We spoke with participants and graduates of the certificate course “E-teaching and mixed instruction,” which for three years now has been offered by the UCU Center of Instructional and Innovative Technologies, about distance learning, in particular for those UCU teachers who throughout the year are increasing their qualifications at the School for Teaching Excellence.
Distance teaching: What it’s important to ask yourself?
“Above all, it’s necessary to understand that distance teaching is different from what we spoke about when we learned to ‘mix,’ that is, to reinforce or vary face-to-face meetings with online types of work,” says Oksana Pasichnyk, author and teacher of the course “E-teaching and mixed instruction.” “Teachers always ask themselves if it is appropriate to use a certain digital instrument to achieve particular goals in a course, but now one of the aspects of this question has been essentially more urgent.
“In distance learning, we either use a certain instrument to carry out a certain task and achieve certain goals of the course or we reject the task and the goals. And this means that in new circumstances teachers, first of all, are constantly asking themselves which elements of the course are the most important, that is, which exactly cannot be lost, and that means it’s simply necessary to go to the online format, and second of all, they are constantly re-thinking what students are learning as a consequence of certain online activities – what will they know and be able to do.”
To focus or to look for new instruments: What to do?
“When I heard that we were going to a distance format of work, I was very happy that I was taking a course in e-learning, because I saw this as an opportunity immediately to test all these instruments which we had considered,” explains Zoya Krasovskya of the UCU Journalism School. “And so it happened, and now I feel like a person in the format of constant experiment, which greatly lacks the experience of distance teaching. Something is going well but somehow I always doubt, because I need to re-plan the course, and much energy is used to test ideas, in particular technical ones in real-time conditions of a real course in which students are already studying.
“The first Monday of the quarantine we all had to quickly adjust. Students had to prepare presentations to summarize work in groups in which we had divided them in class. Inasmuch as we were now all at home, I decided to slightly move the deadline for them, and I also re-formulated the assignment. Instead of a classroom presentation, the students did their group work as screencasts, slides with video commentaries. In order to make it easier for students to rely on additional technical tasks, I wrote short instructions for them on how to work with screencasts and asked them to send their assignments to the UCU CMS system. I think this was a positive experience for student journalists, because they had training not only in analyzing these materials in the media criticism field which I gave them, but for them it also gave practice in proof-reading, video editing, and generally forming interesting video content.”
“The methods of universal instructional design lead us to think about how students can in various ways express their knowledge,” comments Oksana Pasichnyk. “It’s worthwhile for teachers to focus not only on how they can try the newest thing, but instead to vary the ways in which students can demonstrate that they have mastered material. For example, a student gives not a regular presentation but a video presentation. This can help students use much additional knowledge and skills, so a decision like this can make much sense.”
To discuss or to write: Which is better?
Writer Danylo Ilnytskyi, who works with philologists, talks about specifics of a given field. “It is important to choose that format which the most fully and the most effectively will fit the given area of study. In my case, it is important that my students do a lot of reading,” says the teacher. “And you know, students on Messenger write that during the quarantine they managed to start reading more. Literature demands intimate contact. I also think that it is important – we need to do this with students – to a certain extent we need to minimize our synchronic sessions, in order to give them the opportunity to calmly approach texts.”
Teachers in the humanities talk about another challenge: students read much and during synchronous lessons they all want to express themselves, but during a short webinar not all manage to do this. And then there’s the question of grading the level of participation in a seminar. To help students be heard, Danylo Ilnytskyi connects a forum for every theme on the UCU CMS. There the students leave their thoughts, and he comments on problematic places or thanks them for particular insightful comments. An additional advantage of such short written works, in the teacher’s opinion, is that the students have an opportunity to think over their positions well and to describe them comprehensively. Such forums also are very helpful in making grading more transparent.
“The students themselves can suggest how to formulate questions on a given theme. For example, the students work on certain materials – a video meeting, video lecture, text – and, instead of responding to a question, the student formulates the questions which the teacher can eventually use again, for example, in a final test or synchronous discussion. And creating ‘maps of thoughts’ is one more interesting instrument which can be offered to students, if the goal of the assignment is to check how deeply they have assimilated what they’ve read or seen,” advises Oksana Pasichnyk.
Synchronously or asynchronously: How to interact?
There is a certain logic to having a certain structure in the educational process, and the schedule is perhaps the worst guidepost in this question. But if this is so, then it makes sense to conduct short synchronous sessions during which only problematic questions are adequately discussed. “We leave time for meetings with students, but a brutal hour and a half on Zoom three or four times a day may be too brutal,” says Oksana Pasichnyk. Students might have various living conditions. Right now many people are forced for a long period of time to be together in a very limited space. Perhaps everyone at home doesn’t have quality Internet, enough gadgets, finally, enough places to be on their own and focus on a certain work activity.
Svitlana Hurkina of the Church History Department decided to balance synchronous and asynchronous activities in courses, especially when the classroom format was weekly lectures and seminars. “The first week of quarantine, I was a little lost,” the teacher explains. “I never used Zoom before, though I knew about this instrument, so the first week of quarantine I decided to try both synchronous and asynchronous formats of work. In one course, the students were given an assignment and prepared it without discussion at a webinar. In another course, we had a Zoom meeting with the students. That was my first experience as the organizer of a video connection for a group of students, and I had a number of challenges: I mixed up the home screen on which I was working, some functions in the basic Zoom packet were missing, and I learned ‘on the run’ how to direct the functional sharing of the screen and not panic.”
Iryna Kryvenko of the Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy uses Zoom more for discussions and not for lectures. For teaching new material, she records short videos on Screencast-o’Matic, covering separate questions, mixing them with YouTube videos and her own questions. “Recording a video on Screencast-o’Matic takes much longer than coming to a classroom at a certain time and giving a lecture,” says the teacher, “because in a synchronous format we and our listeners calmly react to some slips of the tongue and simply continue on. But working with a video recording, we are more demanding on ourselves, we listen again, record again, and so it takes more time and effort.”
CMS UCU for asynchronous distance learning
UCU teachers have for more than four years been actively working with the CMS UCU system on the Moodle platform, so for many of them this was the most convenient way to quickly transfer to an exclusively distance format. Finally, the university administration guided teachers in this direction. Danylo Ilnytskyi says that, though there are very many instruments, for him for now the one that works best in CMS UCU.
“This is a wonderful system that gives the ability to present material is very different ways. You can combine a visual presentation with references to files, links on YouTube, links to GoogleDrive, where I post separate audio files. Now it seems to me that CMS UCU, finally, contains the whole history of educational methodology, thanks to which the student goes through this ‘history’ and, in certain stages, studies even as if without a teacher.”
Iryna Kryvenko is very happy with CMS UCU for organizing asynchronous interaction and courses. For distance learning she actively uses the “lecture” activity – this is a way to present and check mastery of educational material, in which the students view short video clips, arranged in separate blocs, after which there are questions to test yourself. Thanks to “Lesson,” which is, in its essential technology adapted for education, the teacher has the opportunity to assess students’ mastery of course material.
“Interesting fact!” says the teacher. “It used to seem to me that giving students a 10-minute video and then immediately asking questions on the content of the video was a complacent strategy, by which the teacher wants to receive the most correct answers. Now I see that in the conditions of distance learning, students are less attentive. They more often make mistakes, so these kind of short questions to test yourself are a nice instrument to once again focus on the most important key aspects of a theme. And if in the first week or two I saw that students (in 99% of cases) put off asynchronous activities to the last day-minute-second, now I see that they are better and better keeping to the schedule of lessons, and, in general, they are planning their time better, and this is already a good step towards self-governance, right?”
In this context, Oksana Pasichnyk recalls a favorite expression of many experienced pedagogues: Less is more. “We, of course, cannot as much as possible throw away everything and expect that somehow the students themselves will rescue the situation, but, to take too much on yourself means not giving the students space. Organizing instruction by distance learning is a wonderful opportunity to teach students how to learn, to plan their own educational activities, to plan their study load, to develop an individual trajectory for how he or she will master a certain course.”
“Emotional contact” with students on Zoom
“As a teacher, perhaps it would be easier for me to do all the work in an asynchronous distance format, forming assignments, writing instructions, and so on, testing or other forms of checking mastery of material and writing comments,” admits Zoya Krasovska. “But my students lack emotional contact.” Already in the first week of quarantine the teacher saw that students were starting to comment on the fact that they lacked understanding, though they managed the assignments well, so she decided also to conduct Zoom sessions. For her courses, such meetings were not so much to give lectures but to discuss the students’ challenges and problems, to give an opportunity to receive some feedback which would be a little emotional about a text.
Natalia Ilchyshyn of the Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy this semester planned only lectures, and her classroom lectures as a rule were not classical lectures but discussions, experiments, so she had a great challenge in attempting to recreate all this in a distance format.
“It was important for me to have feedback from students, so I tried to use ‘chat’ in Zoom, and also Whiteboard, an instrument for group work. It works! Of course, not like in a classroom, but it allows you to ‘hear’ students during a lecture,” the teacher shares her experience.
Svitlana Hurkina had a similar challenge. Her students did not turn on their video cameras during her lecture and it was difficult for her to know their reactions, though from time to time she tried to pause during a lecture and asked them to write answers in the chatbox to certain questions.
During a Zoom session, Iryna Kryvenko tried to use the BreakOut Rooms function, dividing students into small groups.
Students like working in groups during Zoom broadcasts. They say that in this format they manage to discuss a lot and productively work together, says the teacher. “On the other hand,” she says, “I still don’t know how much a format like this helps us achieve the goals set for the course. I see, as I constantly switch among groups, that I manage to notice only that something is happening in general, but not to deeply immerse in the content of what the students are talking about. It can be difficult ‘on the fly.’ On the other hand, it looks like the work of other groups can be interesting for other students – I present their results on Padlet and wait for commentary and ‘likes,’ and everything about the theme that was not understood can be addressed later in this way.”
According to Iryna Kryvenko’s experience, it looks like, when planning work in Zoom on BreakOut Rooms, it is important to look more carefully at planning of assignments and to bring into discussions questions which will develop the students’ ability to work in a group and which will not require the teacher’s intentional control of content.
Substantial feedback through Padlet
The classroom format has very many ways that we can allow interaction. In distance learning, we need to rely on instruments, comments Oksana Pasichnyk. If you need to help students share tasks, use Padlet. Students upload their work on a common “board,” get acquainted with them, and eventually they can discuss them, for example, in a half-hour Zoom session. Iryna Kryvenko gives two examples of work on Padlet in the distance format.
Before a seminar on Zoom, which was held the first week of the quarantine and had the goal of discussing a pre-quarantine classroom lecture, she asked the students to write their questions on Padlet or share their thoughts on what they didn’t understand. The students then responded to their colleagues’ questions and discussed in commentaries. This helped the teacher determine the students’ most pressing questions on material covered, to prioritize them, and to cover only the most important in the webinar. She commented on everything else on Padlet.
The second variant became relevant during the quarantine. Students watched a lecture organized in CMS UCU under the activity “lectures” and had an assignment to write in parallel on Padlet everything that confused them or raised questions. This distance learning happened in a conditionally synchronous regime, because the teacher had asked the students to watch a video at the same time, so they simultaneously formulated their questions and immediately commented on each other’s questions. Iryna Kryvenko observes that this format helped students to be effectively included in the process.
The quarantine: Not a sprint but a marathon
During one of the weekly seminars for the course “E-teaching and mixed instruction,” the teachers talked about the fact that in many countries where the quarantine has already gone on much longer, there is a very clear problem which Ukraine will face: both students and teachers are tired of distance work. And in such new conditions, a top priority is not the effectiveness of instruction but supporting the more or less adequate state of people who for a long time are in threatening conditions and feel insecurity and fear.
“So, now we are studying and forced to respond very quickly to challenges. But we need to prepare for the fact that the quarantine may not be a sprint but a marathon. On this road it’s important not to tire yourself too early,” says Oksana Pasichnyk.
“To conduct even only two 40-minute Zoom webinars is fairly difficult,” Natalia Ilchyshyn confirms from experience. “And if you think that students can have 3-4 such classes per day, I start to think more actively about how to asychronize work for the course, to save a little time for ‘live’ discussions, which the students are used to, and to re-format separate assignments to give students a bigger opportunity to move at their own speed.”
Yulia Kokoyachuk, head of the Social Work program, who regularly communicates with students in the tutoring program, is also concerned about this:
“What worries me the most now is how our instruction will eventually look, because the first weeks were simply an interesting new format, but, later, teachers will need to constantly vary types of distance work. It can’t be video lectures every time.”
She observes that it seems that teachers are too often worried that students won’t have enough to do, and give in to the temptation to give assignments “in reserve,” and it is also not strange that students instead, even during a Zoom webinar, can turn off their cameras and “wander” on other parallel screens.
Iryna Kryvenko also talks about this: “Many of my colleagues lament that the 40 minutes which the free Zoom format offers is not enough. But it seems to me that this limitation might even be useful. To hold students’ attention during a distance lesson, in my opinion, is significantly more difficult than in a classroom, because we see what is happening with them in an entirely different way.”
At the end of the teachers’ discussion about distance teaching, they talked more about rules and friendly exchange of experience of how to work in new conditions and not lose your sanity. It seems that the ideas generated can also be useful for a wider community. We’re glad to share!
All teachers now have a critical lack of time. But we’re not the only ones lacking time; our students are, too. Each of us constantly needs to improve time management. The Pomodoro method helps us!
Let’s only foster realistic expectations!
It’s not worthwhile cultivating realistic expectations, as if now, during the quarantine, students will constantly read, watch a lot of our videos, work on all 140 presentations that we posted for the course, and then in addition to all this look at 300 pages of their own critical comments. If they listen to 3-4 hour-and-a-half lectures on Zoom with the stream of consciousness of their teachers, they do not at all have remaining mental resources for creative work on assignments!
Let us support one another in fighting temptations not to correct some expectations
We did not choose the distance format of learning in advance, but we were forced into distance learning and so forced to quickly adapt to this new reality. We need to train and improve, but it’s not worthwhile to expect from ourselves that every time we will plan and execute ideal lessons in which all instruments will ideally correspond to goals and tasks. We are in such difficult conditions. Let’s not give in to extra stress! It’s important to think about the students’ psychological state, and about our own psychological state, because we need an additional resource to support one another in the community of teachers.
We’re running with dignity in a marathon
Let’s remember that in the process of providing distance learning the teachers are to a special degree responsible so that this process will be refined not for a week or two but with a view to the long-term perspective. It’s important to prepare yourself not only to, with dignity, complete the educational process, but to support one another in the community. For UCU this can be an especially important challenge and value!
Photos: UCU Department of Information and Marketing and Pixabay
Source: UCU Center of Educational and Innovative Technologies
Author: Olha Lytvyn, assistant for the course “E-learning and mixed instruction,” coordinator of mixed instruction