Sunday, April 12, 2020

Teacher training in the time of COVID-19: From modeling blended workshops in Thailand to TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN

Overview in a Nutshell

In my last post I was reflecting (when I wasn't dreaming) on my experience one week into the eLearning component of my English Language Specialist assigment through RELO Bangkok. I had been asked to prepare a set of blended workshops (partially online, partially face-to-face) on “Using multiliteracies and 21st century skills and tools in your own professional development” and on “Writing in tech-enhanced multiliterate classrooms” for delivery to university teachers of English and second and third year education students at various university language centers and institutes around Thailand. The workshops were prepared for delivery through a blended learning platform, based at http://workshops2020.pbworks.com/, which I created using free tools available online, with intent to model for participants how they could implement flipped and blended learning in their own classrooms and with their own students as I had been doing in my own classes throughout the latter part of my teaching career.

This was followed by a plenary at Thai TESOL on flipped learning, and then by the 3-week online learning course on Learning how to create and use a blended learning classroom which I had created in Schoology, also a free tool, and which at the time of my last post, I was one week into facilitating.

The online course was intended to allow the participants in the workshops to engage in consultation with me, the EL Specialist, on the concepts introduced in the workshops. As the timing of this eLearning course coincided with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic during which many teachers participating in the online course were being thrust into totally online environments with little preparation, my work took on special relevance as it became apparent that those who had already been practicing blended learning techniques were best equipped to adapt to the new circumstances. In hopes of modeling for others how they might move from blended to completely online environments, the materials for the workshops, eLearning, and ongoing community space have been left online where anyone can explore them (at http://workshops2020.pbworks.com and from there to reach the links embedded in some of the text above).

A Broader Overview

As one who specializes in teaching languages through technology, and having been invited to come to Thailand and give two intensive weeks of workshops as an English Language Specialist, I had to first propose a menu of workshops that teachers and students at university language centers in Thailand might be interested in. To my relief only two of my topics were chosen, and then I had free reign to design materials to fit those topics. I like to work online, and when face to face teaching is involved, this is often what is meant by 'blended'.

I had also agreed to give a plenary on flipped learning at Thai TESOL, so my idea was to place materials online in advance for both the workshops and the plenary which participants could access beforehand, then present the materials to the live audience and participants, and finally leave all the materials online for participants to explore later, and in the case of the workshops link to artifacts left online by the many participants in those workshops.

You almost replay and reconstruct the plenary from my Learning2gether blog post here
https://learning2gether.net/2020/01/30/vance-stevens-plenary-at-thaitesol-on-the-what-why-and-how-of-flipped-learning-harmonizing-diversity-by-developing-skills-in-podcasting-webcasting-and-digital-storytelling/

The eLearning component was due to take place for three weeks after the two weeks of workshops and the Thai TESOL conference. My purview as I understood it was not to re-teach what I had taught in the workshops, but to act as a consultant for participants to explore the tools more deeply and apply them to their context. So I set up an interactive environment in Schoology that linked back to what I had presented before, and set projects, one for each week, meant to get participants to use the tools in “Creating and Using Blended Learning Classrooms”, the title of the online course.

When I went to Thailand at the end of January, COVID-19 was just becoming a concern. By the time I wrapped up the online course on March 11 schools were starting to shut down worldwide and it was becoming apparent that what I had been doing the previous six weeks, modeling how to teach f2f in a blended learning environment and then transitioning that to online in my eLearning course, had some potential as a model for others to follow suit in their new circumstances. Participants we spoke to during the course who were having the least difficulty taking their teaching online were ones who were already working in blended learning environments. In that case all that was needed was a synchronous classroom space, such as Zoom. But the first challenge to making that transition is to understand and become familiar with the basic components of a blended learning classroom.

There was a common thread uniting all of these activities. All modeled the flipped learning approach, whereby materials were put online in advance of the workshops and plenary. The participants could have seen them before each event, but while participating, I explicitly encouraged them to access to the materials, and in every case the complete set of materials was left online for follow up and further exploration by the participants or anyone else who might come along afterwards.

Here's what I left online and where to find it. It’s all available for use under creative common license, attribution / share alike.

The blended workshop course materials which I introduced face-to-face at several locations in Thailand are here:  http://workshops2020.pbworks.com/
These records were made of my plenary and workshop at Thai TESOL
The eLearning course portal through which I facilitated use of the materials from the workshops is here:  http://workshops2020.pbworks.com/w/page/138546024/Create_Your_Blended_Learning_Classroom


The Workshops

The workshops aimed to create a model of a teacher who him- or herself models effective ways of learning to his or her students. I hoped to be that role model for the participants in my workshops by giving them a variety of things to do through an interface that any one of them could themselves create in their own classes (not using any tools that would need to be purchased). Blended learning implies that there are various modalities to that learning, one usually being face-to-face, as in a classroom. So it encourages teachers to have a web portal through which they can work in a transparent way where everyone can find course materials in a predictable location, not handed out to be stored in binders that students may or not have with them on a given day in class, or for other reasons not be able to get access to in the disorder of their binders.

Online access has its drawbacks as well, but is in the long run a more stable and more efficient platform in contexts where the technology supports it. So my workshops were aimed at modeling how to set up blended learning environments that the participants could bring up on their devices, explore and interact with during the workshop, and take home with them at the end of it along with some ideas on creating their own.

The eLearning Component

This brought us into the final phase of the project, the eLearning. Timed to begin about three weeks after the end of the on-site blended component, I understood that I was to set up a consultations for any participants in the workshops who would like to explore blended learning in greater depth one-on-one with the English Language Specialist. Accordingly I set up a Schoology portal for it with interactive forums which linked for content to the workshop materials I had put online for the face-to-face workshops. I structured the 3-weeks of the course to encourage further exploration of the tools for blended learning, and assigned participants a project at the end of each week. The first was to use digital tools to create a digital poster of some kind, the second was to craft a digital story, and the third was to create a lesson or a portal that might mount online something the participants would want to teach. For each project I created my own model examples, and highlighted the work of participants who completed theirs.

Few participants carried out any of these assignments, but the course coincided with increasing concern over the COVID-19 pandemic. By the second week of the course, schools in Thailand and elsewhere were starting to close, and there was a sudden need for teachers to learn quickly how to move into purely online environments. It turned out from our webinars that teachers who had best succeeded at doing that quickly had already been using blended learning in their face-to-face classes, and as one teacher from Korea told us, if you were working from an existing blended portal, to go online, “just add Zoom”. It’s probably not that simple, but this was in fact what my online course was modeling, going from the blended learning format that I had modeled at my face-to-face workshops in Thailand, to a completely online one now that I had returned home and was working to carry on these consultancies in a totally online space.

Of the 42 people who signed up for the eLearning, only a few were from Thailand, but I had opened the course up to my wider network in an effort to bring in multiple voices and perspectives, and increase the volume of interaction. It is common for people to register in online courses and then not participate (i.e. lurk) but by the end of the three weeks there were 23 unique participants who had joined us at some point. This is not a huge number, but our 10 webinars remained consistently attended, and from the recordings you can see where the ones in March became increasingly focused on the need for teachers to come to grips with technology that would help them to engage their students in meaningful learning in their increasingly isolated situations.

Reflections

It is not easy to predict how a project will evolve over the course of its delivery considering what is learned day to day in meeting participants where they normally work and study and learning more about their contexts each day, and altering one’s product as a result of each encounter. One great advantage to working in an online space is that changes can be made daily if necessary (and often were) to reflect what was learned one day and thereby improve the next encounter. Thus many parts of my workshops were changed, even the emphasis and order of presentation of materials, from the first week to the next. And also, what participants can see now online for their workshops is likely improved slightly over what they actually did in those workshops, especially if I met them in the first week.

The eLearning course was even more susceptible to subtle and not so subtle feedback from participants on a day to day basis. Because so few of the expected participants (from Thailand) signed up for the eLearning, I had to discern the interest of those who did pretty much on the fly and tweak the course accordingly. In other eLearning courses I have conducted where there is no extrinsic reason for participants to be there (no certificates or fulfilment of prerequisites for a larger goals), the course has to respond to their interests and curiosity, and I have found that participants might not have much motivation to perform the exercises envisaged for them by the facilitator, whereas they might more wholeheartedly engage in interactions more meaningful to them. As Jay Cross once put it, people love to learn but they hate to be taught, so my most successful online ventures have been ones where the community drives the curriculum, and I have sustained communities of practice for as long as 20 years now on the strength of the mutual interests of their participants.

What happened with this eLearning course was that it became especially relevant to that group of participants who were both active in the course and who were also having to suddenly meet their students online. In addition it was becoming apparent, especially after our March 1 webinar, that blended learning was a critical precursor to moving courses online, and also that this is exactly what was being modeled in this course. So we began focusing on this aspect, especially in the last webinars in week three, where we started attracting teachers from around the world to share with us how they were coping with the abrupt shift in expectations of how they would be teaching their students in the near future.

The Aftermath in time of COVID-19

The course ended on March 11 but not the interest in this topic, which was starting to impact students, their teachers, and trainers of those teachers all over the world. In my case, I don’t teach students per se, but I interact with colleagues from all over the world in numerous online spaces as well as as face-to-face conferences, such as the TESOL conference in Denver, which were then on the verge of being canceled. TESOL and the CALL Interest section, to name just two professional associations, were scrambling to identify resources for their members, and the topic was not going away.

So I took steps to perpetuate the blended learning course community by creating a MOOC / Community, a space for open ended interaction, which I left up as a permanent announcement on the Schoology course, and as a link from the sidebar of the Blended Learning Workshops wiki here: http://workshops2020.pbworks.com/w/page/138923232/MOOC_Community_Extension

In that document I outlined how the community could move itself forward in pursuit of its exploration of resources for dealing with COVID-19.  Under the heading of What can you do here? there are two suggestions. One is that community members could help us crowd-source resources for people having to transition suddenly from face-to-face to online. For that purpose I set up a crowd-sourced Google Doc on which anyone with the link could write, here
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pm4Q_jJbrWKu38-xv8-2QFrn-ialnZBT-qDofoXAWcY/edit?usp=sharing.

I began to move community suggestions into a page I had set up in the last week of the course
http://workshops2020.pbworks.com/w/page/138990084/What_if_my_school_suddenly_closes

I had also set up a listserv for the MOOC / Community space at https://groups.io/g/blendedclassrooms/.  However this list only attracted 3 course participants besides myself. Meanwhile though, other communities I was in were starting to jell around the issue; in particular https://groups.io/g/webheadsinaction/topics.

TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN




Webheads in Action is a community that I had started 20 years ago. It had been experiencing a gradual revival slowly on its own but this accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted me to take yet another initiative which I called TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN. The idea for TALIN was prompted by suggestions in what I called “numerous cross-fertilizing communities of practice that there was needed a space where members of these CoPs could meet online and talk informally to one another about how they are dealing with changes in their personal and professional contexts and what they are doing to help others in this trying time of pandemic.”

I set up TALIN in another crowd-sourced Google Doc at TinyURL:  https://tinyurl.com/talin2020, but this one requires users to request edit access and provide credentials. I even created a Facebook page for it at https://www.facebook.com/groups/talin2020. Since that group’s creation around the first of April, the Facebook group has attracted 24 members, and the group has held or is planning a webinar every two days through the first three weeks in April. I expect this to be sustained for as long as schools are closed for the pandemic, but the group is under my https://Learning2gether.net umbrella, and its activities should extend the number of podcasts produced since 2010 to well over 450.

So, as regards sustainability, successful efforts appear to be strongly community-based. As Clay Shirkey so well explained in his book Cognitive Surplus, such movements are motivated by some collective desire to achieve outcomes mutually beneficial to a group, and they work only as long as they are free, inclusive, and driven bottom-up. Many well-meaning initiatives are driven top-down, and these are the ones that are hardest to sustain. But as we see from this example, the movement might be sustained but be in danger of losing its connection with its original impetus.

Find more about TALIN here from a presentation I gave on May 9, 2020 at the Virtual Round Table Web Conference organized by Heike Philp:


Conclusion

My experience in Thailand was highly positive. The work was challenging but the Thai participants were gracious and appreciative, and receptive to learning and experimenting with new tools. At the end of each workshop, one participant was tasked with standing before the group and delivering some words of thanks for the time we had just spent together, and then everyone would put their palms together and nod respectfully and in unison in my direction. I was particularly pleased with the way I was encouraged to create the materials I used in whatever way I saw fit, and with the hospitality and logistical support of the RELO office in Bangkok.

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