Tag Archives: Technology

Four Things I Don’t Hate About Online Schooling

Let me paint a picture.

I am standing on my well-loved blue yoga mat at the kitchen counter with my laptop perched on three coffee table books – America: An Illustrated History, Exciting Singapore: A Visual Journey, and 1000 Events That Shaped the World. Another coffee table book, The History of the World: From Earliest Times to Present Day, remains on the coffee table. But here I am at my makeshift standing desk. Like most people reading this, I’m living in an online world right now and my online world is school.

Those familiar with my work know that I typically talk about education. I’ve written at length about what education means and how I understand it. Right now, however, I am deliberately talking about schooling. Merriam-Webster says that schooling is:

  • instruction in school
  • training, guidance, or discipline derived from experience

That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re giving students instruction, asking them to do something, guiding them along the way, and giving feedback at the end. In a learning environment that was set up with intention and not in an emergency, this would look very different. Anyone who has taken a self-paced online course can attest to this. However, I do want to be realistic about what we can and cannot do right now. Ergo, the use of the word “schooling”.

I do not like online school; I know precious few who do. But there are four things I don’t hate about it, four things that I might actually even like.

Starting at the same point

At my school, we are using Google Meet and Google Hangouts to communicate. Email is still there but it has become increasingly common for students to send a quick hangout chat rather than a formal email. Students reach out very casually in a chat and I am more than happy to reply in kind. Breaking down hierarchy in schools is long overdue. Many students find video easier and it has become my practice to ask students for their preference. We’ve all learned how to share our screens and we’ve all made mistakes while doing so. We’ve all had trouble accessing documents or navigating new platforms.

Teachers and students are more alike in our current learning environment than we traditionally have been. This is new for all of us and the novelty makes us all real, genuine people. We’re all in this together in a very literal sense; no one can claim to have been here before and therefore it’s true that some have a much better handle on things than others. Sometimes, it’s the teacher but often, it’s the students.

While being genuine is important in all teaching and learning, I think it’s especially significant in our current context. I’ve asked my students about how things are going academically and in their personal lives and I reply when they ask in return. Some are really struggling, and so am I, and so are my colleagues. Under normal circumstances, this is easy to hide. But because these things literally are our every day lives, there’s no pretending. There’s no claiming we know the answers because every day, it’s more and more obvious that there are no answers right now.

The informality of our current online schooling system allows me to be involved in my students lives at a time when, by their own admission, they need human connection. Students who don’t normally like to talk have asked to talk. Students who are often reluctant to ask questions have been asking questions. One of my students (finally!) referred to me by my first name in our Advisory group.

We really are all in this together.

Learning out of interest

I teach grades 11 and 12 students and the expectations of and for grade 12 students changed significantly with the cancellation of exams. The message I have tried to get across has remained consistent since this announcement rocked everything we’ve worked for. But like I told my students, though I admit it took a couple days to find the words, the point of learning is not to sit an exam at the end. The point of learning, the way learning works in real life, is to explore something we want to understand and perhaps to share it with others.

The cancellation of exams for graduating seniors gave us the opportunity to remember that and to put it into practice. While my students study a lot of psychology over two years in the course, there’s a lot we don’t study. My students are interested in topics and questions far beyond the realm of the course and this gave us an opportunity to explore. They chose a question to investigate with the goal of sharing what they had learned with their peers. Many put together presentations, some recorded videos, and others created infographics. As part of their research, students wrote an annotated bibliography, many learning this highly practical (in the academic sphere) skill for the first time.

Most importantly, they enjoyed themselves. I conferenced with each student as they worked and they were excited about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There has been little time in the last two years when they’ve been able to learn something just for fun and just because they were interested in it. I’m glad that our current situation allowed them time to do so.

New ways to give feedback

I have never enjoyed collecting written work online because I find it very difficult to provide feedback that way. My students are used to their written work coming back covered in comments, circles (areas to fix), and underlines (well done, this is a key idea in what you’re saying). Each new cohort of students tends to find it initially alarming, which suggests that many of their teachers don’t mark up their work. But I do, and I’ve never been one for online submissions as a result.

However, that’s the only option we have now. Of course, not all tasks require extended written responses but I recently collected one that did. Instead of using the comments function on Google or the review function on Word to give feedback, I recorded it. I read through each student’s document and then ran through a screen recording. As I would when working individually with a student, I walked through each section of what they’d written and I talked, indicating certain parts of the text with the mouse or scrolling back and forth between other parts. I concluded each recording letting them know where they were on a scale of low-middle-high and summarising no more than three tips to move up. The recordings lasted between two and three and a half minutes.

I’ve never done this before and I put out a survey asking whether students liked getting feedback this way. Except for the one who replied “neutral”, all students said that they did and gave a very clear reason why. They said that it would be easier to look back, was easier to understand, and that they appreciated being walked through each part. Wow. Well then.

This is a time when we are trying to figure out what works for our students, who are going through something none of us adults can understand. It is really important that my students and I have settled on something that works for them. My responsibility now is to listen and to continue working together to make the best out of the system that we have.

Not chasing grades

There are many ways to find out what a student knows and understands. In a normal classroom, we find this out every time a student speaks or asks a question. Teachers gauge understanding as we watch who pairs up for activities, how long the activities take, and the resources students use without prompting. Ongoing informal assessment is not possible in an online schooling situation the way it would be (which is to say constantly) in a regular classroom. It is not fair to students to pretend that it is.

Additionally, formal assessment in a classroom is completely different than formal assessment online. For one thing, it is controlled in terms of time, materials available, and peer (or teacher) involvement. Formal assessment need not come in such a standard form but it often does. Again, online learning has thrown this on its head.

With my own students, I’ve provided options. In the above example of a written task, we actually generated a list as a class of all the possible ways students could think of to demonstrate understanding of a prompt. Not everyone wrote an outline or essay. Additionally, I’ve minimised grade bands. Rather than giving students a mark out of 22 and then converting it to the IB 1-7 grade bands, we talked about low-middle-high and variation within that.

Low-stakes assessments still tell me what my students know and therefore what we need to work on. From the students’ perspective, they don’t have the stress of thinking about a grade at the end. Hopefully it will also make it easier to talk about improvement without a number hanging in the background.

Conclusion

Like everyone else, I am eagerly awaiting the day I can welcome students back to school. I miss the conversations, the connections, and the general atmosphere of classrooms and hallways. Immersion in a dynamic and vibrant space is, after all, what I love about being a teacher. Standing in tree pose on my yoga mat doesn’t quite match up.

But I know that it’s important to find silver linings. I know that there is some learning to be had in every experience and in that sense, this one is not unique. I do not like online schooling but it’s not about liking or disliking right now. Instead, it’s about taking the emergency situation we are in and doing with it the best that we can. I have landed on four things that are actually going okay and four is more than I would have thought when this began mere weeks ago.

And, as always, there will be more to learn and try and implement along the way. It is my hope that the lessons we learn at this time are not forgotten but instead are taken to heart and into practice when times change yet again.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier. – John Dewey

What We Lose with Digital Communication

Houseparty. Zoom. Skype. FaceTime. Google Meet. Etc.

Indeed, there are myriad ways to remotely connect with others. Doing so is important in a world that does not find most of us living together in groups of extended family or friends. The current global pandemic response to Covid-19 is requiring us to rethink how we maintain our social relationships, particularly those that were previously largely restricted to the domain of face-to-face communication. Those relationships have now either gone by the wayside or have crossed into the realm of the relationships that were already largely digital.

We know that Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. This provides an important opportunity to delve into the influences digital technology has had, and will continue to have, on the ways that we communicate with others. Humans are social creatures who have evolved due to and on the basis of face-to-face relationships; digital communication is not that and we are not wired to communicate digitally.

This is not to say that digital communication cannot benefit nor facilitate interaction, but it does not have the same impact as a face-to-face conversation. While many might argue for its necessity, we also need to understand what digital communication can and cannot provide for its highly social users.

Neurological elements of conversation

Firstly, face-to-face communication allows for the full gamut of available stimuli to be processed by our brain. We have evolved to recognise micro-expressions and interpret body language and tone subconsciously and rapidly as part of what comprises communication. Recent psychology research, such as that of Joy Hirsch among many others, suggests that we mimic others’ gestures during verbal communication to enhance comprehension. Both congruence and incongruence between gestures and verbal communication act as social cues that then inform the subsequent interaction. Hirsch extends this research into trust, arguing that it is congruence between gestural and verbal communication that signals openness and trust.

Additional research suggests that face-to-face communication leads to activation of mirror neurons, which fire when we are performing a specific action and watch others do the same. This ability to recognise, process, and experience the mental states of others is one of the explanations that psychology can provide for the development of human empathy. Current research with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has allowed researchers to look at areas of the brain that activate in relation to the self, to others, and in relation to a computer. When dealing with humans, the hormone oxytocin increases trust. The same response does not occur when dealing with a computer.

Unfortunately, the nature of digital communication allows so much scope for distraction, so much extraneous cognitive load, that achieving such a relationship is nigh impossible. The implications of this are obvious.

But there are other effects to consider.

Empathy

As social creatures, humans have evolved to step into the shoes of others (whom those others might be is a fun topic in evolutionary psychology research) and take action accordingly. Relationships require us to understand one another’s emotions and perspectives and most of us know that this is challenging at the best of times. What happens when digital communication removes the facial expressions, gestures, tone, and cadence that we rely on to understand the meaning behind what others are saying? Additionally, what happens if we have not actually developed the ability to interpret these complex, nuanced cues as a result of the depth to which we have adopted digital communication?

Research suggests a decline in empathy scores over time with the most significant change occurring between 2000 and 2009, correlating with the rise of digital communication. Later generations of college students have shown lower scores on both empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, and perspective-taking, the cognitive component of empathy. Clearly, this is a problem.

However, it is also fair to point out that not all digital activity is the same and, therefore, the effects digital activity has on empathy can also vary. Research suggests that online activities that are a precursor to face-to-face communication are associated with higher real-life empathy, but other online activities that do not lead to face-to-face communication instead reduce real-world empathy scores. For example, chatting online with someone for a month means that I am far more likely to be empathic towards them when/if we meet in person, but participating in online activities based in fantasy worlds that do not transfer to real life might actually reduce real-world empathy.

Moreover, substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication can lead to a decrease in empathy because the brain’s empathic response depends on stimuli that digital communication filters out. As the researchers above suggest, while virtual empathy is positively correlated with real-world empathy, it is lower overall than real-world empathy scores. This means that we do not respond the same way in digital and in in-person spaces.

For example, think of the last time you ended a digital conversation feeling dissatisfied or distant. There’s a very strong possibility that someone responded to you in a digital space in ways that are not as thoughtful as you would have liked. This might be because the cues you sent were simply not picked up.

This brings us to another effect of digital communication, which is that of distraction.

Distraction

Most of us have been there. We’re messaging a friend and waiting for a reply when another notification pops up, or a housemate walks into the room, or the timer on the oven goes off. We put down our phone and our conversation pauses. When we return to the conversation again, even moments later, we pick up like nothing has happened.

But it has. While I’m taking something out of the oven or replying to an email, my friend might be sitting alone waiting for my response. My friend might have watched my status go from “typing” to blank space. And when I return to the conversation, I have no way of knowing what my friend has experienced in the time that lapsed. My friend doesn’t know what I was doing, either. 

In person, conversation depends on cadence and on rhythm. It ebbs and flows based on pauses, tone, and body language. I show I am listening by nodding or making appropriate noises. And I know it’s my turn to speak when suitable time has passed or I am asked a question.

Despite the immediacy of face-to-face communication, misunderstandings still occur. We all know this. This begs the question: If we get conversation wrong so often in real life, with all the richness of the cues and prompts in full view, how do we fare in the sterility of a digital space?

Psychology tells us (thanks to Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders) that over 85% of the stimulus that goes into our brains is visual, which means that all of the visual stimulus occurring at a particular time is competing for our attention. This means that anything that our eyes hook onto runs the chance of taking our attention away from anything else that was happening. As stated above, this could be as seemingly benign as a notification.

Psychology also tells us that less than 1% of all the sensory stimuli that are around us arrive at the brain. Think about that again. Less than 1% of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste actually gets registered by our brain.  Attention is the most critical variable in being understood, yet it is also the thing that is seduced the most in a remote world. Without the immediacy of our conversation partner to direct us to the interaction that we are having, we waver, we wander, and we lose.

Induced media multitasking

Considering what we know about the brain’s capacity to pay attention to stimuli, it is not surprising that humans are poor multitaskers. In fact, we do not multitask at all. Instead, the brain performs extremely rapid switches to allow us to go back and forth between tasks. As I write this, music is playing in the background. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on the words I’m typing when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is interrupting.

But if you’re anything like my students, you’d shout, “But wait! I need music to focus!” Some people claim that. Although the human brain is wired to process competing stimuli as a matter of survival, the processing of multiple stimuli means that we have a greater cognitive load and therefore less bandwidth, as in the above from Nørretranders, to pay attention. This means that while we can, by all appearances, do more than one thing at once, or attend to more than one area at a time, switching our attention also means that we do neither thing well.

To put it bluntly, the digital world requires us to look at multiple things. We do not look at any of them well, despite all we might say to convince ourselves and others of the opposite.

The erosion of meaningful connection

When communicating in digital spaces, we are less empathic, more distracted, and caught between competing stimuli. These are only some of the considerations to be aware of as our contact with others increasingly occurs in the digital world.

I am particularly concerned with the effects this has on meaningful human connection. If all of the above weren’t enough, also consider the fact that it is far easier to separate ourselves from others in a digital space than in a physical environment. One issue here is the security that many feel with the anonymity that digital communication provides. The research on bullying speaks volumes about what can happen when people are not in real-world contact with one another.

Furthermore, my digital communication with another person is separated by a screen. I might read their words or even hear their voice but I am in my own world and my own space. This prevents me from experiencing what my conversation partner is describing and can lead to desensitization of myself from another person. I am occupied with my world and choose when to enter theirs but we no longer occupy the space together. As we become more distant from one another, our conversations might fade from intimate, if they ever were, to cursory. 

Ultimately, the fear is that we are leading to a world of emotional isolation. If we are separated from others and cannot connect empathically with them the way that we are wired to do, what is left of communication? And without the connection that real-world communication facilitates, who do we become? How are we supposed to feel, to experience, to be? Who can we share our lives with?

These are very real questions that have been asked before, but the time now mandates that we ask them again, and do so forcefully.  All of us who are fortunate enough to have access to the digital world will experience some if not all of what is noted above, and all of us are therefore obliged to look around us, to acknowledge the issues that exist, and to act so that we can maintain some of our humanity.


Special thanks to a friend for the questions and dialogue that sparked this piece.

A Valentine for Online Dating

Dear Online Dating,

Roses are red and violets are blue,
and today’s the day I break up with you.
That’s it, we’re done, we’re through.
But don’t worry – it’s me, not you.
You have millions of users, I know,
so it’s not a problem for this one to go.
Violets are blue and roses are red,
and there are other things I’d like to do instead.

Our time together began when I was newly single in New York and it’s going to end here in Singapore where I’ve come to define myself in myriad other ways. Single, I’ve learned, is an adjective. It’s not a punishment or a judgement and it’s not written across my forehead in sparkly red glitter. In many ways, it’s as much a choice as anything else. So sure, I’m single, but I’m many other things, too.

Was our time together all bad? No, certainly not. I must acknowledge that you gave me some laughs and some good stories. You taught me that I need to stand up for what matters to me because if I don’t, no one will.

Perhaps I know myself a little better now.

I don’t regret our relationship and I am grateful for the good friend (singular) that I made through you. I don’t regret the outings I went on and the places I explored. I’d don’t regret the people that I met, and oh there are all kinds of people out there! I don’t regret stepping outside of my comfort zone because this, after all, is how we grow.

I admit, there was a time when you made me feel admired, a time when your notifications would fill me with excitement (read: when the instant gratification meant a hit of dopamine) and I’d eagerly open you up to see what there was to see. I used to swipe on your apps and flip through your profiles and imagine conversations with your users.

But all you care about is a pretty face and there’s a lot more to me than that.

There were times when you were, dare I say it, entertaining. You were a good way to spend 10 minutes after a run when I was flooded with endorphins. You were a way to pass a few minutes in line at the grocery store. There was a time when I’d excitedly share our experiences with real friends, the in-person kind, and thought maybe, just maybe, something good would come of you.

Something did, but it wasn’t your promise of everlasting love and eternal happiness. You’ve turned loving and living into something that can be bought and sold with ads and algorithms. I don’t know where that world is but it isn’t the world I live in.

I’ve loved and been loved and I live in a world that’s hard but filled with so much beauty. You’re trying to create a different world but I’m not finished with this one yet.

With the help of your technological guidance and curated profiles, I’ve grown up and moved on and I don’t need you anymore. You’re all about the next thing and the best thing and the new thing and for me, well, today is enough. It’s been nice knowing you. Thanks for the ride.

Love,

Rebecca Michelle