A fellow member of my trade union, UCU (University and College Union), recently shared an article titled 'Please do a bad job of putting your courses online'. It opened: 'For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it'. 'Refuse
to do any synchronous work,' it went on. 'Do not record lectures.' I responded with the laughing icon, though I'm not sure it was a joke. It's an attitude I know well.
It wasn't a completely wacky article, making some good points but none that really justified the negativity. I teach online sometimes delivering the dreaded synchronous, which is to say 'live' tutorials. It's not unlike presenting a radio show with PowerPoint slides to a small possibly disinterested audience. It can occasionally get better than that but not often. I suspect we are all still learning how to do it. It's challenging to talk on any subject without a script for 90 minutes, more so with little feedback from the audience, but that is what online teaching often involves. Somehow teaching online and being recorded feels very different from face-to-face teaching – too public, impersonal, a bit screwed up.
A few years ago, lecturers on one course I taught were asked to team-teach online, like a live radio show but with two presenters, a tricky business when you cannot see the other speaker and are both partially improvising. One fellow lecturer and I took to referring to ourselves as 'Smashie and Nicey', the DJs from Harry Enfield's Television Programme,
and in fact watching Smashie and Nicey on YouTube was the only training we got for co-presenting. We are randomly teamed and at times it can be more like Smashie and Harpo, the elective mute in the Marx Brothers. 'So, would you agree with that definition Harpo?' I ask my partner, expecting a wee chat, a 'Yes, but,' or even a complete disagreement, hearing instead some undefined distant noise – a keyboard rattling in place of the car horn and then in the text box a link appears. I click and onto the screen pops a Googled definition of the subject I am discussing. Okay...
I got into online learning after they moved the wine section from the front of my local Sainsbury's to the back, at least I remember that as a landmark in the deterioration of my mobility. It meant I had to get my crutches out the boot. Face-to-face teaching became a physical endurance and while I would have been eligible for 'reasonable adjustment', I didn't feel comfortable about that and figured I might do better or be happier if I ventured into the exciting new discipline of online learning.
After completing an MSc, I approached the hospital teaching service to see if they were interested in providing online support to children in their care which was a dream job that had partly inspired my path. They weren't, insisting that there was no demand for such a thing and that children like me, who spent two Christmases in hospital, hardly existed now. Innocently accepting this as the explanation, I moved on and got a job as the eLearning guy with an Edinburgh community education project.
The technology was novel and I remember an exercise that worked with a group of Iraqi refugees involved sitting around a table with laptops having a spoken conversation that we simultaneously tried to type so it appeared in a message box projected on a screen for all to see. It's a pity we didn't realise we had invented Twitter. As an educational exercise it worked and it was a laugh, the words typed sometimes hilariously differed from those intended. They were all well-educated men, one had a PhD in architecture and planned to go back to Iraq to help rebuild the places we had helped demolish. We were using online learning technology but we were all sitting around the same table and that was by far the most valuable part of the experience – meeting.
Literacies learners too enjoyed the new technology in the classroom but had little interest in using it at home. Quite a proportion of these learners had some learning disability which often left them socially isolated, that inhuman euphemism for desperately lonely. For them, coming to class meant meeting and spending time with others. It might be the highlight of their week.
In 2009 – the year of swine flu – I found myself promoting the use of 'online blended learning' as part of a Scottish Government-funded programme touring community education centres from Galashiels to Skye. Community education is the Cinderella of the sector. With the exception of the centre in Skye, based in the stunning setting of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, most occupied repurposed buildings and library side rooms. They are all understaffed too, invariably topped up with volunteers and, this being a year after the 2008 crash, most faced a freeze or cuts to their already tight budget.
The workshops were well attended by the same mix of managers, paid tutors and volunteers and each centre visited got the chance to have their own online learning environment to populate with whatever they liked. Tutors in community education are a pretty political lot. The link between poverty and poor literacy skills is well known and most tutors have a strong sense of social justice – or injustice.
By workshop three, I realised that I better get used to the idea that at more or less every workshop someone would raise the possibility that my programme to promote online learning was part of a conspiracy to close centres and put the service online. It was explained to me over and over again how unsuitable this would be for the people they worked with. I knew this and took to reassuring them with the quip that if we grew up in a world where all we had was online learning and Microsoft invented the teacher – a person who stood up and explained things – we would all be amazed and rush to adopt teacher technology. The repeated message being that this was not instead of but in addition to.
Bizarrely enough, after a workshop in Broxburn in a long skinny room with painted shut windows, I came down with what I'm sure must have been swine flu. I slept for the best part of 48 hours soaked in sweat from head to foot and after changing the wet sheets once realised there was no point in changing them again. On recovering, I lay in the bath astonished to find I had acquired a dog-like 3D sense of smell and could count the bottles of shampoo and soap with my eyes closed from the individual scents. Amazing. This superpower didn't last. I also learned the price of being sick and self-employed when I had to pay from my own pocket a previous workshop attendee to deliver a workshop in my absence.
Of the dozen or more online environments set up for that programme, about half fell into disuse after a year. Those that chose to renew, sometimes year after year, were usually in centres where one enthusiastic individual took it on as part of their job, often a young tutor who liked using technology and could see the benefits. In the others, there was often an alignment of disinterest between centre managers and tutors. This was not something they thought their learners needed and if it was a success, wouldn't that be bad news? A justification for reducing face-to-face provision? For them, failure was the best possible outcome and the disinterest of the hospital teaching service began to make sense.
Working entirely online is grim in many ways. The only staff Christmas gatherings I go to are with colleagues I worked face-to-face with years ago. I wouldn't recognise most lecturers I work with online now if I bumped into them in the street, unlikely at the moment. Some because their online image is a cartoon character, others because they use a picture of themselves from 20 years ago when they had hair. When I leave or retire, I doubt if I will hear from any of them ever again.
The online worker no longer has the commute, the cycle or train ride to think over the injustice of some workplace annoyance. Rather, we step out of our office – the bedroom – and into the kitchen ranting about the indifference Harpo or someone has shown us, immediately polluting our home life with the stress of work. Online relationships with colleagues you have never met are impoverished, shallow and prone to misunderstandings. For these and many other reasons, online learning is no threat to face-to-face learning, which will always be a richer experience, but it has a new and important place in the learning environment and it must be allowed to take that place.
When my daughter's school closed a few weeks ago, I assumed that things had changed since 2009 and felt sure that the most popular National 5 and Highers must already exist online in a coherent week-by-week Open University-style format. When a letter from the headteacher referred parents to BBC Bitesize, I was shocked. In the absence of coherent online courses, teachers are emailing pupils with work, distributed through the Microsoft application One Note. It functions up to a point but it's difficult for the learner to know exactly where they are, what they have done and what they have missed, and it is patchy in quantity and quality.
Contrast this with her cousin in Jersey City, where they too are in lockdown. In addition to the emailed work, there are proper online courses, put in place years ago for home schooled children and short synchronous meetings with teachers – not live online lessons as such but 10 or 15 minute 'meet-ups' where the teacher says hello, explains the plan for the week or two ahead, takes questions and leaves them to get on with it. It's an important piece of contact, keeping the children motivated and connected.
There are private online courses, an N5 Scottish maths course, for example, 'created by an experienced maths teacher', has lots of free resources but charges £9.99 for a full study pack. Good on them for seeing an opportunity but why does that opportunity exist? Other subjects are not so well catered for.
Why, when they forever talk about children in poverty, is Education Scotland so far behind in the provision of complete coherent free online N5 and Higher courses? I suspect it is the same alignment of disinterests from top to the bottom I saw years ago. Disinterested mangers, disinterested head teachers, trade union opposition automatically triggered by any task not in the job description, and reluctance from teachers themselves. It is certainly not a lack of resources. Hosting is very cheap these days and we have a massive team of potential course creators sitting at home. If it takes one maths teacher two years to create an online N5 course, how long will it take the 2,364 maths teachers in Scotland if they all write a little bit each? Inverse proportion. Remember that?
With a change of attitude we could very quickly catch up and make the best of what could be a tremendous learning opportunity for our children and more importantly help carry them through this difficult time.