sets, mix up your classes – share and collaborate in a way that you’d never be able to do in school, under a standard timetable arrangement.

Togetherness is more than lessons

At heart, schools are communities. Some people, and some schools, know that is their core purpose – they live and breathe the challenges of their communities and demographics every day.

It’s been heart-warming to see the community spirit and need – students reassured by a friendly chat and interaction, staff coming together to use this new-fangled software to do the crossword together or have a virtual coffee time.

We are people, and whatever we do, we do it better together. Let’s not forget that, in this time. Figure out a way to help your students remember their communities: their tutor groups, their friends, their sense of fun and togetherness if you can. They – and you – will feel better for it.

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