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Augmenting Online Learning

With cross pollination as the driver and technology as the catalyst!

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In September, I had looked at how cross pollination can be a powerful driver for deep, meaningful learning that traverses domains and boundaries. In this article, I will discuss how cross pollination can augment online learning environments and how we can equip our teachers and learners to thrive in such an environment. To understand what online learning is we must first understand what the role of technology in education is. If technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes then online learning is partly powered by machines and equipment developed from that scientific knowledge. However, we should bear in mind that there have been similar forms of Technology-enabled learning environments in the past. The invention of writing, be it on a scroll or early forms of paper, would have been a technological revolution of the times. So would have been the printing press, the radio, the television and the projector. When textbooks first came into being, the prevalent thought process was that the newly minted textbooks would replace teachers. When television came, the inventors believed that television, for sure, would replace both textbooks and teachers. And in our times, some of us believe that the internet and robots could replace teachers and deliver the educational outcomes we desire.

That is not going to happen. Technology can only augment our capabilities. We cannot expect technology to solely do the heavy lifting because it lacks the context, skills, processes and experiences. Advances in Machine Learning have ensured that technology is significantly better than what it was a decade ago and a decade from now it will get even better. That does not mean that we hand over the reins and sit back. Even if technology begins to fathom the context we will need to use our understanding of the bigger picture and interconnectedness and interdependence to advance progress. The danger of leaving technology to drive progress while humans sit back would mean that the machines keep learning and we don’t. This brings me to the point that having quality teachers who are constantly in active learning mode is crucial for driving progress.

Teachers have one of the most challenging jobs I can think of and the profession has taken on a whole new dimension in the post pandemic world. But it is also equally rewarding to be an educator. We, as educators, have the privilege to support individuals in their journey of discovery of themselves and the world around them and, in the process, grow our own understanding. Alternately stated, all young people have an innate potential to flourish but it is the role and responsibility of educators and schools to create the cause and conditions that allow the learners and young people to do so. However, before we are able to help our learners flourish, we have to recognize the fact that we are also on a learning journey and that our learners can have a huge impact on our journey. Therefore, we are continually learning from our learners, just as they are learning from us. We have to realize that our learning is interdependent. As educators, we need to ask, how can we expect our learners to learn from us if we are not open to learning from them? Our aim as educators should be to help each other become the best version of ourselves.

It was hard enough already but the new realities that have dawned as a result of unprecedented circumstances have acted as a catalyst in bringing forward online education to the mainstream by a few years. Without sufficient time to prepare, let alone adapt, teachers now face the daunting challenges of meeting exceptional outcomes from behind a screen. To better understand this, let us first try to decipher what we mean by online education.

There are many forms of online education and while they share some common characteristics they are not all the same. For example, someone teaching or learning a MOOC on Coursera is very different to a teacher instructing a class of 40 or someone trying to facilitate Occupational and Speech Therapy skills. Therefore, the first question we should ask ourselves is what our short, medium and long term goals are. Based on this we need to come up with the first draft of our roadmap that will help us understand our thought process better. For example, from 2017 onwards we had an early morning online elective for our grade 7 & 8 students. The purpose of this was to introduce learners to the process of online learning. The course chosen was the Science of Everyday Thinking offered by the University of Queensland on EdX. Teachers, who had experience with MOOCs introduced students to the processes involved and assisted them as they grew comfortable navigating the course on their own. The elective online course is different from a pandemic driven online module where the learning environment, outcomes and expectations are very different. One of the biggest positives that can emerge from successfully being able to face this challenge is that it won’t get more difficult than this. The how, the why and the what of it needs to be well thought out and contextualised to our needs. If we can learn to do this well we will also equip our learners with the crucial skills of taking ownership of their learning while demonstrating to them that we practice what we preach.

The future of education is hard to predict accurately but one thing that we can be certain of is that it will involve a considerable degree of online and asynchronous learning. That is why any shift in the process of learning or introduction of a new pedagogy has to bear in mind the needs of the learners. Some students will thrive in the online learning environment when they didn’t in the physical classroom environment while others may feel they prefer the physical classroom environment. We have to acknowledge that different learning environments may allow different students to flourish, or a certain aspect of their development to thrive. That is why engaging in a range of learning activities across a range of learning environments may actually be beneficial for students. It allows them to access parts of their potential that they wouldn’t normally have been able to access in a fully physical setting. However, conversely, the approach may have a negative impact on some students’ learning journey. We need to be actively addressing these concerns. Fostering students who are skills-rich should be one of the aims of education. We should look at ‘being rich’ from a skills standpoint, not an economic one. This pedagogical shift would be towards a form of hybrid learning in which the continuously evolving technologies are fully utilised and integrated into the learning process. I see this as augmented learning

What is becoming increasingly clear is we need to have a new framework for online teaching and learning – a coalition of best practices that can be continually contextualised to the learners’ needs,  with cross pollination as the main driver for learning. If we think back to some of our own earliest memories, we see that as young children we actively explored our relationship to our world- we actively participated in our connectedness by testing out ideas, trying new things and by experimenting with different methods and outcomes. Is this still the case? We see that a child learns things in her own way and a huge chunk of that learning takes place through interactions with others. However, when a child goes to school, ideas and themes are siloed off and phenomena are divided into subjects. As a result, her thoughts too may become compartmentalized. She might lose the skill of making connections and forming a bigger picture in all its varied possibilities. Students may lose the skill of thinking peripherally. That is why it is crucial that we discuss the process of cross-pollination as a valuable tool for learning in our schools. 

Cross Pollination between domains is a good starting point but what makes cross pollination really exciting is when we can also have cross pollination of domains and ideas, and experiences between learners and teachers with technology as an effective medium. Cross Pollination needs to be the underpinnings of education to propel innovation and progress in this increasingly technology driven world. The transition towards a cross pollinated curriculum has to be an evolutionary process. And that process must begin with our teachers. Without teachers developing an understanding of cross pollination and peripheral thinking it will be difficult for them to permeate these ideas to the learners. An important question to ask is ‘what does cross pollination look like in an educational setting?’ How can we as educators encourage and facilitate this type of learning? To help learners not be afraid of asking a question that does not have a definite answer, or to share their thoughts on a contentious issue. All these processes must again begin with our teachers. 

That is why it is of utmost importance that we have an online community of learners and practitioners within the school and even beyond. This community should be a safe place where members can share not only ideas and experiences but also doubts and uncertainties. Questions like, ‘Has anyone developed strategies that I can incorporate into my context that will make my learning experience more effective?’ can be safely brought up in this community. Perhaps, the most crucial part of a teacher’s job is to think about how they can create the right conditions for themselves and their learners to flourish. Communication and collaboration amongst the community of teachers and learners will enrich the learning environment. The security and guidance provided by the community of teachers and learners will inspire not only the learners but also the teachers to take risks and actualise their potential. Every educational institute needs to invest in creating this network or community that enables both teachers and learners to thrive and for effective cross pollination in learning to occur. This learning space consisting of a community of learners is crucial for us to ensure that motivation and engagement is not just maintained but is intrinsic to the community. To build up such a culture of trust and motivation will need the initial effort on the part of the educators. Assessment is a crucial component of this trust building exercise, and we should encourage our learners – both students and teachers – to engage in more peer and self assessment so that they can gauge for themselves where they stand and what they would have to do to move forward. This leads to them taking ownership of their learning. We cannot move forward in an online learning environment unless there is a high level of ownership, both from teachers and students – all learners.

One of the processes that highlights the power of cross-pollination is a representation of the student’s learning journey with specific instances of impactful experiences, challenges and growth. The experience of guiding students in describing their learning journey can provide a unique insight that will allow us to become better teachers who are more equipped to support the students in their journey. Through this process, teachers will be able to create conducive conditions for continuous growth of students and become constructive facilitators for students. At the same time, these learnings can be applied to design innovative teacher development programmes that focus on enabling teachers to enrich students’ learning journey. This is just one of the countless examples of how the journey of a student is intricately linked to the journey of a teacher.

Coming to the use of technology in our learning process, we must operate under the understanding that technology is not the panacea. It can augment our processes and skills if we use it rightly. For example, learning analytics can help us conceive an adaptive learning framework that personalises learning to suit the pace of each student individually. The possibilities are immense but the challenges that arise are equally immense and will need to be overcome. These challenges will become clearer as we use technology more and as new technologies emerge. The roadmap we create at the outset will help us ensure that we are not overwhelmed by the multitude of new learnings that emerge and the potential danger of not managing our time and energy appropriately. This, along with the emphasis on all aspects of our wellbeing, is crucial for ensuring we have our basics in place before embarking on this daily new mode of learning. We would be undoing years of work if the focus were to remain solely on cerebral development at the cost of the other areas of development- physical, social, emotional and spiritual. 

Finally, we need to be reflective of our practice and encourage the skills of reflection in our learners so that they too can constantly refine their skills and processes. The current work my colleagues and I are engaged in involves crafting an effective online teaching and learning programme for teachers with cross pollination as the driver and technology as the catalyst for learning. We cannot merely take our classroom practices online and call it ‘online learning’. We need to be circumspect about the nature of pedagogy, the content knowledge and the technological knowledge involved. There needs to be a synergy between the three – only then can we expect transacting digital learning to be an impactful experience for us all. 

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