CAN CLASSROOM TEACHERS TEACH ONLINE?
By John Mason
Principal, ACS Distance Education www.acs.edu.au
Is there a skills gap in classroom teachers who are now conducting online training?
Classroom teachers being thrown into online learning have a steep learning curve to deliver effective online content and effective learning. How can they transition to this modality and continue to ensure students are motivated and participating in quality learning? Are traditional educational facilities equipped to deliver online learning?
Where are the gaps?
Given the recent and immediate demand for teachers who traditionally teach classes in a classroom or lecture setting, to an online environment, many teachers have been thrown in the deep end. The transition has not been a gradual shift, but rather an immediate demand, given the shutdown of many educational facilities during lockdowns. The question is, do traditional classroom teachers have the skillset required to deliver online learning and how can they make the transition smoother? What kind of skills will they need to deliver online learning more effectively?
Teaching in a classroom requires not only a different skillset, but also a different mindset, to what is needed for online teaching. To take a good classroom teacher and expect them to be a good online teacher, is akin to taking a good carpenter and expecting them to be a good furniture maker. Both may be highly skilled tradespeople, but that does not mean they can do each other’s jobs without more learning and development.
With experience, classroom teachers encounter daily challenges in a particular type of environment, in which they may communicate with students as much through body language as through verbal and written communication. The expertise of a teacher is improved in a classroom with years of experience. Good classroom teachers develop their teaching skills and build up a great repertoire of techniques to use in all the different classroom situations they encounter with experience. They learn to observe and interpret the reactions of students. They can detect students who need help and respond accordingly and promptly. They notice that some students may be more alert than others, and at times some students might display signs of stress or illness. They can intervene providing advice when needed. In a classroom though, a single teacher is challenged by needing to communicate directly with many different individuals with different needs, who all respond in different ways, each time they talk. Communication is one person to many people. Students cannot avoid participation if motivation is low. Teachers can detect low motivation, react and adjust what they are doing.
Teachers are trained to have a classroom mindset
They may be good at detecting problems and solving them by reading a student’s body language, and communicating face to face, but that just doesn’t translate to online education anymore than speaking in the French language translates to speaking in the English language.
Teachers in an online situation, however, are more likely:
- Communicating one to one, not one to many, as they do in a classroom
- Have lost the non-verbal cues that can help them see whether a student is motivated and engaged or disengaged and not-interested.
- Often working from a home environment rather than standing in a well equipped classroom in front of lots of students
- Using technology they may not be fully skilled or equipped to use.
- Working on different time-frames and perhaps not under the pressure of completing work at a particular time
- Often unable to react in real time to learning problems
- Will need to find different ways to communicate or demonstrate something that may be difficult for the student to understand.
- Communicating more with writing or videos, language needs to be straight and direct, so that it does not become misinterpreted.
Students in an online situation are:
- Will have to motivate themselves and manage their own time to study more.
- Able to avoid participation if they are less motivated or don’t understand the study materials.
- High risk of avoiding studying or dropping out if motivation drops too low.
- In their home environment; which for some students can be more comfortable, reducing stress, and making them more receptive to learning.
- Learning to use technology or web-platforms they may have previously used.
- Do not have the support or distractions of other students in the class.
- Less time sensitive
Online Learning Needs to be Different
Supporting classroom teachers transitioning to online learning should be supported by materials, systems and resources that are designed around online learning at a faculty or institutional level. Support for teachers in the transition should also be provided including timing and motivational techniques that are effective for use in online learning.
An online course can largely replicate the learning of a classroom course, but it must do it in different ways. For an online course, the study guide replaces the classes; and it needs to be seen exactly that way. Classroom teachers have an inbuilt tendency to view online study guides in the same way they view handouts, textbooks, or sometimes curriculum documents. They are none of these.
- Handouts, textbooks and curriculum documents are written materials that are used to provide information which the classroom teacher presents.
- Online study guides are instructions for students to follow. They need provide a sequence of learning experiences, orchestrated to optimise learning. A good study guide applies educational psychology so the student’s encounters with ideas and information is carefully managed and repeated in varied contexts, at predetermined points through the learning experience. Study guides reinforce, strengthen, broaden and deepen learning as the student progresses through them.
- Study guides will need to keep the student’s interest and motivation by offering information and interactive activities that encourages the student to keep progressing and continue with their studies.
Online teaching requires an intimate appreciation of how remote learning can work, the unique tools and techniques available to make online work, and the intended learning pathway which a student is following in their study guide.
Providing students with a one-way communication (you just talking at them- in the form of a study guide or a video) will be less motivating and will result in a less-engaged student. Where there is an opportunity for the student to ask questions and receive constructive feedback on the work they are doing (whether they are on the right track or need some more help), this will also encourage student motivation and engagement.
It takes time and commitment for a classroom teacher to reach their full potential as an online teacher. They must start by appreciating the massive differences in the two approaches to teaching. If they have an extensive understanding of educational psychology and a willingness to adapt, they may change faster; but for most classroom teacher, it may take twelve months or more to make a reasonable transition.