Teaching and Learning

Tooling Up to Teach Online

Zac raises some points to consider when thinking about bringing learning tools into online teaching. What questions should educators ask when choosing tools?

The game has changed!

How do you move from the comfort of familiar surroundings, in your institution teaching spaces, to spaces that are normally reserved for family, downtime and anything-but teaching? Equipping ourselves with the right tools can make a big difference.  Below are some thoughts on how to find and choose tools to connect and engage students.

As many of us find ourselves in new styles of working, the game has changed. Even for those of us who usually work from home, it feels very different to have everyone else home too!

Lockdown comes to our streets and homes

How are we, as a sector, developing our practices around using digital to enhance, underpin or facilitate the learning that our students are having to do in their homes?

For educators, in many circumstances, the content being taught hasn’t changed and the learning outcomes remain the same.  But the way in which educators are being asked to deliver their teaching has been dramatically shifted into a new medium.  Key characteristics of university and college life like face to face contact and the normal ‘student experience’ are currently on hold.

Staff are now in a new territory of relying on their ability to deliver through digital means.

The new skills teaching staff and institutions in our sector are taking on, means that there is a great opportunity.   This opportunity is to develop confidence and more robust practices around using digital in teaching and learning.  Investing time and effort into overcoming these challenges can open doors to tools and techniques that can be a part of a more dynamic experience. For both learners and educators in the future.

Time is not a commodity easily found at the best of times.  New pressures with the Covid-19 situation may lessen the time available considerably. But, as with all aspects of delivering content, careful thought and planning should be given to how and why a method of delivery is chosen.

What’s in the Tool Box?

Many organisations will have an array of supported tools that are available. These can be used safely and securely within the VLE or other organisational platforms.  It is a good idea for educators to explore what tools are available from within their organisations first.  What elements of the VLE have you not explored? Ask your colleagues and learning technologists if there are examples of good practice.  Those organisations who have been delivering successful ‘distance learning’ programmes already will have good experiences to share.

tool box full of tools
What tools to pick? What job does it need to do?

When looking for something to expand teaching further, 3rd party tools can offer creativity in developing the curriculum.  Some allow incredible engagement opportunities.  With the right planning, the learning with these tools can be very effective.  Expanding the opportunities for students to learn in a more engaging and/or collaborative way with delivery online, as well as when the sector returns to welcoming students back on campus.

How do you decide which one to use?  It can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, or in fact, a needle in a stack of needles. Especially for those who haven’t been engaged in developing digital elements in their teaching before coronavirus.

There are various sites that list tools for educational use.  Top Tools for Learning, for example, offers a list of the most common tools based on recommendations from practitioners and is updated each year.

A good fit

An array of carpenter's tools on the wall
Which is the right tool to do the job?

Curriculum design is an important element of any learning and teaching planning.  This shouldn’t be overlooked when implementing digital tools.  The Covid-19 circumstance has forced the sector into this model, but poor planning of introducing tools could be counter-productive to the learning.  There should be good reason for any tool use.  Not just because it is digital.

The important rule to remember is: what do I need the tool to do? Knowing what you are looking for in a tool can help create a shortlist rather than searching without a proper aim.  It is also important to find a tool that is a good fit for the job you are looking to fulfil. Be aware of changing the learning to fit around a tool.  Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Avoid using tools for roles that they weren’t designed for.  A square peg in a round hole leaves gaps.

As an example, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Hangouts have been widely praised in this crisis.  The best tools for collaborating and allowing students to work together maybe a great way to encourage engagement.  There are many wellbeing positives to acknowledge in group work.  But if the curriculum is not designed around it, then the learning could feel clunky.  Group activities may not be the best fit for particular learning outcomes.  In the Jisc Digital Insights survey from students, around a quarter of students (FE 29%, HE 24%) said they had never worked online with others. So, jumping straight into group activities because the most popular tools are geared for it, without proper planning or learner support, could be a less effective experience for students.

Any tool is ok?

It is worth considering how the tool is to be used with students.  Not all tools and platforms are as reliable as we would like.  If investing a lot of time into planning and preparing content, it is worth having a backup in mind.  Third party tools are outside of your organisation.  The content and data within are not owned by the organisation.  If a service is changed, dropped or disappears without warning, what does that mean for all that planning. PDF documents can be called upon if a tool fails to perform as expected.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to plan a session to find that the content is inaccessible or even worse, no trace at all on the day of delivery.

It is also worth considering the policies an institution has on third party tools.  It is vital that a tool used complies with all the policies of the institution.  In many of the VLE reviews I have run across the sector in both HE and FE, I have seen that clear policies can make robust foundations of understanding what an educator needs to bear in mind when using third party tools.

Those organisational policies will be purposely written to check that students, staff and the institution itself are not put at risk.

  • Is the tool GDPR compliant?
  • Does it comply with accessibility standards?
  • Who owns the data?
  • What action can be taken if there is an incident? eg. Bullying or wellbeing

It is not acceptable for educators to use tools where they are unaware if they comply with the organisational policies.

It has always been necessary, not only in the model of teaching and learning from home, that safe use of third party tools is essential.

Fine tune for future use

Should we revert back to old ways when things return to ‘normal’?

As Chris Thomson writes in a previous blog post: After the emergency: what happens after lockdown ends?

“Take the time to recognise what people have achieved. The solutions to the crisis will have been imperfect, but we need to acknowledge the collective effort that went into responding so quickly and in such radical ways.”

It will be a shame to see such effort to expand skills and digital practice be scrubbed out if old habits return to practice.

Listening to other educators around the use of digital in their teaching, comparing with personal experiences and asking the students to feedback on their learning experiences will be key in developing sturdy frameworks that can be embedded in practice.  If in a position of leadership, how can these experiences be used to effect change at a departmental or organisational level?

Investing time and effort into overcoming the challenges of CV-19 will open doors to tools and techniques that can be a part of a more dynamic experience. For both learners and educators in the future.

By Zac Gribble

Subject Specialist - Digital Practice (platforms). I've worked in HE for over 10 years as a developer and leader in eLearning before joining Jisc. From working with students through to senior management, my passion for digital tools and user/student experience has played a huge role in this adventure. I'm a big user of technology in music as well as learning, design and developing. I'm just as happy to chat about sounds, microphones and hearing through spine conductivity for drummers!

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