• Lukasz Krzywon

Go online, they said. It will be grand, they said.

Conversation with Meabh Coleman, a lecturer from TU Dublin, about virtual communication and online education. 

In the last few months, we have been all forced to move learning online. And it did take many of us by surprise. How are we adapting to this new reality?


So it did, it was what they call it "a big disruption" to the way that we normally function and the way that we normally assume. And what I'm going to say is just to preempt the answer to how we all are doing, is we feel that we're, you know, when things are constant, and when things are within a context, we assume to be true and assume to be stable, we all do quite well. And that was the case before. Then the context changed. And everybody had to then rebuild their assumptions and how things worked. And to be quite honest, I think everyone had to do that really quickly, back in March, in particular, and I think particularly in second level, and third level, formal education, it happened quite well, and quite quickly. Best practice was shared really well throughout.


I think we're doing okay with the new context that we've built. But we're not doing so okay, with how uncertain the duration of this transition might be. I think that's what probably causes people problems in terms of when we don't know how long this is going to last or how much effort should I put into it? Those are things that affect how well we're doing. So there's a lot going on with that question. I actually feel really positive about this, and I feel people have taken to the online medium, and people are sharing so openly about their practices, that it really is quite a positive time for online education and online learning.

Because of COVID19 pandemic, online education, online learning, teaching and virtual communication became a new normal

What kind of concerns people have when it comes to teaching online?


Well, here's the big concern that people have, that permeates all the other concerns. It's  Am I enough?. That's quite a big question. Because people are very afraid of being wrong. Particularly, because we have so much recorded media around, that someone could come back as they do, and we see this every day. It's sort of part of the online culture, this ‘cancel culture’ that someone finds something from years ago, and then they bring it up out of context, and it causes a big storm. And people are really afraid of that. Having that, that happened to them. And I think that's a big fear. It's something that we don't talk about that much. Behind all of that is this  Am I enough?, Is what I do going to be enough?, Is what I say going to be enough?, Am I right or wrong?. It brings up a tremendous amount of uncertainty in people's lives to go online. When I was going online, with my teaching and learning, this is going back 10, maybe even 15 years, you just had to give it a lash. But there wasn't the whole same emphasis on recorded media that there is now. So there's two things going on. The first is I'm so used to this context, how do I adapt? And then this is my best effort. Is it enough? And finally, if I'm recorded, it's out there, it's a digital artifact, and that's there forever, so I feel a risk. So I think those are probably the big issues that the concerns that people are facing right now. But these come from people who are the most amazing educators that you've ever met, they put you to shame, and still as human beings, we all face these central concerns.


Interesting. I can totally understand what you're saying. Online teaching comes with responsibility as all teaching does, I suppose. Did you see a lot of developments in how we teach or learn online since the lockdown? Did it change?


I think I am a kind of a systems thinker. So I think about the overall context and the overall models and the ways that people teach. And I think that there has been a tremendous spread of different models and in different contexts. So for example, in universities, where I work every day, there is a good emphasis on the recorded regular lecture. And so we still have many of the same assumptions within the context. We have a timetable, lectures, students, but instead of coming to a room, we go to an online lecture and that's recorded and people go back to that. And so that's not a massive change. We're just using a different space. I think in let's say, community settings, and in life in general, we have a lot of emphasis on Zoom. And that's a different model again, that is where people come together.


When listening to your online presentation, I was struck by a combination of two words,  compassion and education. This is very much resonating with me as an educator. How can we be compassionate educators?


No one has ever asked me that. I feel that as an educator, when you reach someone, you know, and you have this feeling like the lights have gone on, this topic has worked, this child or adult or whomever you're working with, it's worked, they get us, you know, and I feel that it takes compassion to do that. Before you even give the message, you have to get them, you have to meet them where they're at. And you have to understand what they're going through, what their skill levels are, and how they might meet this new information, and how that might impact their lives. 


I'll give you an example. Every year I teach hundreds of postgraduate students about research methods, and it's a topic that gives people a lot of stress. All these students have to do a dissertation. And frankly, they're terrified of doing a good job. And, for me, showing compassion to them, it's been able to demonstrate, A) It took me six years to understand this, it's not you, the topic is just difficult B) to break that down into these teeny-tiny bite sized chunks that people can get together, you know, they and they can get on their own these teeny-tiny bite sized chunks, but then together, you know, the sum of that is more. I think that demonstrating the compassion is to be able to see what people are going through, to see how the information or new knowledge that you're providing will impact them. And to make some kind of communication pathway along which they get it. That's our traditional teaching. We need to show compassion with our online education, just as we do with our face to face. How does that happen? Before you even create anything, a lesson plan, a session, artefact, a game, anything like that, think about the person who will use it, and why are they using it, what that education means to them and what it will do for them. These small changes in what you do that means so much to people. And that's when they feel that you're being compassionate about them. They are more responsive to your message, more engaged, and they want to learn more. 


Let's talk a little bit more about online education. What are the characteristics of online education as opposed to usual face to face learning like in a school setting.


It's a very broad question. The characteristics of online education are very similar to what I term as virtual communication. In many senses, it doesn't change all that much from your traditional ways of thinking about communication. There's the mode, the medium, the message, those kinds of indicators. What makes it different is time and togetherness. Online education doesn't have to be at the same time. Right? So that leaves you open to interactive experiences before, during, and after. And it may mean that you're educating people that you never meet, as well. And that's the concept of togetherness. You don't have to be there to be there. 


So can we distinguish here the synchronous and asynchronous education? Some people might not be familiar with these ideas.


It's an important thing to think about the synchronicity and asynchronicity. So what do we talk about as synchronous, it means in time. When you have a timetable in your class that starts at 11, and everybody jumps onto Zoom, or everybody jumps on to the virtual learning environment, right, and they're all there together. That's synchronous. A lecture is that kind of education. Normally delivered by one speaker to many. So there's a mode aspect as well.

With asynchronous education, that's different. It means that you don't have to be together. And there's so many different ways that you can use time in education. That's one of the affordances of online education, and it's a really spectacular one. We can use games, we can use videos, use what you would call digital artefacts, because they're left online for someone to find and interact with. And that can be a really beautiful thing, because you can be directed towards them, you can find them. But people are encouraged in some way to play. And that's kind of this whole concept of putting the joy and playfulness back in education. Creativity comes from a mind that's not hindered by the different things that we know as adults and for a child to go around the room, pick up new toys and play with them as a wonderful learning experience. I feel that way about things that I find online digital artefacts, games, things like that, that you find them, we can pick them up, we can look at them explore and play. It's a joyful experience. That's one of the things that online education, and particularly asynchronous education and asynchronous modes can give us. It's fabulous.


Digitalisation of learning and designing the learning online requires some creative thinking, creative approach, and planning. Any tips on redesigning our learning to go online?


The first thing is to rediscover the joy of the technology that you can use online, and what it does. So playing with things like Kahoot, playing with some really cool things you can do with zoom, but no one does them. Playing with these different elements, and finding out more about them for yourself. And it goes back to you remember, you asked me earlier on you asked me what concerns do people have when they go to teach online? Well, one of people's big concerns is 'Can I use the technology?' But one of the things that I find when I sit with people for a couple of hours is they literally can't get enough of it. They really want to use the technology. They want to do their thing with the technology and find new creative, enjoyable experiences and ways to communicate their new knowledge to people through this technology. The first step is going into discovery mode. Find out so much about the different apps and tools, there are so many of them, they do lots of different things. The best part is you don't have to spend a packet on them to do really cool things. For example, one of the things that I'm doing as a newly minted scout leader. We did our first zoom session last week, because we're under lockdown. It was a Halloween party. The kids had so much fun. We were using the Zoom annotate tool to play picture puzzles and teamwork things. And it was just amazing. We blended that sense of online space with the sense of real space. And we brought it into the whole Zoom thing. So going to discovery mode, find out all those different technical functions. 


There is a great saying out there, if you can see it, you can be it. So the more people, the more different types of experiences you can do. You can use Kahoot, you can play with PowToon, YouTube. There's so many things that you can experiment with. Go into discovery and experiment mode yourself. I know a lot of people are really burnt out right now. But the joy of that is that it can reinvigorate you. What if you set aside an hour to play with toys on the internet, to play with games on the internet, and to think about how you could use it? It might be the best hour that you spend all week, it might be the hour to reinvigorate your practice. And then integrate that into your design. And I guess one of the things about the classroom, even in normal times in face to face when you're standing there is that you are doing experiments on whether your methods work. So if you try a new workshop topic, a new discussion topic, it's an experiment and translate that into your new set of practices. Like if you're using a Kahoot, for example, it is an experiment and it's okay if it's a flop. Don't worry about it, you can learn from that and do things better the next time. But what I would say is nine times out of 10 is if you do something different people really do love it, and they really do feedback that positivity as well. My other tip in terms of design is, particularly with education, we always have a purpose. A purpose in what we're doing. You go back to your purpose, and you think, here are my people that I want them to be engaged and my purpose and I want them to learn something. What's my purpose? Who are the people that I'm engaging with? And what's the best mechanism to get that a to them in the best way? They are the kind of principles of sort of user based design and in one sense, you know. Play with asynchronicity as well. I think it's great, it's great fun, you know, it does wonders for people. And also, you cannot do enough explainer videos right now, even if there one minutes on a YouTube, a little video to tell people, actually, I've been getting some questions about this topic, or this is hot right now, or I've read this article online, and it really means a lot, there is not enough things you can do in terms of video content, and just sending them out to people that who are interested, they could be in your class, they could be in your online community. They want to hear from you, people want that right now. It is completely unnecessary to have slides or anything fancy about us. Think about your story, within that minute is the introduction, the three points that you've got to make and a conclusion that is important for you. You can't do enough of that right now. Because as much as people want to be able to engage with kind of heavy, juicy topics, for whichever reason they're not. And it is helpful to have a sort of a guide figure, an educator there who will say, you know what, I've read it and I break it down for you and, and really makes a lot of sense and a lot of difference for people in their lives right now. So that's my big tip.



But what to do if the classroom has only one screen, one microphone and 30 children to engage with? This is a scenario I would find myself in sometimes.


If you're coming and doing a guest workshop, there's so many things that you can do to blend that kind of classroom vibe with your presentation. I've mentioned Zoom's annotate feature. There's a person there who's the children's advocate and their voice - the teacher, maybe the SNA. You can create a really positive vibe, through asking questions that you would normally ask if you were in the room like, hands up or who would like to ask a question and things like that. You can also do polling around a quiz. Here's an idea that I've used or given to people before, which has worked well. You're given a topic and there's a correct or an incorrect answer based on something that you might want to that's part of your learning outcome. So you ask the class in real life to vote using their hands. Let's say: Is this right or wrong? Is the sky blue?  You can use the Zoom poll, and it will actually come up quite big on the whiteboard. And then you can say: Teacher, can you help me? You're my assistant here, I'm going to ask all the children to put up their hand and tell me, is the sky a blue? Is it purple? Or is it sea green? So people put up their hands. And then it could be the teacher's responsibility as the custodian of the computer to click the answer. The answer and feedback will come up as a part of the poll as well. It's a technical feature that's introducing the elements of the real time-space within it. The other things that work in this kind of context, which we tried as well, are scavenger hunts around the classroom for things that are related to the topic. Interclass communication, because remember, these kids can't talk to each other, they can't talk to people who are older or younger. That is a very interesting concept that you're bringing in real life into that kind of zoom presentation, and you're making ways for them to be involved in this technical experience. My big tip for interactivity right now is the zoom annotate. In fact, many, many conference tools can do this. And if you're sharing a screen, you can actually get them up on turns to draw on it. Obviously, you're not going to get 30 kids involved. But you can have teams, you can have them draw circles and squares and things like that. And it's just so much fun.


Great. We'll finish this with one last question that will touch on what you were saying earlier. There are interactions going between children in the classroom, spontaneous human interactions in the learning environment. A lot of educators for safety concerns, let's say in Zoom would not allow annotator or chat rooms functions. We are losing something there. So is there something to gain or something to lose in this virtual environment?


Always. Technology has huge affordances. But it also has the downside as well. And the downside is that it is more difficult and it does need to be far more planned. And it can be more cold. It's like there's cold on one end warm on the other. And we can go towards that cold experience, if we're sitting there on zoom talking at people. And the main thing is to get people involved interactive, whichever mechanism that is. I also think as well, what we're losing, when we move to online education is the sense of community that we had in the face to face classroom. I can't say this is 100% why, I haven't done research on it. But here's my observation as to why. I think we come together in the online space, whichever tool it is, Zoom, WebEx, we come together with the specific purpose of functionality. This is to deliver this information, or we will achieve this objective in this room right now. And the reality is that in normal circumstances, or what was normal, may not be normal for a very long time, the reality is that we have these less formal spaces where we can decompress, we can talk, we can just socialize a little bit. And we form our community naturally, because we're human beings, that's what we want to do. But we have all of these functional spaces in our lives like little boxes of functionality like online. And really, our community is built in between those. It's the bridges between those physical spaces. And I think that's what's missing. I think we have a huge opportunity to make non functional spaces, they're not to do anything, they're not to practice anything, they're not to achieve anything. They're just so we can fill those gaps in between classes where we would naturally be talking, we would naturally be interacting, and they kind of are this decompression space, as I see. I believe that's one of the reasons why people are becoming so stressed and zoom fatigued is because they don't use these online tools for their own sense of community or for community building outside of these functional spaces. So I really feel this is an opportunity that we all have right now to use them for non functional purposes. It's still education. It's still a part of it, because it was before and our ability to take in new information in the next little functional box will be improved because we have that social support.



Maébh Colemanis a lecturer in organizational and information systems and Co CREATE teaching fellow at TU Dublin with (well) over two decades of international business experience in government, industry and academia working with innovation-led organisations to implement technological change. She is an e-Learning specialist and an expert in the areas of virtual communication, technology management and commercialisation processes. Her research interests include; operations management, process engineering, technology procurement, online service design and technology disruption. She helps socially minded organsations move their services online and has recently trained SFI, Heritage Council and Rethink Ireland fund awardees to navigate the world of online scicence communication and services. She has recently been appointed the independent evaluator of SFI Science Week 2020.

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