Your EZ lifeboat awaits

I asked, you answered. I heard you. Thank you to all who responded to my survey, I do so appreciate all the valuable feedback. By now many of you have figured out how to swim and stay afloat in these uncertain and hazardous online learning seas, but there are still lots of gaps, a variety of different needs and uncertainty. I won't promise to solve all of your problems, but in this article I hope to share some useful ideas. Use them, or lose them, as you wish. 

1. Get your kids connected
It's all very well talking about teaching online, but do all your kids have access? Devices and data or WiFi are something many of us take for granted, but I know some of you are teaching in an environment where this is not a given. This is probably the most difficult obstacle. Fortunately, smart phones are more easily available than in the past, and data providers have lowered their rates during lockdown. This helps, but there are still gaps. It is vitally important that you are aware of which of your students are struggling to connect, and figure out some way for them to stay in touch.

  • Perhaps students who live close to each other could share devices in pairs or small groups.
  • Try to keep your content as small as possible, by sharing links rather than entire attachments, especially for videos. 
  • Make your content accessible at any time so that learning can be more flexible. If you have a live lesson, record it so that it can be watched later (using a link).

2. Create your space

You need a virtual space to communicate with your students and set out the material they will need. There are a number of options available, and your choice will depend on your personal preference and / or your school's platform of choice. 

  • My personal favourite is Google Classroom for its versatility as a result of being specifically designed for teaching.  It allows for material to be set up within different topics, and in different formats. Attachments can be documents, links, YouTube videos and quizzes (using Google Forms). Documents can even be set to be editable by students as a group or individually, using Google Drive. Assignments can be given specific due dates and times if this option is selected. Work can be marked in the Classroom mobile app, and marks (grades) can be allocated and work returned. If you set work as quizzes using Google Forms, they can be marked automatically, giving students instant feedback in both results and explanations of why they got something wrong. Grades are tracked for each student, and different weightings can be allocated for different grade categories if you choose to set them. If using Classroom as a school it is even possible to set up daily or weekly summaries for parents to keep them updated with any work outstanding or due.
  • Microsoft Teams is mostly used by businesses but can also be used in the school environment. Some schools have chosen to go this route, especially if they are a Microsoft showcase school. Channels can be used for different topics, and most of the material that can be posted in Classroom can be posted here. It is also possible to set assignments with deadlines, and have face-to-face Meetings from within Teams. I don't find it quite as teacher-friendly, though.
  • WhatsApp (and Telegram) groups are a wonderful way of staying in touch with your students, and even for sharing material - pictures, videos and even documents can be shared. However, it really does depend on the ethos and policies of your school, and how happy you are for them to have your number. It is a very personal form of communication, and so it is vital that your students are also comfortable with you having their numbers. I always make it optional, and invite them to join my group if they would like to. Inevitably, they all do. Students can then ask questions when they are stuck and if I am unable to answer immediately, a classmate can. As long as the group is not abused, the conversations can be extremely beneficial to everyone. Strict rules around posting times etc. do need to be specified. I often find that students who might be too shy to speak in class or even via Classroom are much more comfortable chatting on a group like this. 

3. Teach

There are a variety of ways in which you can present your lesson. Of course, you can type out instructions and set assignments in Classroom, but you may want to explain something in person, and perhaps interact with your students. There are numerous face-to-face platforms which can be used, allowing you to teach but also take questions and interact with your students. Screen sharing is a lovely feature which many people are unaware of - basically it involves your students seeing your computer screen instead of your face. This is wonderful when you want to use presentation slides, demonstrate something or work through an example with them. Keep in mind that these platforms generally require quite a lot of bandwidth, which can be problematic, especially if students are sharing WiFi with others in the family working or studying from home. Too many students sharing videos can slow things down, so you might like to ask them to witch cameras off. However, I find that I much prefer seeing students' faces when I teach them. If you have a larger class, you could randomly select a few kids each day to keep cameras on, so that you can see them all over time. You can also experiment with whether or not you'd like their mics muted or not. 

  • Skype has been around for a long time, and does the job.
  • Google Hangouts (like Google Meet) works well with Classroom, and lessons set up in Calendar (in the Classwork tab) can be set up automatically as a Hangout. I have used it successfully for a few years.
  • Teams Meetings can be held from within Teams, which is convenient.
  •  Zoom is the most recent addition, and arguably the most capable. It has now become my favourite. Firstly, because when I share my screen, students can still see my face. This means that when I teach with my hands (as I always do) they don't miss out. I can also see them. Secondly, because apparently it uses less bandwidth than both Skype and Hangouts, so works even when the others don't. Thirdly, because I can set my classes (meetings) to automatically record. Although it is possible to use any screen recording program while using Skype or Hangouts, it is lovely to be able to control a recording within Zoom, and if set automatically I don't even have to worry about remembering to record. The video (or preferably a link to where you have saved it) can then be posted later for anyone who might have missed the lesson for any reason. Fourthly, it is possible to schedule meetings linked to any type of calendar, with a variety of settings to ensure privacy and safety for you and your students e.g. a waiting room where only the host can admit people so that you never have to have uninvited guests. Lastly, Zoom allows the host control over all the attendees (students) e.g. if they are too noisy they can be muted, or even sent to the 'waiting room' if necessary for some time (they can then watch the recording later so they don't miss out on teaching). The only disadvantage of Zoom is that if you don't have a subscription, your meeting with more than 3 people will end after 40 minutes. However, kids can only concentrate for so long, and interestingly it is possible to rejoin the meeting using the same link immediately after being kicked out if necessary. 
  • WhatsApp group voice and video calls are now also possible for up to 8 people, which is great for small group discussions. 
4. Assess them

The opportunities for a variety of different assessments are endless, and need not require much time from you. If you are clever in your planning, you may even find you have to mark less than before.

  • QuizletKahoot and a number of other crossword and puzzle creation sites are available  for kids to learn and revise concepts and terminology. Although these won't always (but sometimes do) give you actual marks to use, they are a fun way of getting kids to engage with the work. I find them especially beneficial towards the end of a section, before a test.
  • Quizzes which mark themselves can be created using Google Forms (even from directly inside Classroom). Simply ensure that you have set the Form as a quiz in settings (cogwheel top right of the screen, then quizzes tab on right). You can then allocate a mark allocation and answer for each question, and even give feedback for each wrong answer so that kids can learn from their mistakes as soon as they have finished the quiz. Questions can be set as multiple choice, checkbox (for more than one correct answer), short answers and paragraphs. Only paragraphs cannot be marked automatically. Add-ons in Forms are possible to allocate a set time limit (e.g. Form Presenter) and a variety of other functions.  
  • Some work cannot easily be set and marked as a quiz. However, I am a firm believer that it is important for kids to learn to assess themselves. I find this especially beneficial in Accounting, as students can then see their mistakes and learn from them immediately. You will need to take a little time to discuss the importance of self-discipline with them, or have them send you evidence of their work before you send them the solutions to mark it. They can then submit their marked work for you to moderate. You will need to check it carefully at first and take some time to give them feedback both about their answers and their marking, but in time they will do better, and you will also get to know which students' work needs to be more carefully checked. They can either work on paper and then scan or take a photo to submit, or work on a PDF using Adobe Fill&Sign (a free function found in the right margin when using Adobe Reader). I keep a record of all their marks, although when calculating a term mark I obviously don't weight these formative assessments them as much as the summative assessments (tests). It is possible to keep track of numerous assessments in Classroom, and the more you use, the more valid the overall result will be.
  • The tricky part, of course, is how to ensure the validity of formal tests. I would argue that it is quite possible to complete summative assessments online, but with a combination of clever tricks up your sleeve. They will look quite different to the traditional tests that you and your kids will be used to, and you will probably need to experiment until you get it right. Here are some of the obvious threats to validity, and suggestions you can play with:
    • The most obvious risk is that of kids referring to notes. Make the test open book, and focus on skills rather than content. This is more realistic in this day and age anyway, as in real life one can use a Google search to discover any information they need. More importantly, kids need to be able to use this information correctly. So let them access the information however they like, but get them to demonstrate creative application. 
    • Set a time limit by setting the Classroom due date with a time, or with a Forms Add-on such as Form Presenter. This will require kids to have a thorough understanding of their content  in order to be able to use it quickly enough. 
    • To overcome the problem of kids chatting to each other during the test via a video call on their phone, shuffle the questions in your Google Form settings. Combined with a time limit, they will then be unable to collaborate as they will have to answer the questions in a different order. 
    • It is possible to invigilate the class during the test if you have a Zoom (or other) while they take the test, require them to have their videos and mics on, and record the test. This won't stop them checking notes they might stick above their screen where you can't see, but it will stop them talking to each other.  
    • You could require parents to 'invigilate'. This would need to then be at any time that suits the parent on a particular day, using a Google Form that can only be opened and submitted once, within a time limit. The parent could sign a form to the effect that the student completed the test on their own, without referring to notes, or whatever your requirements are. Alternatively, if you don't think parents will be able to monitor them closely enough, you could appeal to the ethics of the students and parents, and have students sign a form to say that they have completed it honestly (as Grade 12s do for their portfolios), and a parent signature to verify that they were aware that the test was being written. 

5. Stay in touch
It is difficult enough trying to keep kids focused in a real classroom, and obviously at a distance is even tougher. The weaker students are usually the ones most at risk of getting lost. I like to make a point of checking that I have had some form of work or communication from each student each week.

  • You can use a weekly check-in Form in your Classroom, or even simply request a simple private comment from each student on how they are feeling about their work that week.
  • If you haven't heard from some students, you target them privately to get a response. Use private comments in Classroom, e-mail them or even WhatsApp them directly. I find the last the most effective, as it feels more personal to them. You can use the same message copied and pasted so that it does not take too much time - something simple like, 'I haven't heard from you this week, are you ok?' or 'I haven't received your assignment, do you need help?'. Phrasing it with a question will usually entice a response, and as soon as they reply, you can engage constructively with them. 

6. Troubleshooting
Working electronically, by its very nature, will result in problems. However, this doesn't mean that you need to give up, even in the middle of a lesson. Here are a few tricks to keep the learning going. 

  • Students might log on and not be able to hear you, nor you them. Obviously, first get them to check their settings as thy might have unwittingly muted themselves or switched their video off (check yours, too!). If the problem is something else, let them figure it out later, and in the meantime call them via WhatsApp and put your phone, on speaker, near the mic of your device. They will then be able to be heard by everyone, and will hear everyone through your device. 
  • If students are struggling to upload an assignment in Classroom, let them take a photo on their phone and WhatsApp it to you. Obviously you don't want them all to do this often, but it can solve a short-term problem quickly. You can also send material to all the students like this if you need to, and have set up a group.
  • Something will go wrong. If not now, then later. Learn to be flexible, and train your brain to think of alternatives while you work. In time, adaptability will become a skill all of its own. It really doesn't need to be as scary as it seems. Who knows, you may even start to have lots of fun! Learn to play. 

7. EZ Teach Classrooms
If this is all still too daunting, or you would just like access to some ready-made lessons and quizzes, I am developing a set of Classrooms from which you can easily repost the lessons and material to your own class space. The Classrooms are designed to work in conjunction with the EZ Learning and revision guides but can also be used independently.  

Join the EZ Teach EMS8 sample Classroom using the code x2jfvfg in Google Classroom with your personal Gmail account (sadly G Suite school accounts won't work, as they are set up without access to other accounts for the safety of your learners).

Have fun playing with all these new toys! And remember, I'm happy to help.