When South Africa entered a state of disaster and then a national lockdown shortly thereafter, the education system had to act fast.

A few friends of mine who are teachers spent full days planning out lessons and making arrangements to continue teaching online.

While this was admirable, now that we are a few months into lockdown and COVID-19 shows no sign of slowing down or being ousted from our lives, perhaps it’s worth rethinking what remote learning is.

Yes, using Zoom to host a class is good and valuable for many students, but chief development officer at MasterStart, Paul Lensen argues that a video conference is just one part of a much larger evolution of remote learning.

Chief development officer at MasterStart, Paul Lensen.

“Real online learning is very different from trying to replicate physical classrooms on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet. Online, dare I say, is not a proxy for face to face teaching – it is inherently different. And unless that difference is clearly understood by all, online learning simply won’t take the evolutionary leap forward so many of us are predicting,” says Lensen.

Video conferencing then is something of a stop-gap between the way we’ve always done things and the future.

Using the example of online learning platforms, Lensen says that a large part of the spend on these systems is on the curriculum design rather than the system itself.

“A lot of time, effort, and expense goes into a properly designed online course. It’s why they’re so effective,” says Lensen.

Educators should look at how these platforms include more than just a lecturer speaking to faceless students. Often these platforms include quizzes, virtual classrooms and other bite-sized activities that keep students engaged throughout the course.

But more than that, teachers, principals and other decision-makers in the education sector must start to look to the future rather than hope for a return to how things once were.

“Right now, educators need to realise that remote learning requires a different approach to the physical classroom. Key to this approach is a learning management system, which facilitates opportunities to ask questions, answer them, have discussions, and collaborate,” says the MasterStart CDO. “It’s a new way of teaching, but practised properly, it can be incredibly effective.”

Is this a hard ask? Perhaps. Educators will have to become more tech savvy but more than that, they will also have to be engaging over video.

YouTube has shown us that anybody with a camera can tell their story and become famous. But that’s only half true.

Engaging with an audience over a camera is very different to engaging face-to-face and teaching will have to adapt to this changing eco-system. Of course, not everybody does well talking to a camera and this may influence the skillset teachers will need in future.

But engaging with an audience is likely one of the easier things to do.

Managing a virtual classroom is a feat unto itself and Lensen says that clear rules must be laid out and enforced.

“It’s also important that educators effectively lay out best practice in their subject as well as classroom parameters and etiquette to learners and parents alike. We’ve all been on a Zoom call where everyone starts talking at once. It’s frustrating enough when a few adults do it, now imagine the chaos that ensues when 30 enthusiastic children get involved in a debate,” says Lensen.

“If structures and systems are important in a face to face classroom, they’re even more vital for remote learning. A good place to start in this regard is by using a quiz or poll to guide the conversation.”

These are just some considerations to be made, but already you might be able to see that simply migrating a classroom to Zoom, temporarily, is not remote learning.

It is a step, yes, but it is one step on a very long journey.

If anything, COVID-19 has revealed how old and nonsensical the education system is. A drastic change is needed but it requires more work than I think anybody expects.

That’s the problem with doing things a certain way “because we’ve always done it this way”, eventually you are forced to try something new.

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]