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Moving your classroom online - choose the digital learning approaches that best suit you and your students

Online education, much like digital marketing, is not a one-size-fits-all thing but consists of a near-endless list of options which must be wrangled into an offering in order to delight clients. We look at the initial decisions you need to make.

There has been a leap to online teaching in ELT as the pandemic bites and schools are no longer able to offer face-to-face teaching and the experiential model that has served so well.

There’s talk of air bridges and schools beginning to plan to possibly think about maybe opening classrooms again but there’s no doubt that the volume isn’t going to flood back in the near future - and that digital alternatives are going to be a key part of the future landscape in this industry.

Many schools are already developing online offerings and while that jump to digital has been impressive in its alacrity, there’s a sense of make-do as schools get used to technology and build up reserves of content. For many, it has been a triumph of improvisation and innovation over genuine understanding.

And that’s fine, for now. But in the long run, schools are going to need to make decisions about what kind of online learning they want to offer, and to make sure their curriculum, and their staff, are aligned to that.

The first choice is, on the surface, a simple, binary one:

Synchronous or asynchronous online learning?

Synchronous learning is where students gather together in real-time on a suitable platform (Microsoft Teams or Zoom perhaps) and simulate the classroom as much as is possible. If students have not travelled to co-locate, then there’s possible issues of timezones, availability, bandwidth in the home, and so on. But it most closely resembles what both students and teachers are used to. Real-time synchronous online learning often involves online chats and videoconferencing, as these tools allow students and teachers to ask and answer questions instantly while being able to communicate with the other participants. It helps tackle some of the issues of digital learning - the potential social isolation of the student and poor student/teacher relationships by mimicking, so far as is possible, the classroom experience.

Asynchronous online learning, on the other hand, is student-directed, self-paced learning, where content is online and students use it on a pause-and-resume basis. It gives autonomy to the student, and they need to have the maturity to drive their own learning, and it requires enough content for them to be able to do so.

In truth, while these may be opposites, it’s likely that any digital offering includes parts where students learning together and times when they learn apart. It’s not necessarily and ideological matter.

After that, there’s a number of different approaches. Pedagogical purists may whimper at this point, but cherry-picking aspects of these approaches to match your own organisation’s skills and capacity is fine. These are alternative approaches which may be best seen as part of a spectrum. For some schools, it’s a question of building the ability to move from, for example, fixed to adaptive learning. For others it may be a pick and mix approach for different topics or products. So find what suits you and your students, but bear these approaches in mind:

Fixed or adaptive online learning?

Fixed online learning - The ‘fixed’ element is simply that the content/curriculum using in teaching doesn’t change, and all the students get the same information. It’s easier to manage for teachers as all the materials are predetermined before the start of a course, but that means it doesn’t adapt well to individual student needs or preferences, nor does it allow for teaching in context - lessons based around a particular situation or new for example.

Again, it mimics the traditional classroom where teachers would wade through a curriculum and it’s easier for schools just beginning on the digitisation process since it allows them to concentrate on delivery and platform, rather than content. It doesn’t allow for the flexibility of the medium or for teachers to use assessment data, for example, to personalise learning and allow students to drive forward at different paces. That individualised learning may be Phase 2 for some schools, and the fixed approach might be entry-level stuff.

Adaptive online learning - So once you’re ready to up your game, adaptive learning is the next step. The aim is to use student data to adapt the content or pace of learning to maximise the opportunity. So taking assessment data and the abilities and skills that would indicate, alongside students goals and personal characteristics, it allows for individualised, student-focussed learning.

It is, of course, much more complex, and requires good data collection and, naturally, the ability to analyse that data. Sometimes it’s more intuitive - ‘George likes tennis so I’ll use that as the basis for a learning conversation’, rather the analytical ‘the data shows George performs well on these tasks but not these’, and it may be that you begin with the more informal intuitive approach and build up the bank of data and the ability to utilise it to drive ever more individualised learning.

Linear to interactive online learning

These are (obviously) two things, but the move from one to the other is worth noting. Linear digital learning is akin to watching TV. Information is broadcast to students who passively lap it up, or not. It has a place for learning facts and processes, but not necessarily in explaining them. But it is useful in the wider context of flipped classrooms where the learning of ‘facts’ takes place away from the class and the analysis and understanding is demonstrated in a tutorial process inside the room.

Interactive digital learning, on the other hand, allows for two-way communication - using different platforms (from Teams to Slack to Zoom to email….) to create a to-and-fro between teacher and student. It is, in short, creating the ability to have a conversation online in order to facilitate understanding.

Individual and collaborative online learning

Again, these are different, but two sides of a coin. Individual learning is the process by which students use digital learning on their own. At some point, all students will learn/teach themselves solo. This is not about personalisation but about those times when students are set up to research and deliver projects by themselves, and about the level of guidance and support they are given. Are they set a range of content to work from, or pointed at Google? And at what point do you intervene?

It doesn’t support teamwork and communication between students, so collaborative digital learning can also be part of the mix. Here, groups of students work together online to achieve their objectives together. It involves teamwork and good platforms (and good privacy processes), but allows students to learn from each other and, in small ways, helps replicate those friendships and networks that are such a part of the traditional offering.

In truth, it doesn’t matter what label you give your approach, but it does help to understand the decisions you have to make about your digital products and services and the skills and capacity you’ll require for each. The complexity and nuance of your online offering will change as your team’s skillsets adapt, but if you’re taking your first steps in the market, these can be signposts for your journey.

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