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education technology

Using email as a learning management system

First of all, we should stop calling things like Moodle and Canvas “learning management systems”. At best they’re content, or student management systems. Pet peeve out the way? Tick.


I’ve been advocating for low-tech solutions to the problem of remote teaching and learning ever since I noticed how many people seemed to be pushing for things like synchronous, video-based lectures during the current crisis. Usually, I’m a fan of technology-based learning and teaching but that’s with the assumption that everyone has good access to the internet and appropriate devices. Now, with students and educators working from home, and acknowledging that we’re all reacting to a crisis – rather than implementing a carefully planned, coordinated, coherent strategy – I think that the only ethical option is to use as little technology as possible.

I honestly think that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email.

I’ve posted what I think a set of universal principles would look like in this situation, which disadvantages the fewest students as little as possible. And the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching has shared their list of low tech principles for remote teaching, which is a great resource. And during the process of reviewing these principles I started wondering what the simplest solution might look like, assuming that at least some form of internet access is a minimum requirement (our students are at home and can’t travel). And I honestly think that email could substitute as a learning/content management system.

Some of the features of an LMS that most educators would consider to be core to its purpose include being able to do the following:

  • Upload and store content in a variety of formats e.g. text, slideshows, video, audio, etc. You can attach anything to an email.
  • Access materials anytime, from everywhere. There are email clients for virtually every device and operating system, all of which enable offline access. Email never “goes down” and is one of the most reliable systems on the internet.
  • Provide asynchronous access to all of the relevant content and communication for a module. Email doesn’t require that you interact in real time.
  • Teachers can modify the content, and students can see the updated material. Email is sorted by date, so new content is presented first, which means that updated attachments appear at the top of the filtered list.
  • Students and teachers can re-use the material any time they need. Offline access means that attachments are available all the time (or students can download them onto their local storage).
  • Students can learn collaboratively. The ability to have threaded conversations in a mailing list means that collaborative discussion is possible (it may be awkward, but it’s possible).
  • Assessments can be completed by students within the LMS. You can include any questions or tasks you want students to complete within email.
  • Should be simple to use. No-one needs training on how to use email.

There is also a well-documented disadvantage of the LMS; it requires a technology infrastructure that is non-trivial to manage. In fact, we have higher education institutions here in South Africa that simply don’t have the technical infrastructure and ability to maintain an LMS. But they all have email.

So it seems that email as a technology satisfies all of the requirements of a learning management system. But how would you use it? I think that with a few basic naming and organising conventions, you could ensure that all students across a programme could be up and running with this system in a few minutes.

Basically, educators within a programme would need to agree on a Subject line naming convention e.g. Module name – Type of email – Title/content. For the module that I teach, it might look something like this: PHT402 – Announcement – Submission dates, PHT402 – Assessment – Quiz no. 2, or PHT402 – Notes – Health and human rights. Students could filter their emails by the module code (“PHT402”) which would only display emails for that module, as well as by Type (“Announcement” or “Notes”). Everything relevant for those search terms would be presented in reverse chronological order (most recent first) making it very easy for students to find whatever they’re looking for.

You can see how it’s possible for students and lecturers to do the following:

  • Search and filter their system for the content they need, when they need it.
  • Communicate privately with the lecturer, or with a learning group (3-5 peers), or with everyone in the class.
  • Threaded email discussions look a lot like discussion forums, which are often touted as an important feature of the LMS, and which would work perfectly well by email.
  • Write an essay that includes links to sources, embedded images, complex formatting, etc. for an assignment, directly within the email client.
  • Embed Google Form-type quizzes directly into the email so that students can complete them without leaving the email client.

Since email provides offline access students could connect to the internet, download everything they need, and disconnect. Then they’d review the work and communication while offline, compose responses and any questions they might have, reconnect, upload it all, and then disconnect again. This would all happen without having to “go” anywhere (no browsers, links, logins, or apps other than the email client) or do anything. I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email. Everything else might just be more of a distraction.

Categories
education technology

Resource: Low Tech Remote Teaching Principles

  1. Keep it simple and low tech.
  2. Accessibility is core, not optional.
  3. Provide structure.
  4. Use what is available.
  5. Keep learning active.
  6. Scaffold learning by chunking content.
  7. Have a clear course outline.
  8. Be visible and contactable.
  9. Help keep students on track.
  10. Be kind to yourself and empathic to your students.

This collection of Low-tech remote teaching principles is a 3 page Google Doc produced by the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. It’s a fantastic resource that starts with the 10 principles listed above before moving on to a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to remote teaching, and finishes with a helpful checklist for teachers moving online. I think that every educator would be well-served by downloading this document and keeping it pinned up somewhere prominent. I know I will.

Note: If you find this resource useful you may also like my post on Universal principles of learning task design.

Categories
education learning

Universal principles of learning task design. Crisis edition.

It seems that everyone has decided to move teaching, learning and assessment online with a massive focus on synchronous, video-based lectures as the primary means of “delivering” the curriculum remotely. It’s as if we don’t have about 100 years of experience with distance learning to draw from and that there are no lessons to be learned from all of that experience. In this post I’m going to share what I think are important design principles for teaching and learning remotely, drawing mainly from my own experience with online and blended learning over the past few years.

While there are good pedagogical reasons for the principles I’m going to describe, there’s really only one reason that matters and it’s an ethical one. You should assume that at least one of your students is learning in this context:

It’s an extreme example but it highlights the fact that our students have enormous challenges trying to learn at home, and if this image doesn’t exactly describe all of our students’ home environment, it helps to focus our attention on what some version of those challenges might be. So here are my suggestions for anyone trying to work out how to “go online” over the next few months.

Universal principles for learning task design in a crisis

Prioritise asynchronous interaction. Because our students are at home with their families, elderly and sick relatives, young children and siblings, stressed parents, and barking dogs. Because their parents are now having to try and work at home as well, and they may all share one laptop (if they’re lucky enough to have a laptop at home). Because it’s not reasonable to expect 60 students to be able to get online at 09:00 on Monday morning. Because asynchronous interactions free everyone from the pressure of having to be availabe on your schedule. Asynchronous means that everyone has more flexibility to determine their own schedule.

Work offline as much as possible. Of course students will need to connect to the internet at some point (because we have to assume that they don’t have their notes, textbooks, slides, assignments and tests at home). But it’s not reasonable to expect your students to stay online for any length of time. Some of them (maybe most of them) will have always on, uncapped, fibre coming into their homes, distributed to 10 devices across multiple routers. We should not be focusing any attention on these students when it comes to learning task design. Our entire focus should be on the student who needs to stand in a corner of their back yard with their cellphone raised to the sky in order to connect to the internet. When we plan for the student who has an intermittent, unstable and expensive internet connection, we make it easier for everyone.

Privilege text over audio and video. There are lots of reasons that text is better than anything else and I’ll expand on these a bit since everyone is so focused on video right now and I think that this is an important point.

  • Text is searchable. Video and audio are not. Try finding a 30 second segment in a 20 minute video. Now try finding a description of something in a series of 5 one hour lectures. Try to avoid wasting students’ time by providing resources in a format that is searchable.
  • Text compresses better than anything else (making the file size compared to video, orders of magnitude smaller). This makes content quicker and therefore, cheaper to download. Also, lots of the video being planned for online learning is of the “talking head” variety, which means that the bulk of your students’ bandwidth is taken up by useless data (yes, the “video” part of your talking head is useless).
  • Text is usually more information-dense than audio or video, which again means that you can transmit more of it in less time. It also means that students can keep more of it in their limited phone storage capacity than they can with videos.
  • Text can be marked up with comments and questions, edited, copied/pasted, which is better for active learning than passively watching a video. None of your students can edit your video in order to extract meaningful information from it. They would have to transcribe the useful bits. This isn’t a good use of their time.

Low-tech over the Shiny New Thing. Now is not the time to ask students to download and install that new application that the IT department or edtech experts are suggesting everyone needs. If you need your students to go online, they should be able to do everything they need to via a browser, email client, or whatever software and apps you’ve been using extensively with them for at least a few months. These should already be installed on their devices. We not only need to assume that new apps will be an added expense to download and install, but it’s an additional cognitive load that will add to students’ stress and anxiety. In my opinion, email is the most fantastic killer-app in the current situation. In case anyone needs reminding, here are some features that are supported by email protocols:

  • One-to-one, private communication.
  • One-to-many, public communication.
  • Supports attachments of any format.
  • The email is an open standard that’s been around for longer than the web. It is solid, robust, stable, and very fast.
  • Email doesn’t require that anyone install anything since every device on the planet is capable of sending and receiving email.
  • Email supports asynchronous communication.
  • Email can be used offline with any email client.
  • Email is text-based.
  • Email is searchable.
  • No-one has to learn how to use email.

Simplicity over complexity. Now is not the time to have students struggling to understand what exactly you want them to do. Clear and simple instructions that leave no room for ambiguous interpretation are what students need to complete learning tasks in the current circumstances. I don’t any of my students to have to leave their homes (because they can only get online at the public library) in order to to send me an email to ask what exactly I expect them to do.

Everything is flexible. Deadlines. Learning tasks. Content to be covered. Assignment formatting. Everything. Let’s start from a blank slate and assume that this is an opportunity to think differently about everything. Let’s be open to suggestions, from colleagues, from friends, from students, from our own children. We can finally let go of the self-imposed expectation that we’re supposed to know what we’re doing and admit that, given the current global catastrophe, it may be OK to change…well, everything. Consider being flexible around the following:

  • Hard deadlines: “You can submit any time within a 3 day window.”
  • Format of student work: “You want to submit a narrated slideshow instead of an MCQ? Sure, let’s see how it goes.”
  • Expectations around device ownership: “No laptop? No problem. Write the essay by hand, take a photo of it and email it to me.” Pro-tip: It is unethical to expect any student to type an assignment on a phone.
  • Once we start looking for spaces within the curriculum for us and our students to be flexible, we’ll starting finding lots of creative, exciting opportunities emerging.

These principles aren’t perfect and they certainly aren’t new. But it feels like most educators and universities are throwing in their lot with a mass migration of content into learning management systems and other online platforms. I think that this is a mistake. Our students don’t need more resources that are high-bandwidth, expensive, and inherently worse than simple solutions. I believe that a combination of email, intermittent internet access, and plain text can get us 90% towards where we need to be with respect to teaching, learning and assessment in these trying times. Let’s not stuff things up even more by choosing “solutions” that will potentially disadvantage millions of learners across primary, secondary and higher education around the world.


Note: You may also appreciate these Low tech remote teaching principles produced by the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

Categories
education teaching technology

Resource: Creating an online community, class or conference – A tech guide

Are you creating an online course, event or conference? If you’re not a programmer, and if you don’t have a lot of money to spend, this guide will get you started. Read it from top to bottom to get a step-by-step guide to what you can do to set up your course or event. Then check the links to find free or cheap and easy tools that will get the job done for you.

Downes, S. (2020). Creating an online community, class or conference – A tech guide. Google Docs.

There are rules for adding resources to this list:

  • Cloud only – if you have to set up a web server, it doesn’t belong on the list. If you are required to download an application, it doesn’t belong.
  • No apps (no Play Store, Apple Store, etc., even if they’re free).
  • Free (or Nearly Free) – ideally, the tool has a free tier that lets you try it out. Your total costs to do everything should be less than $100/month (and free for students).
  • No credit cards – doesn’t ask you for a credit card unless you’re actually paying them money .
  • No adjectives; just say what it does, and keep everything brief.

I think that the list of services, platforms and tools in this document will be more useful if you already have an idea of what you want to do but are less certain about how to go about it, or what technology would be most appropriate to use. On the other hand, you could also go through the list as a way of generating ideas around what’s possible for your own course or class. If this is your aim then make sure that you don’t try everything on the list.

Either way, go into with a reason. The danger of reading the list without a plan is that there’s a risk you’ll try to implement things simply because they’re there, rather than considering whether or not they solve a real problem you have.

If in doubt, remember that simpler is always better.

Categories
education

Comment: Please do a bad job of putting your courses online

For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

Barrett-Fox, R. (2020). Please do a bad job of putting your courses online. Any Good Thing blog.

Instead of asking, “What does the best version of this online course look like?” we should instead be asking, “What is the least worst version of this online course that will get the job done?” You may be thinking that the process of moving your class online is going to take a few simple steps, and that you can delay publishing it until it’s ready but the truth is, if that’s your approach, then you’re never going to get it out there.

This is how Mathew Inman (of The Oatmeal) describes the process of creating something new. He’s talking about the creative process but you can just as easily imagine that this is how many educators think things are going to go when they move their classes online:

But this is how it actually works:

See the full post on what Mathew has learned about creativity from 10 years of publishing The Oatmeal online comics. With some reflection there’s a lot to learn here about online and remote teaching.

Don’t expect it to go smoothly and don’t be hard on yourself when things don’t work out. Publish your class or course online before it’s perfect (before it’s even ready) and then focus on iterating. It will get better. You’re not building the ultimate online course; you’re building a minimal viable version of something that will get the job done.

The post from Rebecca also includes loads of really good insight for teachers, including taking the following into consideration:

  • Your students know less about technology than you think. Many of them know less than you. Yes, even if they are digital natives and younger than you.
  • They will be accessing the internet on their phones. They have limited data. They need to reserve it for things more important than online lectures.
  • Students will be sharing their technology with other household members. They may have LESS time to do their schoolwork, not more.
  • Some of your students will get sick. Others will be caring for people who are ill.
  • Many will be parenting.
  • Social isolation contributes to mental health problems.
  • …and plenty more important points to think about while you’re moving your class online.

This is not a “how to” type post but it includes so much useful advice for anyone trying to do remote teaching and assessment right now. There isn’t any technical advice in Rebecca’s post (there’s so much of that out there already) but it’s one of the most important posts you’ll read on the topic.

Categories
assessment education learning

Resource: Online learning in a hurry

Dave Cormier has provided an excellent series of short (5 minute) videos called Online learning in a hurry, for teachers who are now expected to move their teaching and assessment online.

What I really like about this collection is that it’s not a list of [insert service here] for remote teaching and learning. For example, the first post (not a video) is about setting up clear lines of communication with students and managing expectations. This is way more valuable than another “How to use Google Docs” article.

It takes Dave some time to get to advice on moving content online, which is where most other resources start. While the collection of videos is presented as advice for getting your teaching online “in a hurry” it’s also a considered and thoughtful approach.

The video series is also available as a YouTube playlist.

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