The challenge of remote teaching is the challenge of all teaching

Posted on 06-04-2020

The challenge of remote teaching is the challenge of all teaching: learning is invisible.

How do you get students to understand complex material, and how do you know when they have understood it?

You need to check for understanding, and this is why – rightly – so much educational ink has been spilt on the topic of checking for understanding, or formative assessment, or responsive teaching, or whatever phrase you prefer.

As all these phrases make clear, the challenge is one of interactivity. A traditional classroom provides interactivity by having a teacher who can ask and answer questions. One of the most effective teaching methods is whole-class direct instruction, a highly interactive form of teaching which involves lots of call and response, incredibly frequent feedback and in some cases can pretty much resemble a live performance.

In the absence of traditional classroom teaching, how can we use technology to provide interactivity?

The promise of video conferencing is that it seeks to directly replicate the interactivity of the classroom. Both teachers and students can ask and answer questions in real-time.

The challenge is that even with perfect internet connections, it is harder to ask and answer questions in this way, harder for a teacher to monitor a class in the same way, and much harder to run the kinds of high pace, whole-class interactive direct instruction lessons which the research shows are so valuable.

It feels obvious that video-conferencing should provide interactivity, but the prior research on this shows that you cannot take it for granted and often have to work quite hard to achieve it.

Three recent papers by Rehn, Maor and McConney (here, here and here) look at the challenges of building a positive learning environment via video-conferencing, and an older paper from 2008 points out some of the practical challenges too:

Interaction in the videoconferencing medium is not without its challenges. Where there are many individuals involved, the camera may not identify the speaker readily in an interactive setting and so others may need to rely on voice alone, which is limiting…the sense of interactivity at a remote site may be reduced, and while some students can be highly engaged and involved in their learning, it is possible for others, even at the same site, to be inactive and inattentive for long periods with impunity. Reticent students may find it easier to ‘disappear’ in the remote setting than in the normal classroom setting.

Adaptive platforms
Adaptive platforms attempt to solve the interactivity problem in a more indirect way. They aren’t giving students the opportunity to ask and answer questions in real time. Instead, they build up an understanding of the student based on their interaction with content, and use that understanding to adapt the questions and content a student sees. I gave some examples of good adaptive platforms in my previous post.

The challenge with these platforms is getting students to use them. If you are going to use them, you probably need to build in some kind of teacher-managed structure and monitoring.

Virtual learning environments (VLE)
These are platforms where teachers can upload worksheets, videos, assessments, etc, and students can work on them and then respond in their own time. They are providing a space for interaction between the teacher and student, and hopefully also some kind of intuitive and easy way of capturing these responses. They give students the opportunity to ask and answer questions, but they don’t provide them with real-time responses.

Synchronous or asynchronous?
Traditional classroom teaching and video conferencing are both examples of a synchronous approach to teaching, where everything is happening in real time and is timetabled for specific moments. Setting work via a VLE (or indeed by email) is an asynchronous approach: students will all be completing the work at different times. Adaptive platforms are slightly trickier to categorise: yes, they will tend to be assigned to students to work on in their own time, and are thus asynchronous. But the platform is adapting to the student in real-time, so you could argue they are able to provide synchronous teaching.

Individual schools face different challenges at the moment, and need different ways of responding. I like this post by Doug Lemov, which talks about blending different approaches and gives some examples of how this might work in practice.

My long-term prediction about the benefits of tech remains the same as outlined in my book Teachers vs Tech: I think we will always need human teachers, but I think that used well, technology can add value. If we want technology to improve education, we have to play close attention to what it is teachers actually do, and then work out ways that technology can support or improve those processes. Thus, for me, a discussion about ed tech is as much a discussion about formative assessment as it is about broadband access.

My short-term hope is that this crisis will help accelerate our understanding of what it is teachers actually do.

My short-term worry is that we end up focussing more on trying to replicate the visible surface features of a classroom and less on the invisible mental processes underpinning it.

On Wednesday 8th April at 4pm I’ll be discussing these issues in a webinar with Cassie Buchanan, head of Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark. Sign up here. On Thursday 9th April at 4pm I’ll be doing a similar webinar with Matt Jones, Executive Head at Ark Schools. Sign up here.