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.


Comment: Email is the original robust, decentralised technology

Email is the original robust, decentralised technology. It’s built on open standards. It’s free. You can do almost anything with it,. This is why, despite Silicon Valley trying to come up with alternatives, email refuses to ‘die’. It’s just too useful.People used to complain about email and the flood of messages in their inbox. But that’s nothing compared to the hundreds (or even thousands!) of messages you can be bombarded with if your organisation uses a workplace chat app.

Belshaw, D. (2020). Email is the original robust, decentralised technology. Open Educational Thinkering blog.

Not much more to say here. You don’t need to sign up for the Shiny New Thing if you want to move to remote teaching and learning. Yes, there are lots of platforms and services that you can use and certainly some that are very good, but you’re not an instructional designer for remote, online or blended learning, and you shouldn’t be expected to become one overnight. And while it may not get you all the way there there’s an awful lot that you can do with plain email.

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Recalibrating expectations?

Last week we had a discussion about teaching practical physiotherapy techniques remotely and one of our participants asked (in the text chat) if anyone had any plans to teach fewer techniques. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the question because the conversation moved on quickly to explore other lines of inquiry, which is a pity because I think it was touching on an important point; are we recalibrating our expectations of the work we’re expecting students to do?

Our students are trying to work from home, in unusual sitations and enviroments, probably surrounded by family members who also have claims on their time (or who may be separated from family), who may be sick, cut off from friends, cut off from employment, don’t have internet access, don’t have laptops (have you tried typing an essay on a phone?) and a host of other problems that are normally an inconvenience but that are now fundamental to their learning.

You probably don’t have time to change your learning outcomes (since these usually need to be approved at higher faculty levels at least, and can’t be applied to the cohorts that they affect) but you almost certainly have some wiggle room when it comes to the content you expect students to learn. Review your regulatory body’s minimum standards to see what content has crept into the curriculum that doesn’t need to be there. You can probably even take a second look at the content that should be included and ask how much of that is essential?

How many assessment tasks do you usually include? You could probably half those. Tests of recall could be replaced by projects that can unfold over time and that demonstrate more authentic understanding. A few high stakes assessments (i.e. exams) could be replaced by more low-stakes assessments. How many readings do you usually ask students to complete? How many of those are essential? In short, there are almost certainly quite a few changes you could make to your programme that would decrease the pressure that students are currently experiencing, give them more time to think, and make this all slightly less stressful.

To be clear, I’m not talking about lowering standards (although I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t consider lowering standards). I’m just wondering if anyone is rethinking what work would adequately demonstrate the achievement of those standards? What does your programme look like when it’s pared down to it’s essentials? Now may be a good time to tidy the curriculum and get rid of the bloat that’s been creeping in over the past few years.

And then, when this is all over, you may need to think about why you’d choose to go back to what you were doing before.


Now might be a good time to stop “teaching students”

There’s a lot of anxiety among health professions educators right now as they try to move classes and entire courses online. They weren’t trained to do this, have little experience doing this, and many may not even want to do this. Hardly an inspiring thought. And I found myself agreeing with them. They didn’t sign up for this and most of them really do believe that a lot will be lost with the move online.

Thinking about this predicament (i.e. people who don’t think that “online” is the best way to teach health professionals, but who nonetheless must do it) made me wonder if reframing the question would change how they approach the problem. Instead of asking, “How do I move my course online?” what if we asked, “How can I help my less-experienced colleagues in their professional development?” Instead of focusing on building online classrooms, how about providing additional opportunities for CPD? Rather than focusing on moving content online, ask your less-experienced colleagues what the gaps are in their own learning. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to control the assessment process but rather try to help our less-experienced colleagues to evaluate their own performance.

You may already have noticed that each of the above shifts the emphasis from you as a teacher having to control the process of students’ learning (environment, content, assessment, etc.), towards something that probably looks more like a dialogue. A conversation. You know, probably more like how you learn. No-one tells you what you need to focus on, or how far “behind” you are, or what you have to read. Maybe over the next few weeks and months we could reflect on how each of us learns best and provide our less-experienced colleagues (previously known as “our students”) with more authentic opportunities to develop as healthcare professionals.

Note: Thank you to Joost van Wijchen who first introduced me to the concept of “working with our less-experienced colleagues”, rather than “teaching to our students”, and who recently reminded me of this wonderful mental model.

education technology

Comment: Please Don’t Require Synchronous Work in Your Remote Classes

Asynchronous work is the standard in undergraduate courses that are designed as fully online courses. In a high-stress situation in which faculty who typically teach F2F classes now have to teach remotely, they are necessary.It’s tempting to think that our students ought to be able to synch up to our classes remotely just as they were able to come to class in person. But that’s not reality.

Barrett-Fox, R. (2020). Please Don’t Require Synchronous Work in Your Remote Classes. Any Good Thing blog.

Another great post from Rebecca Barrett-Fox where she presents an argument for avoiding synchronous discussions entirely during the move to remote teaching and learning. Considering the additional pressure it adds to both teachers and students, and the potential to establish a two-tiered system (where some have access and some don’t), it’s simply not worth the effort it takes.

The reality of our students’ lives is that many of them will also be dealing with other challenges at home right now, and expecting them to all be available, connected, focused, and healthy at the same time isn’t reasonable (and probably unethical as well).

There are plenty of (asynchronous) alternatives that enable students to learn when it suits them, using low-bandwidth options, that allows you to achieve the outcomes we care about.

See also my comment on videoconferencing alternatives.

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Comment: Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All

When we try to replicate classroom experiences in an online environment, it’s easy to think of video conferencing as our go-to tool for all sorts of learning objectives—and for good reason. Most of us have participated in a video conference at work or had a video chat with friends or family at some point. We like the idea of being able to see and hear our students while interacting with them in real time just like we do when teaching face to face. But there are two key factors that make this approach problematic. Bandwidth and Immediacy.

Stanford, D. (2020). Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All. IDDblog.

I’ve seen lots of people promoting video-based, real-time (synchronous) meetings as a way to replace normal lectures as part of the global move to online teaching. While I think that face-to-face meetings with small groups of students has value (for example, one-on-one meetings with students, or a small research group), I don’t think that having a live lecture with 50-60 students is a good use of anyones’ time. It’s high bandwidth, assumes that everyone is available at the same time, that everyone can concentrate on what’s going on, that everyone is comfortable with the technology, etc.

When it comes to teaching and learning online and remotely there’s nothing wrong with text. There’s nothing wrong with email. Now is not the time to be introducing the New Shiny Thing and adding more complexity and pressure to students’ learning. If we want students to keep reading, reflecting, and articulating their understanding, then there’s no reason to think that video is the optimal way to get them to do that. Video definitely has it’s place but asking everyone to sit in front of computer for 30 minutes to watch a talking head probably isn’t the best way to use their – or your – time.

The author not only provides useful alternatives to the videoconference but also gives a matrix (see below) that can help us reflect on the purpose of our teaching and what options we might consider in order to achieve that purpose. In other words, use the technology to achieve the outcomes you want. In other, other words, reflect on the outcomes first.

The article also includes examples of specific platforms and services that might be useful, depending on which of the quadrants in the matrix you find yourself. For example, email for low bandwidth and low immediacy, or Google Docs for low bandwidth and relatively high immediacy. We don’t have to try and get all of our students into real-time video lectures but should rather explore using different options to achieve different outcomes, taking into considerations the challenges that our students will face during their remote learning.


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.

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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.