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Voice and choice: embracing online learning

| November 16, 2020 | 0 Comments


The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a rapid and complete transition to online learning for those fortunate enough to consider this an option.

With no other alternative available, educators and students alike have had to upskill to one extent or another in a matter of days or weeks to keep doing what they love to and need to do: teaching and learning.

Instead of attempting to replicate the in-person classroom experience through the virtual classroom, what we need is a set of teaching approaches that resonate with the current generations of learners, and that make use of the possibilities that technology offers. As educators, we need to view the virtual classroom as a medium that holds different possibilities for our students, and that can be just as effective if we embrace it. Online learning can create opportunities for greater connection with different communities, nationalities, age groups and professions. Maximising the home environment can elicit greater creativity, access to various physical tools and materials, and the opportunity to incorporate physical activity into lessons in a very manageable way. It can also lead to collaboration with supportive adults or siblings, and promotes highly valuable interaction within the family unit.1 In some cases, lack of parental involvement in young people’s lives is becoming a pandemic in and of itself,2 and we should seek every opportunity to promote this interaction where possible.

Moving from the known to the unknown

Nevertheless, transitioning to online learning can seem daunting, especially for conscientious teachers wanting to ensure student progress and concerned about the potential of ‘wasting’ academic time. A good starting point is to utilise the online tools with which teachers are already familiar, and to progress to new platforms and approaches as the need arises, and in collaboration with others. Teachers should identify one task that will have high impact but that feels manageable, and they should look for quick wins. Maintaining a focus on learning outcomes and the unique benefits afforded by the online space helps to determine direction and sustain motivation.

There is much debate regarding the question of online learning schedules and the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous and asynchronous online learning. Where learning is completely asynchronous, students learn on their own through designated resources or pre-recorded lessons, video material and assignments, with an occasional check-in session in some cases. While there are advantages to this style of delivery – especially for adult learners with many other demands on their time, such as holding down a job or having their own children – there are also disadvantages. A significant concern is that the completion rate of unsupervised or partially supervised courses drops dramatically compared with synchronous learning, with the end result that most students fail to complete the courses.3 Some studies have found that the completion rate of online courses is as low as 10%.4 Two important reasons for this failure to complete online courses are feelings of isolation and a lack of interaction, according to researchers Khalil and Ebner.5

There are many benefits attached to a synchronous offering, where learning happens in real time with direct interaction between students and teachers. Synchronous learning takes place through video conferencing, interactive webinars and

chat-based online discussions. This offers the benefit of social
connection (similar to the physical classroom) and affords
learners the crucial advantage of appropriate social interaction
and collaboration in their learning. Social engagement is critical
in the processing of information, and helps students integrate
and contextualise content with concepts, thereby deepening their understanding.6 Thus, social skills and interaction are – and should remain – a critical part of the online learning strategy.

Another differentiating factor in student engagement in and completion of online courses is the connection with the teacher and the experience of being ‘visible’ to the educator in the virtual classroom. If the student feels unnoticed in the physical classroom, the probability is that they feel they will not be missed in the online classroom. Thus, it becomes more important than ever for the teacher to nurture a relationship with every learner, and to foster a sense of belonging in the virtual classroom.7 This ‘high-touch’ approach emphasises human interaction, connection and empathy, and balances the ‘high-tech’ delivery. High-touch online teaching increases learner engagement, commitment, accountability and a general sense of well-being in a setting in which it is more challenging for teachers to hold students accountable for their work.8

Teachers must critically evaluate the learning process

Although the benefits of a synchronous or mostly synchronous hybrid approach are clear, a common pitfall is that students end up spending too long in front of their computers, leading to stress, frustration and, potentially, digital burnout. This is as good a time as ever for teachers to critically evaluate how much content and which content is really necessary in a topic, and to trim content delivery as much as possible. Furthermore, educators must factor into their planning that teenagers’ social interaction also largely takes place online, especially in the unusual circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 lockdown. Therefore, it is important to redesign the learning experience to significantly reduce ‘lecture’ time and to maximise active learning. Educators should also seek to incorporate offline learning opportunities in the form of collecting, curating, creating, prototyping and other active and experiential activities, as much as possible.9 Baking, sewing, recycling, upcycling, building a model, creating a time capsule, growing vegetables and so forth are activities that offer valuable cross-disciplinary opportunities to learn.

In an online learning scenario, it is more important than ever to encourage students to position themselves as change agents and creators of content. Asking students to make sense of a topic ‘from the inside out’, taking progressive steps and constructing meaning by posing questions such as ‘What does this topic mean to me?’, ‘What does this topic mean to others like me?’, ‘What does this topic mean to my community?’ and ‘What does this topic mean for the world?’ increases engagement through individual relevance. Online learning opens up opportunities for choice among students, greater possibilities of interacting and collaborating with more diverse cultures, nationalities, age groups and walks of life than could be found in any face-to-face classroom. Second, when students leverage the affordances of technology in designing the product of their learning, they are becoming content creators and change agents, as well as utilising digital competencies – all of which are skills that will stand them in good stead for their future.10

Carefully chosen formative online tools

Formative learning opportunities that produce evidence of the gains of the learning process are more important than ever, as is the opportunity for ongoing feedback that these opportunities offer. Learners feel noticed and valued when a teacher responds to their submissions, and teacher feedback that is accurate, factual and encouraging keeps the channels of communication open. New ways of offering feedback are possible with online learning. Feedback given by recording one’s voice is often considered preferable to text, and video feedback is perceived as preferable to voice.11 If traditional methods of feedback are not bringing about the desired impact on students, voice and video feedback strategies afforded by the online experience might be worth considering, and can save educators’ time, too.

Formative online learning tools include teacher-moderated class or group discussions, online brainstorming, student summaries, peer review activities and self-reflections. An online setting lends itself to the gamification of formative assessment through easily constructed (and reusable) quizzes and games on a host of apps designed for this purpose. This decreases stress and increases student engagement and enjoyment, with the added benefit of fortifying bonds among students and with teachers.12

Project-based learning (PBL) offers a sophisticated and learner-centred approach to formative assessment and is easy to run online. Successful PBL relies on ongoing feedback opportunities as the project unfolds, which assists learners in moving through tightly scaffolded project phases. The process culminates in the co-creation of an artefact that illustrates or exemplifies student learning. Frequent conversations between the educator and the student provide feedback loops that assist students in staying on track with their research, and the ongoing development of their topic. The pedagogies of conversation, reflection and self-correction are pivotal to the process. The online setting not only facilitates continuous feedback, but also ensures that the process is effortlessly recorded for review, assisting student metacognition. Shared collaborative documents, tools such as blogging and vlogging, and features such as adding and resolving comments and tracking changes assists high-quality PBL, and ultimately formative assessment.13

We must grapple with online assessment

When facing an extended length of time away from campus and an uncertain return date – as was the case for so long and may well be again – schools must also turn their attention to, and grapple with, other forms of assessment. At some point, we must consider navigating the landscape of tests and examinations. While it stands that assessments and the issuing of results should not be the central focus at a time like this, it is also imperative that we continue to monitor student progress if we expect students to continue to give their best efforts to their learning. Superficially, the reason for this is self-evident, but student assessment and tracking hold the further benefit of increasing learner buy-in, motivation and accountability.14

Summative assessments can be carried out online, but this evokes the concern that some learners might behave in an unethical manner while completing the assessment, rendering it invalid. Electronic computer-based systems such as can be useful tools in assisting with administering examinations at home. These platforms offer features such as monitoring students completing tasks and disabling peripheral tabs on the computer in use. Platforms such as Google Classroom offer the feature of assigning a timed task, so that a time limit is automatically enforced. Further measures can be taken by way of learners signing a declaration of authenticity, thereby demonstrating their commitment to ethical behaviour, or co-opting parents or guardians as invigilators where possible.

These measures can go some way towards alleviating concerns about unethical behaviour; however, no platform or method of online delivery of assessments is foolproof in replicating the controlled conditions of an invigilated examination. The onus falls on the student to recognise summative assessment events as opportunities to prepare, practise examination techniques and receive authentic feedback. This is one of the ways in which online learning promotes and develops the student’s online locus of control, which is a valuable career- and life-skill.

Furthermore, the responsibility lies with the educator to evaluate whether or not students’ summative assessment results appear authentic and fall in line with the level of progress shown in previous work. If doubt prevails, it is up to the educator to make arrangements for another assessment opportunity. If an in-person, invigilated assessment opportunity is not possible under the circumstances, an oral examination can prove useful.

Moving from lower order to higher order assessment successfully

It is not just the method of delivering assessment that must necessarily change in an online learning scenario. Assessment itself should also be adapted to respond to this new circumstance. Lower order assessments can easily be carried out through tools such as Google Quiz. A tightly managed time frame and the ‘shuffle questions’ function, which ensures that questions appear in a random order in each independent student’s test, discourages collaboration where individual work is mandatory. On the other hand, moving away from lower order questions and pushing students firmly into the higher order skills range makes it impossible for them to copy from one another or to turn to the ubiquitous Google for an answer. When learners are asked to draw from their individual life experience, to judge, argue, defend, critique, support, assign relative value or to create, their answers are necessarily unique. Greater focus on higher order skills creates space for exploration, extension and growth that might otherwise be missed. While it is true that there are pitfalls in conducting summative assessments online, the benefits in student accountability, student tracking and timeous feedback by far outweigh the disadvantages.

More voice and choice

Online learning is a new frontier for educators and one in which most of us have no, or very little, formal training. The virtual classroom should not be seen as the understudy to the physical classroom experience, but as a different medium offering various and exciting opportunities. Online learning opens up options for increased voice and choice among students, and greater possibilities of interacting and collaborating with different communities than the physical classroom can offer. It gives educators the opportunity of capitalising on the home environment and all the benefits that it may bring to learning. Upskilling ourselves as educators in this realm is not an event, but a continuous and never-ending process. It is a process that requires time, a sense of humour and plenty of patience, but that brings great rewards in student progress.


  1. Brendto, L.K., Brokenley, M. and Van Bockern, S. (2009) Reclaiming Youth
    at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Bloomington: Solution Tree.
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  13. Blewitt, C. (2017) Wake Up Class! 5 Activating Digital-Age Pedagogies that
    will Revolutionize your Classroom. Johannesburg: independently published.
  14. See:
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Category: Spring 2020

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