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.


Tools for writing

I’m always on the lookout for new tools that might help me with my writing and I like to experiment with new platforms and processes that could be useful, or even just fun. Up until now I’ve used LibreOffice as my main writing platform, although I’ve also experimented with Abiword, Calligra, Lyx and of course, Word. Of all of them, LibreOffice is what makes me happiest. However, even with LibreOffice, I still find myself getting distracted with the formatting options, rather than using my time to simply write. Lyx is the document processor that is probably best for keeping you focused on writing because it abstracts out all of the formatting options but I always felt like it was a bit like trying to kill a mosquito with a canon. A bit too much power for my needs.

This is why I’m attracted to writing in plain text, which has always appealed to me for a number of reasons, the chief one being that .txt will never go away. It will never be deprecated and operating systems will never drop support for it. There are also other reasons for liking the idea of writing in plain text, including cross-platform functionality, meaning that I’d be able to edit my work on iOS, Windows, Android, OSX or Linux. For a while, I tried Springpad but never felt comfortable with it as a writing platform (I still use it for notes, a task for which it works very well).

Recently however, I’ve come across Markdown and MultiMarkDown (MMD), which allow you to write in plain text but export to a variety of formats (primarily HTML, but with support for PDF and OpenDocument). MultiMarkDown has additional support for writers, including footnotes and tables, which are not included in the feature set of Markdown. The idea is that you write in plain text and therefore avoid the distractions that come with having the formatting options available. It’s enough to specify that a piece of text is a 1st, 2nd or 3rd level heading, or that it should be emphasised in bold or italic text, or that it is an item in an ordered or unordered list. You shouldn’t have to worry if your bullet is a circle or a square, or how far it should be indented, or what font size the heading should be. Markdown allows you to just write, and to leave the formatting up to the programme.

When I learned about Markdown I started exploring the options for clients that support it and was quite surprised to find quite a few, including some online platforms (Authorea, Editorially and Draft). I decided against exploring the online editors in any detail since one of my criteria is that I need to be able to write when I’m offline. Of course, one of the benefits of the online editors is that they are built for collaborative work, which is more complicated to do with an offline editor (you can, using Dropbox or another syncing service, but then you run into problems with versioning, etc.). I do use Google Drive extensively in my work with students and colleagues but with the understanding that when I’m working with those groups I’m always online.

I recently came across UberWriter, an open source app written for Ubuntu, which I’ve been using for a few days now and I have to say that I’m really enjoying writing with it. Not only is it “distraction free” in the sense of removing the formatting options but I’ve found that the complete lack of preferences has meant that I haven’t had to spend any time configuring it. I usually spend a lot of time configuring things so that it looks right. The user interface is minimalist and clean, making me actually want to write. I also really like the Focus mode, which greys out all of the text except the sentence I’m working on, which may not sound like much but really does help me to focus. UberWriter just works. Note: I also looked at ReText but decided that, for me anyway, UberWriter just had a qualitatively better “feel” to it.


So, my plan for now is to use UberWriter and MarkDown to create the first few drafts of my work and then export to ODT when it’s ready for final formatting and submission to journals. If they want the submission in Word, then it’s a simple process of saving to .doc.

Update: Also check out this podcast from In Beta on tools for writing. Some of the tools from this post are covered in more detail.