I sighed as I sat down at my kitchen table. To my left, a fresh cup of coffee, to my right stacks of textbooks, in front of me a fully charged Microsoft Surface Pro. Right, let’s do this! My fingers hovered uncertainly over my keyboard as I perused my notes and carefully formulated plan for the day. It was Friday 13th March and I was about to enter in to my first official day of ‘online teaching’.
Though, to be fair, that would be to do myself and my colleagues a disservice. It wasn’t that I hadn’t previously used technology with my classes. I had even set up groups of students on Microsoft Teams prior to now, and often used online resources as an accompaniment to my teaching – but, as a medium for teaching? As sole access to my students? In the place of the classroom? I was certainly delving deeper, diving further into water that I had only previously paddled in. Nervous, but also excited, I took a deep breath and began.
As I look back now at the last few weeks, I think it is fair to say that it has been a steep learning curve. Adapting and creating resources to allow for more student-led learning, while also talking students through processes such as how to attach a document or submit an assignment (bearing in mind they are using devices as diverse as smartphones, tablets and laptops with different layouts/operating systems etc.). Meanwhile wondering if that student who hasn’t interacted with any of your carefully curated resources is a ‘can’t do’ or ‘won’t do”, means that I entered the Easter Holidays emotionally and mentally drained but also somewhat proud of my profession and the potential that I see arising out of all this chaos.
First of all, let’s look at and celebrate the good. Book companies, often seen at this time of year in staffrooms pitching their latest textbooks and resources, have stepped up their game, giving in certain circumstances unlimited access to their electronic textbooks to both staff and students around the country,. This has allowed teachers and students to be both literally and figuratively on the same page as they negotiate this new and unfamiliar terrain. This of course raises the issue as to whether we need to examine educational resources as a whole after this crises is over. While I am all for copyright and understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of academic property, we do need to look at who the gatekeepers are for this property and who the key holders are. Education, after all, should be attainable and accessible to all. How can we improve this provision going forward for the benefit of not just learners but educators the world over?
Collaboration between colleagues, while always a key part of our profession, has proved key in supporting both teachers and students. Never have I had such a wide variety of resources made available to me, not just from my colleagues at school, but from those further afield through online platforms as diverse as Scoilnet, Tes and Facebook, to name but a few. The Professional Development Service for Teachers has launched workshops and tutorials for teachers. Even RTE (Irish TV Station) has got onboard by announcing a schedule of airings of Shakespeare’s most popular works and their Home School Hub offering aimed at primary schools. If I am stuck with a particular technology related issue, a quick post on the staff Team’s page for my school will usually get a multitude of responses/screencasts/ offers of help. There is a lot to celebrate in this new and uncertain world of online education.
No doubt there are pitfalls - unequal access to technology and resources for both teachers and students, parents unable to support their children, broadband blackspots, unsuitable study environments, working from home while also caring for children. I could go on and on. It is not an ideal world and, in my darker musings, as I struggle to upload a particular resource or to make a particular piece of technology work for me, I wonder if some of the investment, or lack thereof, in education in recent years could have been better directed? Instead of endless seminars and webinars on the uses of Padlet and Kahoot (two very useful apps by the way, but they are definitely mentioned at almost every CPD I’ve attended in recent years), perhaps we should instead be teaching teachers and students alike how to condense files, pre-record presentations and interact through online platforms? I, like many teachers, have sat through numerous presentations on GDPR, internet safety and various concerns around it. These tend to be, not quite scaremongering in nature, but certainly leave many of us, particularly the less digitally literate, almost fearful of the digital world and all of its perceived pitfalls. The focus of training needs to change. Teachers need to become digitally literate in terms of the basics of data privacy and security so that they, themselves, can make, and be trusted to make, sound judgements in relation to online learning material. The student too, should not be forgotten in this journey, how can our students be guided more towards a greater level of digital literacy, such that they will be able to contribute to their own learning going forward? Simply ‘Googling’ a term or using Wikipedia as a basis for a classroom assignment is not enough. We need to train our young people, as well as our educators, to become discerning digital consumers, to be able to verify sources, to fully understand both the said and the unsaid online. I hope that when this chaos ends and we are back to ‘normal’, whatever and whenever that may be, that we learn from this experience, applaud our successes but equally, learn from our failures and seek to create a world where the provision of online education can work in tandem with our in-classroom work and ethics.