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This Much I Now Know: Personal Reflections on Digital Innovations in Education | Richard Human

Two things happened to me in 2020: like millions of others, I fell sick with COVID-19 and, like hundreds of thousands of other people, I was pushed into the world of remote learning and teaching. And what a world it was! Even today, I am unsure which of the two was worse – being on the end of a bout of COVID or emailing endless Word documents to families under siege with the expectation that they would be printed off, dutifully filled in and returned to me to mark. At some stage. Never again I thought! That was until the end of 2022. I caught COVID again and returned to online teaching. The second of which was by choice this time. And what a different world it is, the world of online teaching and learning, only a few years later.

I know, I know. Many tell me – “much of this stuff you are using was already there, it’s just new to you!” I accept this is probably true, but, like all new converts, I am now behaving as if I discovered it first! I apologise in advance if, from time to time, I come across as a colonial in this new land I have discovered. There is still much to discover and, at times, I become overwhelmed by what is out there in the gloom, beyond the light thrown by my small campfire.

Now, I must admit my journey into the digital world isn’t an elegant frolic. More like trying to salsa dance while wearing two left shoes. I've stumbled, tripped, and taken a fair number of face-plants into the virtual mud. But it turns out, technology isn’t as scary as I thought, once I had learned to stare down the pixelated barrel of a webcam (and not down the power button) in my first online class. It's a little like describing to a class of 11-year-olds how I would use an overhead projector to teach, an exercise in patience and expectation management.

But now, I've grown fond of this wild digital frontier, filled with promises of wonder and whispers of dread. My classroom has become a sort of digital Narnia, where students don't simply consume information, they help craft it. They're not just passengers on this journey, they're co-pilots, and sometimes, they're the ones teaching me to fly. It's a brave new world, indeed, this realm of online education, and I’m here, waving my tattered and faded flag, marking my territory, and inviting others to this grand adventure.


This much I know now

There are several advantages to this type of learning, such as the flexibility it provides to both students and teachers. With remote learning, students can access their coursework and materials from anywhere with an internet connection, making it easier to balance school with other responsibilities. Teachers, on the other hand, can use various tools to make lessons more interactive and engaging. However, there are disadvantages, such as the lack of face-to-face interaction and potential technical difficulties. Despite these challenges, remote learning and teaching offer numerous benefits and are here to stay whether I like it or not, so I had better adapt.

Online teaching offers rewarding experiences and growth opportunities, provided classroom expectations are clearly defined and met. A strong online presence is essential to facilitate meaningful interactions and address student concerns promptly. The digital realm offers innovative tools like virtual classrooms, video conferencing, and interactive whiteboards to enhance remote learning. Balancing technology and personal connections can leverage my teaching skills and enrich my students' journey. Potential drawbacks include networking issues, lack of resources and a different virtual classroom environment. However, I'm embracing the opportunities while navigating the challenges.


Adapting to change

Remote teaching poses distinct and unexpected challenges for someone who qualified in the 1990s and has honed their craft over the last 30 years. Little did I consider my use of the 'soft data' I would gather in each lesson from a physical classroom; reading students' body language and tone of voice, observing facial expressions, and gauging the classroom climate were all things I sought out without thinking. Gathering this information has become significantly more challenging, and disempowering for me, in an online environment. Managing low-level distractions is harder online, as it's difficult to tell if students are
becoming distracted or losing focus. To ensure effective learning in this new landscape, I must develop new strategies and skills to maintain student engagement without traditional cues. It is also, of course, difficult for students to engage in this forum where staring into a camera in the communal digital space is different from being seated physically next to a peer.

I have never been great with names when working with a new class for the first time, but working remotely has emphasised to me the importance of quickly learning names and being able to address students directly. Starting lessons with an open philosophical question such as "Can kindness change the world?" has given me small insights into the individuals I am working with. Asking for regular feedback is also a rich source of ‘soft data’. I am enjoying discovering new ways in which to learn more about my students in this brave new world.


Disrupted lives

This year has been a whirlwind of change and adaptation, from teaching MYP Mathematics in Budapest twice a day, sharing Geography and Business lessons with Svitlo School students in Ukraine, and providing 1:1 tutoring with Suffolk’s Alternative Tuition Service. Most meaningful have been my connections with 'persistently absent' students (due to health or behavioural issues – of which there are 1.6 million in England alone) and those whose lives have been disrupted by war. The resilience and determination my Ukrainian students display inspires me every day. By extending my practice beyond the confines of a traditional classroom, I believe I have made meaningful impacts in their lives, no matter their
circumstances. These moments remind me why I chose to be a teacher. I feel privileged to be part of their journey.

Transitioning to online teaching initially felt like trying to perform my duties with one arm tied behind my back! Technical issues (without a technical hotline), lack of personal interactions and inaccessible non-verbal cues made me feel half the teacher I was in the analogue world. I'm learning to adapt and develop skills and harness digital tools to create a dynamic virtual experience. Challenges are great but so are the rewards. Recently, with my Ukrainian students, we were learning about Argentina. I set homework that asked them to learn to tango, Argentine style. The dances were filmed and submitted to me via Telegram – mothers and fathers dancing with their children in parks and open spaces in quiet corners of the country. I have also asked people all over the world to make short, two-to-three-minute videos about the geography of the place they are in; videos from the USA, Bermuda, New Zealand, Zambia and Uganda (to name a few) have found their way into an online library for the students to access when they want.

I have noticed that the shift to online teaching provides a newfound voice to 'quiet' learners. Through chat features and forum posts, they can actively participate without in-person intimidation. Unexpectedly, students become digitally savvy, offering valuable suggestions to enhance the sessions and proposing innovative ideas for future lessons. This real-time feedback empowers me to tailor my teaching methods to better cater to their unique needs, creating a collaborative and dynamic learning environment where students shape their own educational experiences.

This year has been a journey of adaptation and resilience, filled with unexpected rewards. I am constantly seeking feedback from my students concerning remote learning in general and my lessons specifically: “I want you in the classroom to help me when I am stuck” is a common refrain. Is this a ‘habit’ that students will need to wean themselves off? Will AI fill this space?


New opportunities

The shift to online teaching has also opened up new spaces for collaboration with other educators around the world. Through webinars, digital forums and platforms, like Zoom or Google Classroom, I now have access to like-minded educators, exchanging ideas and resources to develop creative ways of teaching in this virtual environment. It's a growing community, where I'm able to discuss best practices, share my successes and frustrations, or just have an informal chat about current affairs. Far from being isolated in my own bubble, I feel connected and empowered by the global collective of teachers across the world.

Working with learners in Ukraine amidst the war poses unique challenges, so we use asynchronous learning methods when internet access is not always guaranteed. Online teaching has thus proven its adaptability and potential even in the face of adversity. In Tanzania, I'm exploring ways I can collaborate with Tumaini School, set up for young girls whose formal education ended when they fell pregnant.

As a teacher, it's important to create a supportive learning space that encourages students to be active participants in their education. Through the right preparation and planning, remote teaching can be incredibly rewarding for both educator and student alike, leading to meaningful learning experiences regardless of location or circumstances. There are numerous resources that provide comprehensive guidance, helping me become an effective remote teacher. Google Classroom, Jam Boards, Miro, Bramble, and LessonUp are just some of the fantastic platforms that have revolutionized my lessons. Zoom and Teams pave the way for live classes and real-time student interaction. Each tool brings unique functionalities that transform my online teaching practices into an engaging, enriching experience.

Producing YouTube videos has been an excellent way to engage students in remote learning. Creative tools like Camtasia provide the perfect platform for me to craft and curate videos, while simple recordings can help tell stories and deliver presentations with ease. I've come a long way since the days of sending Word documents via email - digital tools have enabled me to adopt a more interactive and efficient remote teaching approach.

Navigating the online teaching landscape has been personally rewarding. I'm now taking my 'performance coaching' business online, expanding my tutoring services, and teaching ILM leadership and management to apprenticeships. All of these ventures are giving me the opportunity to reach more learners, helping them find their true potential and achieve their goals.


The future

Online teaching is a powerful tool, allowing us to reach students no matter where we are in the world. But it must never replace traditional brick-and-mortar schools; they are places that are invaluable for personal development and for building communities and societies. Schools teach us how to interact with and understand others, honing skills that are crucial for our growth. They provide an arena where relationships are built and emotions explored. We mustn't forget the importance of this face-to-face learning experience. That said, I'm still immensely grateful for the opportunities enabled by online teaching; it's been a revolutionary journey so far.

The progress I'm making in this field is incredibly creative - it's a thrilling roller coaster with its own technological blind spots and steep learning curves. But when I see the impact of my teaching, it makes all the effort worthwhile. The possibilities in digital education are endless.

I’m determined to stand, back to my fire, facing outwards into the dark in an effort to identify the digital shapes and contours that lay out there.

This article was written by Richard HumanRichard is a school leader and education expert with many years of experience both in Britain and internationally. Initially trained as a primary teacher, Richard has also worked extensively with secondary pupils and adult learners. 

As a qualified Forest School Leader he is passionate about connecting young people with the natural world and has spent many hours in the rain teaching children how to light fires and handle knives safely. 
He currently works as a qualified coach and trainer supporting school leaders develop high levels of self-efficacy in their teams and students. Over the past year he has been working hard to ensure that the use of Generative Artificial Intelligence in education is accessible for all. If you are interested in developing the use of AI in your school Richard offers tailored CPD for leaders, teachers and students.
To learn more about Richard and what shaped his view of the world watch his 2019 TED talk.
Richard was inspired to write this blog after attending the Outstanding Schools webinar 'Establishing a Coaching Culture in Your School - Practical Steps for Getting Started', which is now available to view on-demand.
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