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By Paul Lensen, Chief Development Officer, MasterStart (B ED Hons)

As educators scrambled to keep learning going in the midst of global lockdowns, they turned to the same video conferencing tools many of us have come to rely on for work meetings. With everyone from preschoolers to university students having ‘Zoom’ lessons, some have suggested we may be witnessing the start of an explosion in online learning. Which we are.

But 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.

Temporary solutions vs dedicated platforms

It’s important to note that the tools being used by educators right now are, by and large, temporary solutions to what is hoped will be a temporary problem. Most are figuring out this new approach on the fly and results are, understandably, mixed.

As in the physical classroom, some learners have adapted better than others. The danger, especially in the current climate, is that parents and learners will think that this is what online education looks like and convince themselves that it doesn’t work.

What most educators, parents, and learners are experiencing is a far cry from real online learning.

For starters, the companies that build dedicated online education platforms spend hundreds of thousands on systems, curriculum design, and other learning resources and solutions. A lot of time, effort, and expense goes into a properly designed online course. It’s why they’re so effective.

And while webinars using video platforms such as Zoom can form an important part of the online learning experience, they are not the basis for it. Substantive online learning includes virtual classrooms, quizzes, and other interactive activities, which are guided by the disseminating of information in small chunks that learners can easily digest.

Learning from the pros

As long as there’s hope that in-person teaching will resume, it’s unlikely that many educators will be in a position to fully adapt to online education. That said, there are important lessons they can learn from the professionals. We foresee a more balanced ‘blended’ approach to learning.

As well as realising that a Zoom call can never replicate a classroom, it’s important that educators not just put their content online and hope for the best. In the industry, this is known as “PDF behind glass” and it never ends well.

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. It’s a new way of teaching, but practised properly, it can be incredibly effective.

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.

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.

Another useful concept is the so-called “flipped classroom”. Here, learners are first given the material to review and absorb. From there, they can discuss and debate in the webinar or virtual classroom.

Empathy is crucial

While the above tips can make remote learning more productive, the most important thing educators can do right now is maintain empathetic connections with everyone in their class. Learners and parents meanwhile need to have similar levels of empathy and patience.

And, when it comes time to explore real online learning, remember that it doesn’t look like this.