Learners do not need to see you in person or even in live video in order to learn long division, the causes of the American Revolution, or subject-verb agreement.
You may want to have face-to-face interactions with students, but it’s not necessary for you to have face-to-face interactions with students in order for you to teach or for them to learn.
Seeing you may even distract students from attending to what you are teaching.
Students forced to become distance learners must have teachers who can distinguish between what’s essential to teach and what’s not essential to teach. Students must have teachers who choose to focus on essentials—even if teacher and students can’t see each other.
Yes, it’s possible that not being able to see you will make students feel less connected to you, less connected to school.
But just because students feel connected to you doesn’t mean the students learn any faster or learn more thoroughly. Being deeply connected to your students doesn’t make you a better teacher.
Frankly, any persons over 24 whose lives are shattered if they don’t spend face time with 7-year-olds five days a week has a serious problem that discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine will not cure.
The “curse of knowledge” is that once you know how to do something you can’t imagine not being able to do that action or activity. Teachers are particularly susceptible to the curse, and their students suffer as a result.
I’ve been experiencing the effects of the curse of knowledge as I began to learn to use the Affinity Publisher program developed by Serif, which was, quite by coincidence, as the Covid-19 epidemic roared into New York State. Serif has a variety of aids to available to learners, including written materials and videos in which graphic specialists show and tell what to do.
I do not learn well from videos: There are far too many distracting elements, I often can’t visually isolate what it is I’m supposed to see unless an audio track describes the appearance of what I’m to look for, and presenters often obscure or cover the vital element. After watching a video clip, I have to, for example, click on all the elements in the upper left corner of my screen to see if I can figure out which of them the presenter clicked.
To work around my video handicap, I began by using Affinity Publisher’s written instructional materials. For realistic practice, I’m using the manuscript of second edition of my Writing Teacher’s ABCs, which I have to have to the printer in June.
I was able to build page templates and use them to make pages into which to put my content, but the process wasn’t easy or intuitive. Tools had different names than I was accustomed to seeing in other page layout programs I’ve used. And there didn’t seem to be any logic to how tools were grouped: I kept finding the graphic equivalents of ladies’ hats in the underwear drawer.
I’d click a dozen times on the arrowhead icon to flow text from one block to another and nothing would happen except that I’d cause the program to hang up and have to close it, reopen it, and recover the text. I discovered quite by accident after I’d built more than 170 pages of my book that to flow text between blocks the cursor must be within the link “from” text block before you click the arrowhead icon.
The problems I’m having learning to use Publisher aren’t happening because the graphic specialists don’t know their jobs, but because they know them too well. They’re victims of the curse of knowledge. They no longer recall what they needed to know before they could do anything, let alone learn the fancy stuff.
Unless the pandemic magically disappears, we teachers are going to be doing a lot more online teaching where we have manifold opportunities for displaying the curse of knowledge. It’s vital that we make sure we aren’t assuming students (and/or their parents) know more than they actually know. You probably have relatively few opportunities to get feedback from your students or their parents now, so you really have to double-down on scrutinizing what you plan to present and ask yourself whether you are assuming students know some prerequisite information or skill that they may never have acquired.
It won’t be easy to get through the rest of this school year, but if all the pandemic does is teach you to avoid the curse of knowledge, it might just be the best learning experience you ever had.
Last week in this space, I told you that the one thing you must do when in online learning classes is to teach your students how to learn your subject. Today I’d like to tell you a story about how I came to that conclusion.
It was due to a student in a first year college writing class I taught a few years ago. The course was an eight-week, online, asynchronous course conducted entirely in writing. I was supposed to turn the students out with a semester’s worth of writing skill.
My typical writing classes were 75 to 80% male (women tended to drop out when they saw my first published book was about installing steam turbines) and usually every hour of the day some of the students were at their jobs. By some fluke, each of the students in this particular class was employed full-time, each worked days, and each was a woman.
Because the students were able to be online evenings, I made a point of being available in the “course room” evenings. The format became much like a seminar, with students interacting with one another and with me through written messages. Many evenings there would be a half dozen student and myself on line discussing their work.
One of the women, who I’ll call Alice (I’ve forgotten her name), was bright and hard-working, but she had a mediocre high school English program to overcome. All the other women liked Alice. To encourage her, they sat for many hours when I’m sure they had other things they could have been doing while I explained to Alice what she didn’t get in high school.
Alice really struggled, but she earned the B she needed for her employer to pick up part of the tab for her course.
The last night of the class, the women were saying their farewells and talking about what courses they would be taking next. Alice posted a note saying that she wished she could the writing course over again. She hastily added, “I can’t believe I just wrote that. This course was so hard for me, and I had to work so hard, but when I started, I did not know how to learn. Linda taught me how to learn. Now that I know how to learn, I could really benefit from taking the course again.”
I consider that student one of my greatest success stories. She no longer needed me. Learning how to learn enabled her take charge of her education. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted, whether she had a teacher or not.
The reason I teach is that I want students to be able to learn without me.
If you’re an online teacher, you probably were forced into online teaching. That’s how many people get into distance learning: There’s a need, you’re here, you start tomorrow.
That’s basically how I got started teaching at a distance about 30 years ago. I’ll tell you about that another day.
Today, I’d like to tell you the one thing you absolutely must do when you teach online.
You must teach your students how to learn your subject.
Please read that last sentence again slowly. This concept is critically important.
Teaching students how to learn your subject is different than teaching them your subject matter. Online classrooms aren’t good places for delivering the drill necessary to get most students to do well on bubble tests. (Offline classrooms aren’t either, but they have the advantage of more time for drill.)
In online settings, your live presentations (or your prepared and posted ones if you’re teaching an asynchronous course) must focus students’ attention on how to go about learning what they must learn.
Even in classroom settings, you cannot expect your presentations to teach everything students must learn. Online teaching requires even more selectivity. Your distance learning presentations must focus on teaching the terms, facts, patterns, and strategies that are required for learning your subject. Most of students’ learning will need to occur after your presentations.
All subjects aren’t learned the same way. Students don’t learn algebra the way they learn history. So, in addition to teaching that relatively small core of essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies, you must craft appropriate activities that enable students to learn to apply those patterns and strategies on their own after your presentation.
If you are an elementary or middle school teacher thrown into online teaching during this pandemic, you have two sets of students instead of one. You have your pupils, of course, but you also have those pupils’ parents. You should try to
put the essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies where parents can access them and
make your follow-up activities parent-friendly.
Giving third graders assignments that mom and dad can’t do won’t win you friends at the PTA.
This month is 30 years since I first went online to work.
In January of 1983, I became city editor for a small newspaper with a decentralized staff. Reporters worked from offices in the county seats, rarely coming to the main office.
They sent their day’s news budget by computer. Later, after the stories came in, we conferred by telephone as I edited copy as deadlines loomed.
It was, by today’s technology standards, a clumsy system, but it worked. We got the paper out on time most nights, and we delivered a good product to readers.
Since then, I’ve taken courses in online education and taught online, but that initial job working together with people to produce a product remains the defining experience of my online education: It taught me the potential of computer connections for collaborations across geographic boundaries.
What was the defining experience in your online education?
Twenty-five years ago, the late Freeman VanWickler anticipated today’s harsh educational climate and began to prepare for it.
VanWickler saw distance learning as the only way small rural school districts could overcome the challenges of demographics and geography and provide quality education at affordable prices. Under his leadership, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in New York’s Delaware, Chenango, Madison, and Otsego counties had an nationally recognized distance learning program.
In that pre-Internet era, classes were created by dial-up connections between computers, which delivered graphic content, while audio was provided by speakerphone. The program’s best teachers, such as Michael Foor-Pessin of Otselic Valley Central School District, former Colgate University and Norwich High School teacher Raymond T. Howes, and College of Saint Rose special education professor Edward Pieper, understood how to overcome the audiographic technology’s limitations by focusing on its assets: It was an almost ideal medium for small group instruction.
Unfortunately, the policy makers of the DCMO BOCES could not see understand how students could possibly learn when they could not see a teacher lecture. And today’s drivers of online education—declining funding, teacher reductions, emphasis on post-secondary education—were years away.
Distance learning seemed a silly waste of money to school boards and administrators.
VanWickler relentlessly sought publicity and funding for the program, but it was a battle he lost.
When VanWickler retired, under his successor the distance learning program was dismantled.
Today VanWickler’s successor has retired, and distance learning is the fastest growing segment of education.
Freeman A. VanWickler
June 18, 1927 – April 13, 2010