For the last few weeks, almost everything on just about every teaching website has given much attention to online teaching and it’s been great.
The latest HLT magazine, for instance, has a new section dedicated to ‘Teaching in Coronavirus times’. On the one hand, all this attention to the new skills teachers need for online teaching is justified, and welcome. We have all (have we not?) been worrying about whether to go synchronous or asynchronous, how to assess learning, and whether or not Zoom is our best option.
Back to normal?
On the other hand, there is a sense that we are just treading water while we wait for a return to normality. Parents and schools (and governments) have been slow in some instances to take up online education. There is evidence that some students don’t want to learn online. Besides, schools open again soon, and we can all just forget about online teaching and get back to work as we all know it.
That things may go back to normal seems like an attractive outcome to me. I’ve been teaching for around 30 years, and I’m pretty familiar with desks and chairs and students in a room. Gee, under a tree will do! Add a whiteboard and a coursebook, and I’m ready for some serious classroom action!
However, it seems increasingly unlikely that we will be going back to ‘normal’. Somehow these last few months will leave at least some indelible marks on our profession.
First of all, there is word that the Coronaviris (and its attendant panic) is not just going to just go away, and schools are a natural epicenter for a community’s fear. Any school (or teacher, or government) that has not made at least some effort towards online learning to offset this new reality stands the risk of being ostracized, or maybe just left behind as the future sweeps across the educational screenscape.
Second, the lockdown is likely to have some effect on the way the stakeholders in education (parents, especially) will behave – what is called the effects of forced experimentation.
In January 2014, workers on London’s underground network went on strike, leaving Tube stations closed and commuters stranded for nearly a month. During this period, commuters were forced to explore alternative routes. When the strike ended, it was expected that commuters would take up their default commuting pattern, but many didn’t. The period during which habitual patterns were upset led commuters to experiment with new routes and some apparently discovered more efficient alternatives.
Forced experimentation, like the teaching that we have engaged in during the lock down, helps uncover inefficient habits which are otherwise left unconsidered. The problems caused by habitual sub-optimal behavior patterns on efficiency in a system has been a focus of interest in economics for a long time (like this 1955 paper by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, or Michael Porter’s hypothesis that imposed constraints enhance a system’s efficiency).
If the research on forced experimentation generalizes to the Covid-19-imposed break in our educational routine, we may find that our dabbling with online education has changed the way people think about computers as a medium for teaching and learning.
It’s possible that teaching, as we knew it in January 2020, may never be the same again. If that’s the case, then we have a real reason to read all these sites offering help and advice so that we don’t get left behind.
We will have to stay in touch with all the Zooms and Flipgrids and Quizlets in their various forms as they come and go, find ways to integrate forvo or raz-kids, reimagine ‘managing our classrooms’ as ‘motivating our students’, and learn how to humanize our teaching through the medium of a computer screen.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.