Thursday, January 21, 2021

Turn down the volume - Silence as a vital element in online teaching

How silent are your online classes and meetings? Probably not at all. We fill our synchronous meetings with talk and noise and feel awkward when no one wants to speak. But silence can help communication and stimulate reflection and has an important role to play both in the physical and digital classroom. In classroom teaching we often ask the students to work silently for a while but somehow in online sessions we feel the need to fill every moment with activity. After all the hectic online meetings and classes of the past year it's time to think more about how we can refine our online meeting skills and learn to embrace the power of silence. I've written about this theme several times in the past but it's always worth revisiting.

The simplest use of silence is to ask the class to switch off their microphones and cameras and spend a few minutes writing ideas on paper before starting a discussion. In this way all participants must try to formulate their ideas and everyone has something to say in the following discussion. For example, after such a silence they can be put into pairs in breakout groups where each person reads or explains what they have written in silence. Then they can form larger groups for a more structured task. In this way, everyone has contributed to the activity, not just those who raise their hands and are not afraid of speaking.

The concept of silent meetings has been around for some time in the business world, as explained in an article in The startup by David GascaThe Silent Meeting Manifesto v1: Making meeting suck a little less. This was designed for on-site meetings but can apply equally well to online meetings and even in education. The idea is to start a meeting by letting the participants read a short document (3-4 pages) outlining the topic for the main discussion and spending the first half of the meeting silently reading and commenting on the document using a collaborative tool such as Google Drive or Office 365 etc. Everyone can comment and reply to comments and there is often a very high level of activity even if the room is silent except for the pitter-patter of keyboards. The moderator or teacher monitors these comments and identifies the main points to be discussed when the "noisy" part of the meeting commences. In this way everyone has actively contributed to the discussion instead of only the most vocal members. The moderator's job is not easy especially if there are lots of comments and discussion in the document so you have to follow the comments very closely and try to narrow down the points of discussion. This could of course be achieved before the meeting as part of a flipped classroom approach but as we all know it is very rare that everyone gets involved in this way and there will always be participants who turn up without having had time to prepare. This way everyone is on the same page from the start.

I have tried this in some classes asking the students to write ideas and reflections on a shared document during an online lesson and it is always a fascinating experience. No cameras or microphones but lots of writing and you see the discussion in real time as the page gets quickly covered in comments in different colours. As a teacher this gives you time to identify themes for discussion later on or misunderstandings that require explanation. Most importantly you can see that everyone is contributing, in contrast to a regular speech-based discussion. A similar approach to silent meetings in education is described in an article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationTo Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting’. An added value of the method is that the collaborative document becomes a useful resource for the students and teacher after the class is over and the discussions and comments on the document can continue for days afterwards.

The students’ notes in the silent-meeting documents offer a transcript we could return to for guidance and inspiration as we prepared for exams, developed paper ideas, and guided future discussions. Threads in the margins of the main discussion often invited further exploration, as students noted areas of the course material that they found interesting and wanted to explore further. This record from the silent meetings was at once a set of discussion notes for students and a built-in survey for me as I sought to understand what excited students about the course.

Of course this method is not always appropriate but there are surely many other ways of using silence in online meetings. It's really about creating balance in our meetings, reducing stress and giving people space to think. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Radio as an educational lifeline for those without internet access

Living in a developed country like Sweden it is so easy to take internet access and ownership of digital devices for granted, but in many parts of the world the majority of the population has neither. In times of crisis when schools and colleges are forced to close there must be other channels for education that are accessible to as many pupils and students as possible. Broadcast media are an often forgotten channel for education in edtech discussions but are still thriving all over the world. For example, in the UK the BBC has recently increased its educational broadcasting to support schools during the lockdown (Guardian: BBC to expand educational shows in response to UK Covid lockdown). Many open universities around the world broadcast educational programmes on state or private television and radio channels, both as part of their regular courses but also as a service to lifelong learning since the programmes are freely accessible to everyone with a radio or television.

The value of radio for education is shown in an article on Rest of world, Why radio stations may be the real “e-learning” revolution. It describes how radio is used to provide teaching when schools are closed due to the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa over 85% of households lack internet access and many have no reliable electricity supply so even if there are many initiatives offering online education it is simply inaccessible for the majority. On the other hand most people have some kind of battery radio and can therefore benefit from school broadcasting.

In both urban and rural areas, battery-operated radios broadcast information to entire households. As cheap as $5, a radio is less energy-intensive than a television and can be shared more easily than a smartphone. The infrastructure was already there. All that educators needed was to adapt content.

Teachers have been busy broadcasting on existing channels or creating new radio channels and some are also offering educational content to mobile phones via sms. The response has been impressive and in Sierra Leone 58% of pupils listened five days a week.

Mary Phiri, a 36-year-old farmer in Joel Village in eastern Zambia, has five children in grades two to 12. Her work keeps her so busy that making sure her kids continued their schooling during the pandemic had to be a family-wide effort. Her older children would also tune in to assist their younger sibling with her schoolwork. With radio lessons, her children, normally shy at school, could ask their parents or siblings the difficult questions that might have gone unasked in the classroom.
Even in developed countries we should not underestimate the power of broadcast media in both formal education and lifelong learning. The future of education will involve a blend of both digital and traditional methods and we need to ensure that noone is excluded. Radio still has a lot to contribute!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Learning together - the importance of ice-breakers in online learning

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Developing social connections and a sense of community in education has never been more important as most of us head into yet another term of online teaching. I've written before about the importance of the spaces in between the lectures, workshops and discussions; the spaces for developing relationships and a sense of common purpose that is normally achieved in the corridors, cafes and parks of the physical campus. This can be done online but it requires effort and attention.

I was inspired this week by a blog post by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Self-affirming Icebreakers, where she examines the value of simple ice-breaking activities to help students connect with each other and build that community feeling. It is not enough just to ask students to introduce themselves with the usual CV details, we need to reveal something personal and meaningful. The teacher's role here is crucial and she recommends sharing something personal to create a sense of shared vulnerability and inviting students to do likewise. This could take the form of sharing a photo of an object that has meaning for you and explaining why. Or recording a short introduction video taken at a location that you love (favourite cafe/park/view). She views this as a kind of collective effervescence, where a common thought or emotion forms a common bond. But it is essential that the teacher takes the first step in this to show that revealing a certain degree of vulnerability is acceptable.

I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans.

By sharing something personal we can begin to relate to each other as people rather than as students and teachers in an educational setting. This helps build a group solidarity that is essential for collaborative learning and shifts the focus towards helping each other to achieve the learning objectives rather than competing to get the best grades. But such ice-breaking activities are not only useful at the start of the course, they need to be a regular feature. to compensate for the isolation of lockdown learning we need to offer more opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to interact and build the community outside the confines of the curriculum.

Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.