Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Traditionally teachers and students communicate in real-time throughout the school day by talking as well as with non-verbal cues like gestures and facial expressions. In the traditional classroom face-to-face communication is critical for teachers to teach well and for students to learn - but how useful is it in remote learning situations?
Communication can be one of the biggest challenges in distance learning. The closest we can really get to being face to face is with video calls but a lack of eye contact and a pixelated image coupled with a lag, background noise and sometimes freezes mean these are often uncomfortable and ineffective for teaching purposes.
Although many schools are using video calls for ‘live lessons’, if you’ve attended one yourself then you have probably noticed that they aren’t always the most productive sessions in the world, especially when they involve many young and excited children. Sadly, I often find myself resorting to pressing the ‘mute all’ button because we can all hear someone’s dad on a business call or a phone vibrating nearby or even family members chatting to the children in the middle of the lesson!
Teachers plan lessons of course, but often they also need to adjust their teaching according to how students are responding in the moment.
For example, if I can see that a child hasn’t understood something I’ve said in a lesson, I’ll know that I need to go over that again. Real-time communication from the child makes this process possible, allowing more accurate teaching and therefore more learning. Unfortunately this is also something that just doesn’t happen in Zoom calls or Teams lessons or Google Meets for that matter.
There are obstacles that show up in both virtual and real-life classrooms though.
It’s just not practical to have every child in a class respond verbally at every stage of a discussion. Even with all the time and enthusiasm in the world, it would be boring and wouldn’t really benefit the class as a whole. Teachers do try to coordinate speakers fairly but inevitably more vocal children dominate conversation to some degree whilst quieter children speak less.
Sometimes in my class children desperately want to ‘tell me something’ but I have to draw a line when they start telling me about what they had for dinner last week or holding their finger right up to the camera to show me a new cut and relaying the story of where it came from in the middle of a lesson.
Asynchrony in online learning platforms
You might be a little (or a lot!) fed up with remote learning by now but you might also have noticed some new opportunities for expression and participation that kids wouldn’t have had back in the classroom. These opportunities have sprung, not from attempts to replicate the traditional classroom, but from a surge in the use of asynchronous channels of communication in distance learning.
From children posting and commenting in Google Classrooms, to uploading work on their digital portfolios on Class Dojo, to ‘student-paced’ interactive activities on Nearpod and Kahoot. Remote learners worldwide have embraced asynchrony as it has helped them to find their voice and be heard by their teacher and it’s clear that asynchrony isn’t to be played down in distance learning.
Thanks to the internet and the widespread access to technology, we are more synchronized than ever before. So how can asynchrony be beneficial?
Flipgrid for productive and inclusive online lessons
Flipgrid is an online learning platform where students post video responses to a class discussion, that is built entirely around the idea of asynchronous conversations. Flipgrid want to #empowereveryvoice and promote #studentvoice by making it easy and fun for students to respond in group discussions, or ‘grids’. They even celebrate #studentvoiceday each year on the 13th May - tomorrow!
Children get the time that they need to think through and plan their response, even feeling less pressure than they might have felt when asked to respond in class. This means they can focus and take their time coming up with their best thoughts and ideas, making a response that is as long (10 minutes) or as short (15 seconds) as they like!
Flipgrid, like many online learning platforms, makes students' contributions private to them and their teacher. This helps encourage those reluctant to respond or those feeling a little self-conscious and stops children from worrying about being ‘wrong’.
Students can be sure that their teacher can view or listen to their submissions properly and they benefit from personal feedback that is so much more meaningful than a quick “well done” or “good job” in class.
Remote learning has its downsides of course - an important one for me being the low levels of interaction between younger children and their classmates. This is where I think live video calls can come in, for non-structured social interaction time. Although for many of us at the moment distance learning is our only option, it’s definitely not going away anytime soon.
I think that the benefits that remote learning can offer outweigh the drawbacks and that actually many of children's remote learning struggles will go away with time and with (like most of their problems) continued nurturing and support from us, the grown-ups in our little learners' lives.
And if we take a step back from peering into the virtual classroom and have a look at the bigger picture of the world of children’s learning today it's increasingly clear that the asynchrony of remote learning is the key that gives anyone the power to learn anything, anytime, anywhere. Which is pretty amazing.
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