Sunday, March 1, 2020

Inequity in eLearning Courses?

I believe that building community in a classroom is extremely important. In my class I want students to feel comfortable, valued and appreciated. I want all students to contribute and to help each other reach our collective goal of getting better at math. I want my online class to be as similar as the face-to-face class as possible but this is no small task.

To help simulate the face-to-face class I provide students with a video of me giving the instructions for what needs to be done on a daily basis. I have heard from students that they really appreciate this. It allows them to see that there is a person behind the course. Likewise, I would like to connect with the student on the other end. As such during the first week or two I wanted students to use some video. I wanted them to create a short video about something unrelated to math so that they knew how to use the video tool built into the learning management system (LMS). This was meant to simulate the discussions you might have with students before class started or after it was done. It was also a way for them to figure out the technology before they needed it.

I also asked students to meet with me one-on-one using the video conferencing tool built into the LMS. Again the goal was to show them how to use the tool and to check in with them to ensure that things were going well so far.

What I noticed was that some students were reluctant to meet online. I get it. I'm a stranger to them and they don't know what to expect. Most eventually warmed up to the idea but here are a few things that I noticed.

When I met with the students, I had my video camera on. Some students right away figured out how to turn theirs on and did so without any prompting. It seemed natural for them to want us to see each other. Some students seemed reluctant to turn their cameras on and didn't do so until I explained how to and I asked them to try it to see if it worked. Most who turned on their cameras eventually warmed up to the idea of sharing video of themselves. I do, however, still have some students that have not met with me yet. A couple of them are boys who joined the course late. I'll have to reach out to them this week and try to connect. Some of them are girls, one of whom has admitted to being very shy. This had me wondering if there was a trend of female students who did not want to share video. I have been thinking a lot lately about if this is a trend, why that might be?

Is it possible that teenage girls are generally less comfortable on video than boys? Are they more self-conscious? Does self-image play a role here? Does it matter that I'm a male teacher? Would it be different if they had a female teacher?

These were all questions that have occupied my mind over the past few days. If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then I fear that the girls in my course will be at a disadvantage. And that scares me! I want to create an equitable learning environment for all students. I want all students to succeed, to be able to get the tools and information that they need to be successful in the course, and beyond. Are my (unconscious?) biases creating inequity in my course?

A natural next step might be to ask if it is necessary to use video in my class? Not at all. Is it helpful? I think so. When I'm explaining something to a student, in person, I use lots of cues, such as body language, facial expression, etc. to help me see how the information is being received. If the student has a confused look on their face, I know that I need to go into more detail, try another approach, or use a different strategy altogether and again their body language will help me find something that works. Without the visual cues I have to rely strictly on audio (or even worse, text). Sometimes you can hear in a student's voice when they are lost, but it's not always easy. The more information that I can take in as a teacher, the better chance I have of correctly reading the student. As a result, I feel that students who take advantage of the video options in the course have a better chance of being successful than those who don't. I don't have any scientific evidence or data to support this, but it's what my gut reaction is telling me.

I worry that I'm creating a class of inequity. And that scares me! Are boys getting more out of my course than girls? Along the same lines, are extroverts getting more out of it than introverts?

You might ask "Isn't this the same as in a regular class?" The difference is that in a regular class I try to reduce these factors. Most students aren't too shy to come to class (especially once they get to know me). Again, I can read a student's reaction to every interaction we have and adjust my approach until I find something that works for that student. This is a much harder and far more time consuming task in an online environment and for students who choose not to engage, it may never happen.

Another difference is that in a face-to-face class, the introverts can listen in on the questions and conversations of the extroverts. In an online situation, many of the conversations are one-to-one conversations rather than the one-to-many that happen in the classroom. Am I putting introverted girls at a huge disadvantage? By offering these online courses, are we inadvertently creating a system that favours outgoing boys? I sure hope not, but based on my small sample size and my unscientific method, it's something that has me worried.

The last and most obvious issue of equity that I've been thinking about is access to the course. There are some students who do not have access to the course at home. This is most often due to lack of internet access, but could also be as a result of not having the technology available at home. I tell students that they need to make a habit of using the time scheduled in the school day to work on the course at school. Some heed the advice, others don't. Some even have their eLearning course as an add-on to their regular day (meaning they have four courses at their school plus an eLearning course). I worry that students who have access at home have an advantage over those who do not. They can spend more time with the course than those who only have access at school. They also have greater access to me. I make myself available for students when I'm not teaching my face-to-face classes. The obvious downside here is that some students work on their eLearning course when I'm teaching. I make myself available outside of the school day to accommodate these students. For students who aren't able to meet with me during the school day and who don't have access to the course at home, their synchronous access to me is greatly reduced. This worries me!

I don't know what the solutions are to any of these issues nor am I entirely sure that they are big issues. I do, however, think they are worth pondering, discussing, investigating further and addressing if they are in fact real issues. If you have any suggestions, thoughts or comments, I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Reflection from an E-Learning Teacher

I taught an online course (e-Learning) for the first time last year (actually it was the second time but the first time was over 15 years ago and things were very different then). I get a lot of questions about what it's like teaching these courses and I spend a lot of time thinking about them so I thought I'd reflect on that experience in the hopes of improving upon it moving forward.

I want to start by saying that I'm a big believer in using technology, when it's appropriate and that I love trying new things. When the opportunity arose, last year, to teach an online course I figured I'd give it a try to see what it was like. I wondered if I could find a way to make e-Learning a good experience for as many students as possible. I had used the virtual learning environment with my face-to-face classes and knew the tools and how they all worked, but I was curious to see if I could use those tools to improve what was (and largely still is) the standard method of delivering courses via e-learning.

The course I taught was the grade 12 Data Management. This is a course that many students take because they need a grade 12 university level math course to get into a post-secondary program. I was provided with the stock ministry approved course, which I could use out of the box, modify or disregard entirely. The stock course had recently been updated so I was looking forward to trying it out. As I browsed the course I realized that it wasn't laid out the way that I would lay it out and that the course was still very text heavy. After pondering how to proceed I decided that the stock course was not the way I would teach my face to face students. Then I struggled with the idea of equity. Was it equitable for me to settle on one, arguably inferior, delivery method in an online course but to flat out reject that method in my face-to-face class? Why should the medium allow me (encourage me?) to settle for an inferior option? These questions made me very uncomfortable using the stock course. I decided instead that I would develop and create a course that was as similar to my classroom as possible. I realized that creating an exact clone of my classroom was impossible, but I wanted to see how close I could get.

I created videos daily. Students in my classroom see me every day. I wanted the same to be true online. There were videos providing instructions for each day and there were instructional videos describing, in detail, the topic for each day. I tried to come up with some good 'thinking questions' to work on. I provided practice questions with answers and fully worked solutions. I met (virtually) with students, individually and in groups, to help them with concepts they struggled with. It was a ton of work. I estimated that for every hour of class I was spending three to four hours. It was an unsustainable pace, but my thinking was that it would benefit students in the end. I was confident that students completing the course would have a good understanding of the course content rather than just being able to complete work.

When I tell this story, it's usually at this point that I'm asked "Did it work? How did your class do?". And this is where my heart sinks as I answer in the negative. The statistics from my class are as follows:

  • Started the class with 32 students
  • Lots of coming and going in the first couple of weeks
  • Class size settled at 32 students
  • Finished the class with 23 students
  • Only 15 students passed

In my books a 47% pass rate is a failure. Even if you only look at students who actually completed the course I still only had a 65% pass rate. In a grade 12 university level class this is a failure in my books and it's a far cry from the pass rate in my face-to-face grade 12 classes.

I believe that my online course was a good course for a small percentage of students. These were students who were extremely motivated, hard working, independent learners who were comfortable advocating for themselves ("I don't know how to do this. Can we meet to go over it?"). Many of the students who were successful also had parents who likely understood the importance of daily commitment and worked to keep their children accountable to the course. Which brings up the idea of equity again. Not all students have an adult that can keep them on track in person.

As I reflect on my experience I ask myself why were students unsuccessful in the course? There are many factors here, but here are some of my thoughts.

Many students couldn't handle the independence of an online course. It's easy to put off the work for a day or two, which can easily become three or four days. Once behind, many students become overwhelmed by the volume of work that needs to be completed to catch up. Some try to take shortcuts, which leads to a limited understanding of the content. Once behind many students become anxious and develop a sense of "there's no point anymore". It's hard to ignore a teacher you see daily. It's easy not to login to your course so you don't have to see that your teacher has reached out. All of this despite the positive encouragement I provided. I always offered students a non-punitive way to re-engage in the course. I gave them opportunities to submit any missed work, write any tests they missed, etc. I offered to work with them one-on-one (daily) until they were caught up. I would say that very few students who disengaged in the course at some point were able to get back on track. 

I think another reason for my poor results comes down to relationships. As much as I tried, it was often difficult to develop strong relationships with students online. It wasn't impossible but it was certainly more difficult than in person. At my school, many students who join my class, even for the first time, have a relationship with me. For some it's as simple as 'Hey he's the guy that stands outside his room and says hi to me every morning' or 'That's the teacher that stops by our practice and compliments us for our hard work'. These little things all happen outside of class. There are likely hundreds of other small things like this that happen in class on a regular basis. They are things that I don't think about and don't notice until a student points them out to me, but they are all small things that help build relationships with students. It's much harder to do these things online.

In addition to building relationships with students I work hard to build a community in my classroom. The students that I see face-to-face see how much I care, how much I want them to succeed. They realize that we all have the same goal of being successful in the class. I try to help them see that they all  have something to contribute and that we can all learn from each other and grow together. I think sometimes students are surprised to hear that I learn from them. There are the obvious things like teaching me the new lingo or what Tik Tok is all about, but there are also the less obvious things such as teaching me how they learn best and what things I can do to improve their learning. As part of this community I sense that many of my students don't want to let me down. I need to find a way to create this sense of community online.

I'm currently teaching the class again and my goal this semester is to really work on building relationships with students, their parents and their guidance counsellors. At the very least this will help us build a community centered around the student.

This time around, in the first week I've asked students to setup 10 minute interviews with me so that I can get to know them a bit,  make sure they are comfortable with the online tools and just make sure they are off to a good start. I've met with 10-12 students so far and have a number of other interviews scheduled for next week. There are a good number of students that I haven't heard from yet so I'll have to touch base with them early next week.

The first time I taught the course I had students work together, live on a group test. This allowed me to gather some observational and conversational data. I'm hoping to do more synchronous group work. The scheduling can often be difficult but I think it's the only way for students to see that they can and should rely on each other for support.

This post is already much longer than I had intended so I think I'll wrap it up despite having more thoughts about what e-learning is and what it should be. I'll save that for another post. I apologize for such a long post but these are all things that I've been thinking about a lot lately. More importantly, I keep thinking about how I can improve. If you have any comments, suggestions or questions, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

MPM1D1 - Day 87 Last Day of Classes

Today was the last day of the semester. We started the period by going over a couple of questions that much of the class struggled with then they were able to work independently or in small groups to go over what they thought they should study.

A number of students had clearly used the last couple of days off effectively and had some very specific questions to ask. A number of students had a hard time focusing and didn't use the period effectively. I think coming back after an unexpected two day holiday was part of the problem, but perhaps I need think about making some of the review time more structured.

I gave students their marks going into the exam and they had lots of questions about the logistics of the next week or so, this being their first time through the exam process.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the class does on the exam.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

MPM1D1 - Day 86 More Cancelled Buses

Today was pretty much a carbon copy of yesterday.

The buses were cancelled so I sent out an email reminding students that they should be studying for their exams and that they could email me if they had any questions.

I did have one student show up for class (a different students from yesterday). He worked away on some review and asked some questions when he was stuck. It was really easy to help him since he chose to work at the whiteboard. It made it easy for me to keep track of where he was as he went along.

It will be great to see the class again tomorrow.

Monday, January 22, 2018

MPM1D1 - Day 86 Cancelled Buses

The buses were cancelled today due to the potential of freezing rain. I emailed students in the class to let them know that they should use their time wisely today and that they should be studying for their exams. I let them know that they should email me if they had any questions.

I did have a couple of students stop in for some extra help. It was great to be able to work one on one with these students. I didn't hear from anyone over email. Although I hope it's because they all know exactly what's going on, I'm very aware that many of them likely didn't check their email.

Friday, January 19, 2018

MPM1D1 - Day 85 Exam Review

The first thing students wanted to do today was to discuss some of the problems that they saw on the EQAO test yesterday and the day before. We walked through a couple of the questions that they struggled with. Then they had a bunch of questions about the exam: what it would look like, how it would be different from the test they had just written, how long would it be, etc.

I had shared a list of topics we've covered this semester and reminded them to use if they needed help figuring out what to study. I let them choose whether to work independently or within a small group. Most choose to work with a partner. Some worked on reviewing old tests, others discussed questions from the EQAO test and still others worked on practice exams found online (most settled on this one).

With about 20 minutes to go our peer tutor took over and had students reviewing some terminology. She created a crossword puzzle for them with a ton of terms. She did a great job. It was a good way for them to be reminded about some of the terms they may have forgotten about.

I reminded students that they should be spending some time studying over the weekend. It's hard to believe that the semester is just about over.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

MPM1D1 - Day 83 & 84 Standardized Test Days

Students wrote their standardized test today and will do the second part tomorrow. Some were nervous about writing. I told them not to be nervous and to just do their best (I know this is easier said than done). I'm very excited that they get the chance to show me what they've learned over the semester.