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Online-First education for all (yes, even for the little kids.)

@ebthen an autistic designer that I follow, tweeted last week:

Able-bodied folks are finding out what disabled people all eventually figure out. there is no "Back to Normal". There's a "Before Normal" and a "Now Normal" and a "Future Normal".

This is a useful way to understand where we are now in education. Iso and social distancing is the now normal. There won’t be a back to normal because we are all now effectively disabled. The virus is with us and it will be until a vaccine or effective treatment is found, which is not guarantee.

Which begs the question, what is our future normal?

I think founder of Course Hero, Tomas Pueyohas has the best description of the future normal. He calls it the “hammer and the dance”. Restrictions will ease and we will go out to the “dancefloor” together, but if/when the virus surges, we will have to put the “hammer” down and retreat back into iso.

Although here in Australia we have been handling this pandemic better than most of the world, I suspect the last few weeks have been the easy part. It’s the opening up and the half in and half out that will be difficult, especially for education.

The hammer and the dance means that the future normal, will include periods of iso and social distancing, maybe for a long time. There’s no back to normal so we must accept this to move forward. To build the best future normal education then, we must build for the hammer and the dance.

I think to make a thriving, resilient, and connected future normal educational experience for our students means adopting an “online-first” model. It means building every educational experience to work online, which also works, or can be adapted to, in-person as well. This kind of model allows better for the flow back and forth, the in and out.

Here’s what I have learned about designing learning in this way. You can read my full bio, but the short version is that my job for a long time was moving the design studio, one of the most active, connected, vibrant and in-person learning experience there is, to be online and asynchronous.

Design students literally sit next to teachers talking and drawing together. They look at each other, a lot. There’s a lot of learning going on in these moments. My online classes had to enable this experience when no one could be forced to be in the same place at the same time. Something that many art and design teachers think is impossible (even now, when they are all doing it.)

At AAU this was difficult and didn’t always work well, and that’s because I worked in a mirror model. All onsite courses had to be “replicated” online. Designing onsite-first meant I was always Ginger Rogers: doing the same thing as the onsite, but “backwards and in heels”. Towards the end of my time at AAU we started to design the other way around and it worked a lot better.

In the same way that designing for people who are not able-bodied makes things that work better for the able-bodied people too.

Here’s what I learned about switching your mindset to online-first education model.

Think translation not replication

The problem with designing to reproduce onsite is that it leads to a deficit model for online, and this kind of thinking won’t get good results. Translating means the finished work won’t be the same, but it can still be good and it can be better understood in both languages.

Translation means making choices and deciding what’s essential and what isn’t rather than trying to reproduce something that may not ever be re-producible. It means asking what you are actually doing when you are teaching not focusing on the way you are doing it.

You can’t break the speed of light, so don’t even try

Translation means there’s some things you just can’t do properly online, and that’s actually OK. Exams are a good example; these are built on the idea that someone is watching in real time. Sure, there are tools to do that online, but they are expensive and problematic. If you don’t even try then you can find another way — and we should welcome the death of the exam, authentic assessments are much better anyway.

The speed of light is a mindset. It helps you think past “I’ll just get the students together on zoom and teach them” which is a hybrid model not an online first model. If you truly embrace this thinking it means everything must be able to be done when people are not in the same place at the same time, and it forces you to find a solution and it leads to innovation.

For instance, although we did teach welding online at AAU, we couldn’t teach machine knitting. That’s because it’s easier to rent a welding rig and watch a demo video, than to put a large industrial knitting machine in your house. Online-first allows you to put your attention on solving those difficult problems, more on that below.

Online enforces structure and structure works best anyway.

Moving online always enforces structure on an educational experience, and structure is key to making online education work. Structure actually works better everywhere in education though.

Demo videos and recorded lectures can be rewound and turned up for the hard of hearing. Information written down and not spoken to a PPT in a room full of students (who may not be paying attention) means learning is more accessible.

Some people argue that structure means a loss of spontaneity and therefore creativity and ideas and connection with students. That's not necessarily the case online. I don’t think anyone can accuse Twitter of not being spontaneous, and don’t underestimate the power of direct messaging between people to connect and to generate creative ideas.

I think people forget that in-person we are still structured. We live by an intricately constructed set of rules that we don’t even notice – and which makes it harder for some students. There are power differentials in that structure that can leave some, like autistic students, behind. The good thing about structure apart from making your life as an educator easier in the long run, is that everyone is in the front row of your class now, your introverts can participate as fully as your extroverts.

Make on-campus optional except when it can’t be

For pre-school and children under 5th grade being the campus serves an important function, it is day care that enables adults to work. This is the biggest problem in education to solve. If we adopt an online first model this would mean when children go back to school they might each be in front of a screen and not the teacher. It’s a big mindset shift, but teachers don’t have to be the centre of the classroom. We have started to accept that in higher education, what happens when we apply the same thinking to primary school? It doesn’t make teachers less important or essential, it just shifts what they do.

If my children are anything to judge by a lot of educational outcomes are lost when students “interact” with each other during class time anyway. Interaction is great, for the playground. If this means less group work in class, then that’s not a necessarily bad thing either. Group work is often used as a way to manage the classroom, in an online first model group work can be used just when it needs to be, because it serves an educational purpose.

Online-first forces us to acknowledge that a lot of what we think we need about onsite classrooms we actually just like. That’s OK too. One of my sons described his online school as “school without the fun parts”. That’s true, good learning is engaging, but not necessarily fun. My other son is choosing not to start university because meeting new people and living on campus is what is important to him as an undergraduate. That’s completely understandable, although it hits my employers bottom line.

This gets back to accepting the way things are and try to as @ebthen put it; “bring the best parts of the “before normal” into the future normal.” An online first model doesn’t say we never ever get together, it just means we don’t have to if we can’t. It means when the hammer comes down not everything has to stop.

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