The alarm rang. The time is 6:30 am.
Min got out of bed with a yawn. She hasn’t had much sleep for the past few days, but that didn’t bother her. She was looking forward to today’s programme in school. It was her big day.
She went to brush her teeth, then rushed to gobble down her breakfast, while switching on her laptop. Min wanted to check if any of her friends are online at this time. After all, it is a big day for everyone in her class.
A blue screen lit up, and soon a few icons peppered the screen. Min opened her email and clicked to join in a video chat session. Soon she saw several of her friends on the screen. Apparently they are just as eager to log in today.
“Good morning guys! How are you all doing?”
“Hi Min! We are up early so that we can see what you have for us!”
Pretty soon, the remaining students in the class logged on to the video conferencing session. All were chatting amongst themselves, waiting for the teacher to appear. The time is 7:30 am.
“Min, are you ready for the big show today?” Asked one of the kids.
“Of course! I am all prepared. I hope you guys like what I am going to show later. But I am feeling nervous.”
“It’s okay, Min. We will support you. I am looking forward to what I can learn from you,” said another kid.
Just then the teacher popped up onto the screen. He smiled and waved to the students. “Hello guys! I see you are all up and ready for the day! How is everyone?”
After a round of checking on everyone, the teacher directed all to keep quiet, and explained what is going to happen today.
“Alright, during the past few days we have been busy learning about the topic of climate change. I also asked if any of you has any thoughts about climate change, and Min has kindly volunteered to talk about her father’s work with the United Nations in this area. She also shared that she will prepare some slides to show us. Is everyone ready to hear from Min?”
And so the lesson began, with Min taking over control of the video conference. She shared her slides on the screen, and started talking about her father’s work.
Sounds like fantasy? Well, not much so. Today, students have access to technology that many of us adults don’t have when we were younger. Learning was very much different in the 20th century. Schooling was confined to buildings dedicated to education. Learning resources were largely physical materials – books, worksheets, modelling sets, toys or manipulative. You need a teacher to be physically present to impart knowledge to the students.
Today, learning can take place in the comfort of home, and anytime, anywhere. The above story is only one possibility of learning taking place virtually, without having to attend school physically. Learning can also take place with dedicated portals set up to help students learn specific topics. You can go to Khan Academy for instance, to learn about anything under the sun. Or to Udemy to sign up for courses of your interest.
Schools have also set up for learning management systems to provide resources for students to utilise at their own time outside of school. The Singapore Ministry of Education has also established the Student Learning System (SLS) to provide a base for students to learn different subjects through resources curated from various sources. This system comes in handy if students wish to know more about particular subjects or topics, or if teachers wish to assign work or self-paced lessons to students.
Developments can go one step further. With the covid-19 situation today, schools are closed in many cities. More students are doing home-based learning, and some schools have tapped on video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Skype to conduct online lessons. Seeing friends online and having discussions is one way of helping to maintain social and emotional relations during these times when cities are under lockdown. Having that connection helps maintain a student’s emotional well-being too.
I am no expert in edutech, but I do have some thoughts on how to use technology well for learning purposes. In fact, I think these tips are probably relevant regardless, whether online or offline.
1. The learning objectives, or the purpose in learning, must be clearly defined for each lesson. What this means is the objective of attending an online lesson or doing an assignment must be clear to the student, not to the teacher only. The student must see how doing that piece of work helps in extending his or her understanding in a particular subject matter, how doing that piece of work can help him or her in refining their level of skills.
Is it easy to do this? My immediate answer is no, for a simple reason. Students are learning subject matter that are not immediately appealing to them. Students have a range of interests and preferences, which are not met readily through the subjects in schools. Besides that, you have students who may not be engaged to the idea of schooling in the first place. Most of the time teachers are probably preaching to the converted. It takes a lot more to reach the unreached.
2. Engaging students in the act of learning requires one to know the students well. That means to say when planning for online lessons (regardless whether online presence of teacher is required) teachers should consider what would attract and sustain students’ attention to the materials. So an understanding of students’ learning preferences, their current level of understanding, what they need to do or learn in order to extend their understanding of a topic or concept further, and learning content that is appropriate for students to grasp.
One of my children’s teacher set an online assignment that requires them to record their pronunciation of words and send back to her. As my child is very young, the use of a digital device to do this task appeals a lot to him. Add to it the novelty of recording his voice in a topic of his interest, and my son is off to do the work on his own. No need for reminders, no need to push him to complete it. Even if it happens to be a language assignment which my son has very little interest in in the first place.
3. Develop incentives that will help students to experience success along the way. Learning is not exactly a natural process for some people. It can be a difficult process to go through, especially if you do not have the natural inclination to want to learn, or to want to learn a particular topic. External stimuli in the form of incentives would be useful, perhaps even more so where digital learning is concerned.
Incentives must be appropriate and suitable though. Teachers should not give incentives without putting some thought into it. For example, never reward students with just additional homework for completing an assignment. Instead, you can give brain teasers or puzzles as simple incentives to students who are motivated to learn. Or adopt a scoring system where students can exchange points for small gifts they can choose from a range that you offer – stationary, snacks are some examples.
4. Help students get some oxytocin when they are scheduled online. If there is one thing you should know that will boost your performance by leaps and bounds, that will be teamwork. The reason behind this is science. Good teamwork actually helps your body generate oxytocin, which is a happy chemical for your brain. If you have more oxytocin you will be happier and more productive. The person will be more receptive to learning too.
So how can you generate oxytocin for online lessons? Create teamwork: get students into discussions and generate conversations. The social bonds people create and strengthen will be self-generating after a while. Be positive and give affirmations for what students have done. The best affirmations take place when people give to each other willingly. Hence encourage students to look out for positive acts and identify them.
Edutech need not be a frightening endeavour if done properly. We should not be overly concerned about children having too much screen time exposure. Digital literacy is very much needed today in a world where more and more automated and digital services are created, where more workplaces rely on AI for an increasing range of processes. Helping our children be comfortable with technology by going digital in teaching is one way to prepare them for the world.
How will you equip children with digital literacy skills today? Do you have any practices you use when conducting online lessons? How will you conduct online lessons if digital schools are the only ways to provide education in the future?