Lockdown in Italy: What one teacher’s experience shows us about teaching online

Lara Statham shares her experience in Italy of what Covid-19 is showing us about teaching online

Where do you want to do your lessons today?”

“Erm, well, I was teaching in the spare room yesterday so perhaps we could do a swap today?”

“Well, what time’s your first lesson?”

“I start at 10am and then I’ve got three lessons later on from 3 to 7pm.”

“Ok, so maybe it’s better if you stay in the dining room because I start at 2.30 and don’t mind doing the lessons in the spare room. Plus, I’ve managed to work out the best position for the desk in there now. But perhaps we can do a swap before your last lesson so I can come in and start to prepare the dinner while you’re teaching.”

“Ok, yes, we can do a swap at 6.15 then. That works out ok actually because for the first 2 lessons I want to use the piano too. Look. I’ve stacked the coffee tables up so if I put the laptop on here, the kids will be able to see me play and we can do a song in English to lighten things up a bit.”

Each day under lockdown in Italy, my partner Roberto and I spend breakfast negotiating over who takes which room in our small 2-room apartment in Piemonte, so we can teach our lessons online with some degree of professionalism. So far, it seems that our small town doesn’t have any cases of people with Coronavirus, but even so, the strict regulations imposed by the Italian authorities require us to spend most of our time indoors, with time outside restricted to getting groceries, walking the dogs and going to the pharmacy, should we need to. Aside from that, we spend the best part of the day planning our lesson and teaching online – our new normal until the restrictions lift. Which, as you can imagine, we hope will be sooner rather than later.

Prior to the spread of Covid-19 restricting our lives in this way, education and training organizations had been pushing a generally accepted belief that one day in the future we would all be forced out of the traditional classroom and have to yield to an online teaching model. “Online teaching is the future”, we would inform our young university students who nodded sagely, safe in the knowledge that neither of us ever imagined it would really be our concern. Online teaching has certainly been a growth industry for at least 10 years now but teachers have been able to choose that career path or dabble in it rather than have it blanketly imposed on them. Furthermore, most of us in the over 40s bracket felt that the online teaching model was more likely to be a concern for Generation Alpha – and possibly Generation Z but that at the very least they’d be prepared for it. The fact that we’ve all, regardless of our generation, been plunged headlong into this, even if temporarily, where teaching online has become a must for all teachers is all at once unnerving, stressful, motivating, and driving us to change. A classic ‘VUCA’ moment in current leadership theory speak—this 1980s U.S. military acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity could not be more apt to describe what we are going through now.

So how have we managed this sweeping change? Well, the first thing Roberto and I had to get to grips with was the array of video/web conferencing and learning platforms that our various employers chose to use, including Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, Moodle, and Kaltura. And because we were also dealing with the rapidly changing rules of “social distancing,” we had the added challenge of conducting various ad hoc online training sessions with our colleagues. Combine this all with a large dose of hesitation at the outset because everyone believed we would be back in the classroom after just a couple of weeks, and then the eventual realization and acceptance that this is not going to be over any time soon.

So, here’s what I’ve learnt so far about teaching online.

  • It’s as important to keep to a routine online as offline
  • Get up and get dressed as if you are going out to work and keep to your lesson timetable as far as possible
  • Start with general housekeeping stuff – ask your students how they are, give them key information about any changes, messages for parents, check they’ve done homework, ask if they have questions and do general group feedback on the previous lessons written work
  • Establish procedure – in Zoom meeting settings click on ‘waiting room’ so that you can let the students in all at the same time or even speak to individuals before you speak to the whole class, asking students to mute themselves until you invite them to speak
  • Make sure your materials are clear, in big enough fonts so everyone can read them and you have the right balance between too much and too little information
  • Make your teaching as interactive as possible – students have told me that they find it difficult to follow lessons online that are purely teacher directed. I use videos, audio files, screen sharing, quick polls, the ‘breakout rooms’ feature on Zoom to vary the pace of my online lessons and involve the students as much as possible.
  • Add pace to the lesson by speeding up and slowing down the activities, varying the tasks and interaction patterns.
  • Take regular breaks (schedule in virtual coffee breaks with colleagues!) and consider if it’s more appropriate to do shorter lessons with more frequent breaks since working online requires different levels of concentration both for teacher and students. There may be distractions in the background for you and the students making focus more challenging especially when everyone is working from home
  • Stay in contact with the students by email so you can collect written work. Get them to appoint a class representative to whom you can email the lesson invitations and deal with questions and updates

As well as getting familiar with the learning platforms, I’ve also spent time searching for useful teaching aids to create engaging, pedagogically focused lessons. And here are some of the resources and websites that I’ve found to be good sources for materials:

  • Publishers

A wide collection of colorful, engaging kids’ resources by publisher Harper Collins

https://www.harpercollins.com/childrens/at-home-resources-for-kids-and-families-during-coronavirus-2020/
  • Libraries

Free downloadable ebooks for kids at World book Kitaboo

https://worldbook.kitaboo.com/

New York Public Library is offering free access to over 300,000 ebooks and audiobooks including kids’ books and bestsellers

https://www.nypl.org/about/remote-resources

  • Museum virtual tours

Great for using in lessons with university students and adults, Google Arts & Culture platform is giving access to virtual museum tours in museums across the US, including the MoMA and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Similarly, in France, Europe you can visit the Louvre galleries with their virtual tour to add visual stimulation and pace to your lessons.

https://artsandculture.google.com/search/partner?em=m09c7w0&categoryid=place

https://www.louvre.fr/en/visites-en-ligne

Another cool site is the NY Land Marks video series which allows you to be a virtual tourist in your own town. Great for creating online lesson that involve students in stimulating tasks.

https://nylandmarks.org/explore-ny/

What I’ve found is that there are literally loads of online tools out there to help us. It can be a bit overwhelming so I reached out to Digital Learning Manager, Marieke Guy, a colleague of mine at The Royal Agricultural University, UK who gave me her top 5 tips for some great learning apps when I was desperate for suggestions earlier last month.

1 Microsoft Teams – teams allow students to collaborate on work in a shared space. There’s a lot of core functionality, like the ability to chat and organize meetings, as well as tons of connectors so you can add in extra activities like mindmaps and polls.

2 Zeetings – you can give presentations online and share them with your students. They follow along from the app

3 Kahoot – all students love this! The interactive quizzes are exciting and bring out the competitive side in everyone.

4 Answer Garden – a great way to crowd source the answer to a question. It takes minutes to set up and the end result is a fun word cloud.

5 Padlet – you can create a shared board of student ideas and questions. Think of it as a virtual post-it note activity.

Some really great stuff. But as we adapt to teaching online there is also the fear that once we get back into schools and universities, a seismic shift may already have taken place where, in the very near future, we will find ourselves being required to do more and more online. Couple this with a sense of foreboding that this trajectory might be used as an excuse to assign fewer hours, cut salaries, and lay people off. This sense of trepidation is understandable. Needless to say, if countries do plan to make online teaching the norm, the Coronavirus experience is throwing some useful light on a number of urgent questions that need to be addressed that could inform national curriculums and syllabus design.

1. Is online teaching needed?

2. Who can it best serve?

3. How can we make sure that people actually learn?

Firstly there would need to be some agreed understanding of what the educational purpose to online teaching is; that it’s about more than just simply reducing costs and teaching staff. Education is about acquiring knowledge but it’s also about acquiring the skills, values and beliefs that are useful to the society in which they are taught.

Once this is agreed on, “governments would need to increase expenditure and IT resources for this to happen,” points out Juliette Hyde, head of Humanities at DT Rose Bridge in Wigan, UK.  

“Our IT infrastructures would need to be overhauled, with massive investment to cope with increased demand and back up strategies should the system crash, like it is doing now. And how would online learning accommodate creative subjects such as art, dance, gym class and food technology? How will pupils be tested accurately to minimize cheating?” she asks.

“Online teaching is good but one of the most critical issues to consider,” continues Juliette, “is the increasing numbers of vulnerable children with mental health and obesity issues, not to mention those who don’t have adequate parental support to learn from home or access to computers and Wi-fi.”

Kari Stunell, lecturer in Teacher Education at The University in Bordeaux, France adds “In the last two weeks alone we have seen how online learning works but really shows up social divides – between the haves and the have nots. In the Bordeaux countryside, for example, they don’t even have access to 4G networks yet, so countryside dwellers in France are currently at a clear disadvantage for online learning.”

So, a picture starts to emerge that the idea of constructing a society that depends purely on online learning may yet be unrealistic. Furthermore, our societies depend on socialization skills that are vital for learning how to interact with others. These skills would simply not get learnt if we completely replaced traditional classrooms with online ones which would have catastrophic implications for workplaces and the way humans interact in the physical world.

What seems to be clear, however, is that there is a general sense that online teaching has its place and is a blessing for when we are faced with a crisis like Covid-19. “People should just be glad that’s it’s available,” says Roberto Giambra, English teacher with the British School in Piemonte, Italy.

We already know that online learning is useful for adult learners especially in the field of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and is an option for university students who want to do distance learning. However, so far, only 5-10% of people who take up MOOCS, the Massive Open Online Courses that have gained popularity with adults over the last decade or so, actually complete them“…which says a lot in my view says Kari Stunell, “because loads of these courses are very high quality, have very motivational lecturers from Ivy League universities like Harvard and are really interesting.” But it seems that in spite of good intentions, a lot of us lack the willpower or time management skills to see an online course through to the end. If adults lack the organizational skills in online learning, what does that say for kids?

This raises the question about which students can best benefit from online learning in the school system and how would we know that learning was actually taking place?Clearly, most learners, simply don’t have that will power and dogged determination to learn alone.

 “Online learning would be more effective for secondary (middle and high) school up but for that to be sustainable online teaching requires learning strategies training for both teachers and students. Students can’t be expected to motivate themselves to get up in the morning and do their online lessons. The temptation to do something else instead is too strong. And we can’t pass the responsibility onto parents to make sure their kids pay attention in online class,” explains Stunell.

Perhaps a blended approach would work but training in “learning to learn” strategies is already sorely missing even from traditional classroom environments. Therefore, training secondary and high kids to take responsibility for their own learning online would mean overhauling the whole education system. 

“Plus, adults often assume that young people are tech savvy but even though they’re pros on social media sites and gaming, they lack the working reflexes many adults have. They don’t go and regularly check their email spam box and write documents. I strongly believe that online learning is simply not suitable for kindergarten pupils. A seven-year old isn’t an autonomous learner, they need to be accompanied and supported by a parent or teacher.”

“In France, we use an online communication interface between teachers, pupils, and their parents where the parents can check what homework their kids have to do and what their grades are. This creates accountability but could still be utilized in more creative ways for video-based homework tasks, for example. That’s how I see the online world being useful for primary.”

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, the priority has been to deliver the lessons to students by whichever means possible and online has been the only solution for many of us. What is more, the experience has had some surprising consequences here in Italy. “The fact that teachers have rallied to the cause of ensuring their students continue to have access to education is increasing students’ level of respect towards older generations, something that has been in decline since the 90s.”

Personally, I’ve learnt loads and I think that goes for everyone involved in this mass online teaching experiment. However, despite the positives of acquiring a new skillset, much of our online teaching has been more of a bandaid approach borne out of an emergency, but on a wider scale it has also opened up a deep conversation about the usefulness of online teaching as we go forward, which students might it be most appropriate for, and crucially, where it will have the most useful learning impact that is in line with our understanding of our core educational principles and objectives.

Lara Statham ([email protected]) currently works at the Università di Torino (Italy) in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literature & Culture. She is also a qualified Life Coach and is interested in exploring ways of improving learning outcomes for students using a coaching approach. [email protected]

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