Going the Distance with Distance Learning

Shaun Hudson-Bennett reflects on some of the positive changes that we may be able to create from the enforced necessity of online learning.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

The year 2000 was my first year of teaching, I clearly remember the trauma that teachers experienced that year. The staff were expected for the first time to enter the marks and subject comments into a computer programme for the school reports. Physical mark books and the handwriting of comments became a reality of the past. That was a difficult transition for some teachers to manage but 2020 has introduced a far greater transition for education. The steady winds of change have become a hazardous hurricane blasting us suddenly into the future with online learning.

It has been inspiring to see how resourceful teachers have been over the past few months in stepping up and managing this storm. The spirit of collaboration and support has enabled teachers to find their way in selecting that app which works for them, to watch enough YouTube clips until they understand what to do, and to find the best material in a world wide web. It can be truly overwhelming when there is so much available on the internet. We can easily fall into the trap of spending hours and hours preparing lessons, continuously marking work that has been submitted and carrying on with the never-ending search for the latest and greatest resources. Running on this vicious treadmill under these thunderclouds may give the illusion of productivity, but we must consider our own welfare and look at the big picture.

Image by Shaun Hudson-Bennett

Eventually we need to stop and ask ourselves two central questions: what are my greatest strengths as a teacher, and what are the most effective methods of teaching mathematics? As we move into the future of education, these timeless questions remain as relevant as ever. We all still have the opportunity to use our strengths and implement these effective methods when teaching online.

Instead of wasting time in online meetings to dispense knowledge, we should be encouraging our students to wrestle with questions, and to engage with each other on these platforms. We should be hearing the students’ voices more often in the classroom and therefore also during these video conferences. Collaborating is a vital skill in understanding mathematical concepts. This can also be learnt through online education when we encourage our students to ask each other for help using chat groups or to share their answers with others.

Image by Shaun Hudson-Bennett

When students need to listen to a new concept being taught, there are many websites which are freely available during the Covid-19 crisis. Once we have decided on a reliable source, it will take the pressure off everyone, if the teacher directs the students to these videos and also selects work for them from these sites.  That means that the students are more flexible in finding the time to listen to the lesson and do their homework. The video conferences with the class can then be used to answer questions, have discussions and consolidate ideas.

A huge advantage of distance learning is having the opportunity for students to submit their work on a more regular basis. In the past it was never easy to check that everyone in the class had completed their homework and that it was done correctly. This also takes away too much class time. Now they can take photos of their work and then submit it as a pdf document on a daily basis. We are therefore able to hold our students accountable. As mathematics teachers, we all know how important it is for students to structure the way in which they set out their solutions. We are now in a position to identify a few different students each day and to take a closer look at their work and then to provide valuable feedback. The opportunity for individual attention to detail is heightened.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

This process of submitting photos of work can also be used for assessments. Some of us are cautious of overwhelming our students with large formal tests. There are, however, still benefits of testing; we can see whether our students have acquired the necessary skills, we can offer important feedback and we can provide continuity for our students.

Ultimately it is our responsibility as teachers, who know our students well, to design the learning experience. This must be a supportive and sustainable approach which does not overwhelm anyone. Managing and communicating the expectations clearly is an important part of avoiding the panic thus bringing steadiness when everything else is in flux.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Students with fond memories of mathematics at school naturally have fond memories of the good relationship with their mathematics teacher. It is therefore vital that we continue to work at maintaining solid and regular interactions with our students during this time. The way in which we communicate and offer valuable feedback has a strong impact on learning and skill acquisition. So, encourage your students to keep their cameras on so that you can see their faces and connect and have conversations with each other. This is especially needed during the height of social distancing.

Once this Covid-19 storm subsides, our teaching will never be the same again. We can’t go back to all of our old ways. There are other industries that are adapting well to this fast forward journey into the future. Currently about 57% of our world’s population has access to the internet and this figure will rise even faster as a result of Covid-19. Teachers and students have been battered by this storm but they have learnt very quickly to survive and thrive in this new world of education.

Shaun Hudson-Bennett

Grade 11 Head
Exchange programme coordinator
Mathematics department

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