10 years later – Takeaways from Learning in Online Spaces

Doubt always creeps in, doesn’t it? I wasn’t sure I should share. Yes I have 10+ years of experience teaching educators in online spaces both in formal, informal settings. I’ve also had the awesome opportunity to explore blended spaces with K-12 over that time. But these are unprecedented times bringing a unique learning experience with a unique relationship with the online space we haven’t seen before.

So, even if it’s just a small nugget, here are my big takeaways from the last ten years that may be helpful now. I go into more detail below if you want more!

The Learner is still the centre

You know when you have one of those realizations, one of those moments when the ideas click. We were at a session and it hit me: “The curriculum is in service to the child, not the other way around.” Simple words but it helps me reframe my planning when I get off track. All we do comes back to the child and the advantage in our current situation is YOU KNOW YOUR LEARNERS REALLY WELL! You know their interests, passions, curiosities. Build on that!

It may seem this is more a thing for the little learners but I think it’s essential when working with learners of all ages. Listen & respond in your own way. I remember in one junior AQ I was facilitating, a colleague who was exploring an inquiry in light and sound. She found this amazing festival where they used lights in their puppet parade through town. I had just seen Moment Factories creations and that was the spark into a discussion we both learned from. It’s an experience I’ll never forget for both of us.

The Environment is still the 3rd Teacher

I know it feels weird not to have your learners in front of you. In August/September we spend so much time creating an inviting environment to welcome our learners, its hard to imagine learning in this unknown space.

To say I’ve figured this one out would be a lie but I have learned a few things.

  1. To feel like a community, they need to know you are real, that you are on the other side of their screen. Teaching online certainly has made me more comfortable with recording myself but it isn’t the only way to bring my presence to the space. I would create little weekly clips for my AQ courses (you can check a collection out on Flipgrid here) so I could ground the learning of the week and they knew I was listening. I know we will probably come up with so many great solutions to foster community as we are apart.
  2. Choose your space wisely. You know your learners and your learning goals. Choose the best fit for you! Sometimes your choices are limited (sometimes even prescribed 😂) but you often still have the option to control the tools and simplify the experience.
  3. Full disclosure, I was one of those teachers with way too many things on the wall and piles on my desk. We often talk about the impact of clutter in a physical classroom. I’d argue that digital clutter is a thing too. Purposeful design helps communicate a message that we may not be able to capture with words.

Start Slow – Less is More

I know it sounds cliche, everyone is saying it, but I do think this was a big takeaway for me. All those strategies we would use in September – getting to know our space, our learners, establishing routines, will be needed again in this blended transitional space. It’s hard when you have the friend that finished everything you posted the first day and another friend you haven’t been able to connect with yet. But slowing down, starting small lets, everyone find their rhythm in this space.

There are many great digital tools out there. I love them all. Over time I realized not everyone shared my love for all things tech. I learned that as much as I could use different tools to share my notes, learning, ideas I couldn’t demand that of others. We had 2 or 3 go to tools we focused on as a community. Started with our home environment and then slowly added others like the Google Suite [docs, slides, forms], Mentimeter and Padlet (I’d do Jamboard now). I also shared items as unlisted links so they didn’t have to log in. Those that were ready, would play with the additional tools I was sharing. Those that weren’t still felt they could be active participants. Some groups were ready for more but it was more the exception than the norm.

As we explore what distance learning looks like for ALL our learners, starting small and simple will be key.

Choice

There are so so so many amazing resources out there. You want to grab them all and share them. I know when I enter a digital space and see 50 possible links for a task, I’m overwhelmed. If I’m being completely honest, I tune out around link 10.

Over time in the AQ courses I realized the importance of curated choice. If I wanted to act as a provocateur, and knew the richness of learning came through the interaction, I needed to design accordingly. Instead of 10 links, I would provide 3. Instead of a long list, I would group the collections to make it more manageable.

Along with curating the choices I made, I also tried to ensure a diversity of text forms. I have my own formula that I revert back to when I’m stuck: Something to read, something to view, something to explore (image/interactive/podcast). As we discuss equity the text forms we privilege communicate a message to our learners. Over time I’ve also added another reflective question to my practice to ensure I check for my own biases: Which voices am I privileging? Which voices are missing?

Replicate the Experience not the Task

I was so happy the first AQ course I taught was in person with an amazing crew. I was 27 at the time unsure of what I was walking in to, unsure of what I had to share with colleagues. I walked in to a room of eager, passionate educators and I was immediately put at ease. Many in the group had years of experience, some locally, some abroad, some even in primary itself. When I sat in front of my computer that first time I realized I wanted that sense of community I experienced, the learning that comes from relationship.

At first I focused on taking our discussions from class, the slides – my banter – and replicating it online but it didn’t work. I needed to act as a provocateur in online spaces more than ever. I needed a spark, great questions and then immerse myself in dialogue with learners. Sometimes there still is a need for some direct instruction (there’s a great video on the learning exchange about responsive direct instruction) but I found I had to rethink what that looked like. Often I use video. Over time I’ve realized I could say things much more succinctly. We interact with media differently on our devices and yes I know they sat through Endgame no problem but I know my production skills aren’t at that level yet so I try to keep videos to 1 to 5 minutes at the most. It’s an exercise in communication that’s for sure!

Sometimes Things Don’t Go as Planned

I was so excited. I had this brilliant plan that I would do office hours weekly on Google Hangouts. It was easy. They didn’t need to sign in (my go to with extra tools). I would just share the link. No one came. NO ONE! I was ok with being persistent the first 3 weeks. It takes time to get comfortable with different tools. Some people don’t want to see themselves online. Week 9 rolled in and I gave up. It didn’t work for the crew I was with. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of that great plan you thought would rock but just like in your physical classroom, it’s ok if it doesn’t work. It’s ok to change course. Hey it’s essential to change course and be responsive to your learners.

I know my takeaways aren’t really new or unique but maybe there is one new timbit you can take with you or maybe it’s just a reminder that you got this! You know your learners. You are a great teacher. You have the best knowledge you need to get started. And if you need some tech help, a design buddy, a listening ear, I’m always here. Feel free to connect any time!

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