COVID – 19 has turned life in the education sector, from ECE to tertiary, upside down . What we once did face-to-face now takes place in virtual classrooms. Students are now being ‘schooled’ from home, and most tertiary campus courses are being delivered through
distance instruction. With very short notice, educators have moved courses to on-line
platforms and are now working from home. It’s been an extraordinary effort. For those not
in tertiary education, this is a major shift – and all those involved should be applauded.
However, we need to ensure that our aim to support ongoing online instruction is not
compromised by some assumptions about just how skilled teachers and students are
working in these quite different ways.
The first assumption we need to watch out for is that educators are automatically familiar
and competent with the learning platforms and applications they are expected to use in
place of face-to-face instruction. Just five weeks ago many were happily chugging away in
their classrooms, confidently able, and enjoying their daily interactions with their students.
Many probably had little idea, or even thought about Zoom or Teams 365, or how to upload
lessons online onto a school specific learning platform. How to… questions are now a
priority as teachers ask,
“How do I create a hyperlink in a document, before I upload the document to the school’s
learning platform? Oh, I have to upload instructions first, then close it and then insert the
“Oh, wait a minute, I don’t upload the document directly, I upload it as an attachment?. So how do I know what I have uploaded to …[learning platform].. and that it’s accessible to my students?”
And this is not an ‘oldies’ problem. Most teachers are engaged in a steep learning curve and we need to ensure they are supported in this process.
Assumption number two is that students – our “digital natives” – intuitively know how to
use the technology for accessing their learning. While most of our students are adept at
using social media, Google, Siri and Alexa, they are unlikely to be fully familiar with the
digital learning platforms they must now rely on. Consequently, many schools and tertiary
institutions have proactively used specialist staff to develop “how to” videos for students,
which suggests that a number of students seem as flustered as their teachers:
“How do I even find my work? How do I upload stuff to my One Note? My access to the
[platform] is blocked. How do I use the collaborative space? How do you unmute yourself??”
What’s more, because they are considered digital natives, we also assume that they come
more naturally to online learning than we ‘boomers’, despite their years in a physical
classroom, sitting with classmates and looking to the teacher for immediate and as-required guidance and direction.
The third notable assumption is that our digital natives have the refined levels of
information literacy skills to work independently in their bubble on screens full of
information text, or from hard copies open around them. Pragmatically, students have to
read about what they have to do, implement instructions, and process subject content
information from primary and /or secondary texts, be they text books, website work, or fill-in-gaps workbooks. They then have to write-to-learn – by hand or on the keyboard – skills for which, research suggests, they have received less than desirable levels of explicit
classroom instruction. The teacher may be zooming in intermittently, but unlike the
classroom, they are certainly not immediately available as needed. So the levels of cognitive independence students need, and we assume they have, are considerable.
When you live in a bubble working in relative isolation away from your peers, being able to
deploy the requisite literacy skills to make sense of disciplinary information sits at the
centre of daily achievement. For those students, and there are many of them, who are
weaker readers and writers, who resist text centred instruction, or rely on their teachers to
do it for them, online learning risks leaving them even more frustrated, disengaged and
isolated, cognitively if not physically, than a normal day at school. The disparities these
assumptions bring to the surface between what skills teachers and students need to
learn by distance, and what they can immediately use, threaten to undo that positive work
initiated by government and education leaders.
Unintended consequences now need to be considered. One is the potential for work to be
dummied down as online tasks are shorter, lighter and easy enough for everyone to do over short bursts. This effectively places students in an instructional holding pattern, until such time as ‘things get back to normal’. We risk content being taught online with less depth and critical engagement. A second consequence of this reductive approach is its implication that online instruction somehow matters less because it’s only an interim measure, to keep students occupied, as they wait for the inevitable return to proper learning back at school.
But there is a third more unfortunate consequence: without explicit strategic skills
instruction, online work will naturally advantage the already capably information literate
student, leaving those with weaker skills to get on as best they can. Students who learn
online need to read more about how they should work as well as reading what content to
learn. The teacher is now not the ubiquitous presence from a few weeks ago when they
would reiterate instructions, rephrase and interpret difficult texts, intensively guide note
making, paraphrasing, paragraphing, assignment and essay writing – especially with
students whose skill levels were already fragile. And compounding these issues, are the
economic gaps between students whose families can’t afford devices, laptops, hard drives
and reliable broadband connections, and those who can. It’s the Matthew Effect in tangible
Should a ‘new normal’ emerge from this pandemic lock down and alert levels, a nonnegotiable feature must be that ALL students are trained to be comprehensively
information literate. Content learning can only succeed if students also know, in equal
measure, how to learn from digital and hard copy texts, within and between Zoom sessions, with screen and paper, on their own and in virtual groups.
In practice teachers need to:
- know what information skills students need to use in their subjects and disciplines
and how these skills function to create authentic knowledge
- have sound pedagogical knowledge to design tasks and programmes that shapes
course work as a balance of explicit skills instruction and guided content learning.
- use a range of discipline relevant instructional strategies that require students to
regularly practise Information Literacy skills as they learn their subject content
- understand themselves as users of Information literacy skills, so that they know
objectively what they already innately know as subject experts
- and perhaps most importantly, bring all these attributes into designing online
content instruction that strengthens fragile Information literacy skills of some
students, consolidates them for others, and advances those of the already
After all it’s nothing less than what we would require of teachers if they were on campus in
their physical classrooms. And it should be no different in the online environment.
Some aspects of the job will return to a familiar normal over time, but undoubtedly the
pandemic will also leave us to deal with issues that weren’t on the agenda before, in
particular the assumptions that we carried into its time with us. We need new policy values
that drive the development of teachers’ pedagogic knowledge to practice in different types
of classrooms, be they in Room 5 with 25 kids, or each Rm 5 student studying at their
kitchen table 25 kilometres away. We must recognize that teachers deserve training in how
to operate different IT platforms to optimize their instructional potential. And most
crucially, we can’t assume students already can…. Rather our automatic position must be
that students will always require explicit instruction in the information literacy skills they
need for good, deep and meaningful learning to happen.
Learning now has a new layer of complexity! But if certain aspects of this pandemic
experience are quietly forgotten, its lessons consigned to the ‘too hard’ drawer, or in our
relief, we rush back to the old normal, we may well find ourselves doing this all over again in the future, with the same erroneous assumptions influencing our responses. The pandemic offers us the opportunity to develop new ideas and strategies about how we want to teach and learn when things change with such seismic abruptness.
- The Matthew Effect takes its name from Mathew 25:29 For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Educationally, it refers to the advantages students with strong literacy skills have compared with their peers who are less skilled. The former will likely be more successful than the latter, that is the rich (‘haves’) will get richer and the poor (‘have nots’) will get poorer, thereby exacerbating the gap between the two.
About the writers
*Ken Kilpin teaches in Massey University’s Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Secondary) programme and in secondary schools as a literacy professional learning facilitator.
*Vicki Traas teaches senior English in a large secondary school north of the Auckland Harbour bridge.