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eLearning on a hairpin

Some great advice for managing online learning

Our campus closed on February 3rd 2020, although effectively it was the 24th January when all the students and teachers went on holiday for the Lunar New Year.

In this post I want to outline how I have approached eLearning, the tools I have used and how I have used them, along with my perception of how students have recieved them.

My thoughts cover the period from the 3rd February until the end of March 2020 and are based on needing to get to grips with a new approach, with little to no training, amidst some personal challenges that I will outline in a later post.

Our school closed with almost no warning and we were provided with voluntary training (which I attended during the holiday) on ClassIn which we didn’t use (but looks very good), followed by one day of prep on Monday 3rd February before diving into delivering the full program.

My classes have already become fairly routine driven. I have a method and I stick to it. This is partly because I juggle a lot of different responsibilities and having a repetitive plan takes some of the strain away, which is good for my students because they don’t benefit if I am constantly stressed out.

I found the initial switch quite easy as my routines could transfer quite easily into an online environment and for the first two weeks we were not required to hold live classes.

Quizlet

I have been using Quizlet a lot over the last few years and have completed construction of key terms decks for the entire 2016 IBDP biology course and the current CAIE IGCSE biology course. Links below:

Links to my IGCSE Quizlet decks
Links to my IBDP Quizlet decks

I use Quizlet in a variety of ways. Any activity can be used in class or at home but I focus on the learn activity for students to pre-learn vocabulary before starting new concepts. In my classes, students who complete this task quicker can work through the other learning activities to overlearn the words.

The live activity makes a great team starter to review prior learning and can easily be combined with share screen on Zoom. The gravity and match activities also make good starters that have a competitive edge for individuals. Mostly I use Quizlet to pre-learn vocab and access prior learning. This formative assessment is great for review as well.

All in all Quizlet is hugely versatile and can be used in any sequence. For a vocab heavy subject like biology, I would argue it is essential.

Kognity

One of the best moves I think that we made last year was to move to digital books. There was a variety of reasons for this. Procurement of books in some countries is not always easy for a variety of reasons.

Kognity acts in the same way as a normal textbook and I have always been keen for my IGCSE and IB biology students to develop independent note taking and writing skills. They need to be prepared to be independent adult learners and need the skills to be able to self study. I use the connect-extend-challenge routine regularly in class and so have made sure to give students time during their eLearning to continue with this exercise when encountering new concepts and topics.

But Kognity has two features that make it exceptionally better than a physical textbook: 1) the practice section for students 2) the assignments and statistics sections for teachers.

The inbuilt practice functions of Kognity lend themselves to formative assessment really well. Not only do students have to take questions to mark a section of the textbook as having been read, but they can self assess through strength tests and strength battles. In the strength tests students can pick any section of the textbook and take 5 multiple choice questions on that topic. In the strength battles they can compete against a friend or the “bot” to see who can answer the questions first. Combined with Zoom breakout rooms the strength battle tool is a great way to get kids interacting in small groups. I have found that they are more comfortable talking and socialising in smaller groups than in front of the whole digital class.

I use these as starters to access prior learning and may spend a fair bit of time getting students to review this material together or in groups. Using breakout rooms in Zoom allows students to be grouped into pairs to do strength battles.

Teachers can set assignments in the form of sections of the textbook to be read, multiple choice questions or extended response exam style questions. These assignments can be scheduled, allowing you to plan for weeks at a time.

The statistics pages are very useful in allowing you to see how many questions students have taken for a topic and how many they have got right in total, easily allowing you to spot trends of topics that may need further teaching. In the statistics pages you can also easily see what assignments students have or have not completed and can also even see when students last logged into the textbook.

Zoom

Zoom was the biggest learning challenge for me during this period (and remember my wife and I are both teachers with a 3yo and 4yo at the time and not working from home but from random hotels – so there wasn’t a lot of time for personal CPD). I had used it a couple of times for meetings but now teaching one live lesson a week per class with it felt like quite a lot to learn.

Zoom allows you to share your screen so that you can take kids through a PowerPoint or explain instructions for using Kognity or Quizlet etc. You can also pause the screen share if you need to bring something else up, like emails, that you don’t want your whole class seeing. During screen share you can also add annotations, text and drawings, that you can save.

Combined with sketch pad this becomes a very powerful tool for “chalk and talk” where necessary.

Another feature of Zoom that I really like are the breakout rooms. Here you can assign students to “rooms” within the call so that they can work on individual of group tasks. You are able to enter and exit the rooms as much as you like, as well as broadcast messages to all rooms. Using breakout rooms I have students go head to head in strength battles, design Kahoot quizes for their peers or take the time to meet with students one to one or in small groups.

One of the things that I learned in my first few weeks was that Zoom lessons are not like normal lessons. Students may well have been sitting in quaratine or home isolation for weeks, not leaving the house and certainly not seeing friends. I think it is important to create as many opportunities for our students to chat to one another and play games. I find that breaking them up into smaller groups in Zoom rooms helps them get over some shyness and actually connect with each other.

Seneca

I discovered Seneca while on this learning adventure and has been a fab resource for my IGCSE class, adding something different into the mix.

From the teacher side it allows tracking and setting of assignments like Kognity and is free.

From the student side it encourages recall through self testing and therefore thought to improve retention. I introduced it to students during the eLearning period and they said they prefer Kognity.

Kahoot

Combined with Zoom this is a fun tool. Give students the opportunity to make their own Kahoot quizzes to test each other. These can be made in breakout rooms, by pairs or small groups of students. Or teachers can deliver their own quizzes, like running a Quizlet live session.

Screencasting & Sketchpad

I have one live session a week where I run some of the activities outlined above. I also use the live lesson for checking in with students to find out how they have been getting on with the other asynchronous tasks that I have set.

I find that screencasting is quite difficult to get right without a silent room, good microphone, or space to annotate and draw effectively – my mac track pad with sketchpad is not ideal. Sketchpad is a great tool though when you can get it to work!

A final word of advice

Go easy. Even if you were lucky enough to prep, you and the kids need time to adjust to a new scenario.

Be mindful that the students situations may be very different. Some kids may be looking after siblings. Some kids may have to share a laptop with other siblings. Don’t set so much work and don’t expect it all to get done. Be compassionate and try to understand the issues your students are facing.

This piece of research, although aimed at managers, is useful for teachers, particularly the first point. It is important to understand the students individual situations. I wish I had appreciated this more at the start.

Finally, your students may be isolated away from friends with limited opportunities to socialise. Give them the chance in your live lessons to talk and play. Zoom breakout rooms are great for breaking the class up into smaller groups. Give them a collaborative task to get on with and let them catch up with their friends. This is a scary and stressful situation for all of us.

Please share your thoughts..

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