Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

By   April 4, 2020
My High School Class Online in Virtual Reality. Mozilla Hubs

It may seem cliche, this “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” idea. It’s been a meme, it’s part of the Marine Corps. code, and I remember it from my Army days as Army 21 the ‘forward’ looking military philosophy circa 1985. It is where we are at the moment, and in that spirit, I present how I improvised, adapted and will overcome the issues of education at a distance.

The first few weeks of online teaching here in Mexico are over. Spring break has fallen like the first heavy, cleansing rain of the year, and I can now take some time to reflect on everything I did wrong, what I believe I got right and how I can make things better for my students.

Initial design flaws: My style of teaching doesn’t fit well with online work. I use a dogme approach among others that emphasizes spontaneous and at times thoughtful conversational approaches.(For more information about dogme, click here).  I don’t use a lot of resources, other than arts and crafts supplies and the MacMillan English Campus platform,which I only use piecemeal these days. 

Cramming all that into an online format didn’t work too well for me.  I tried to anticipate what my students’ needs were going to be and I think I got that right, but the activities didn’t feel right to me. I guess that is to be expected. Here is what I did get right.

  1. I intentionally left a gap of a week without meeting directly online with my students. My thinking here was that students were going to be overwhelmed by demands from other teachers who have never taught online before.  Students reported they had more homework for the first week than they had ever had before.
  2. I didn’t demand my students sit with me, online, at home, for the entire two hours of class,  twice a week. I think the longest we went was an hour. Students are easily distracted at school.  At home the distractions are even more plentiful. 
  3. I was able to adapt some of the things I usually use in class,i.e. collaborative assignments, and paired exams that reveal competency in the subject.  
  4. I anticipated there would be no guidelines and that at some point some one or some committee would scrutinize what was being done.  I didn’t care.

Here’s what I got wrong:

  1.   I didn’t anticipate my students’ willingness to work together (at least in a few cases). They resist mingling with each other outside of class,  so, finding out that one group created a WhatsApp group just for my class was refreshing. I can use this information to my advantage next time
  2. I expected students to be a bit more independent and motivated than they were before. Simple instructions to tasks led to emails seeking clarification.  I found myself burning up my already short face to face time just explaining mundane tasks. 
  3. I didn’t continue my gamified approach to classroom management. At the university, I gave points for showing up to class early, brain teasers, and various and sundry other things.  I didn’t incorporate these things because, frankly, I was under a lot of pressure to be ready when the word came that we were switching to online instructions.
  4. In my rush, I grasped for anything I could use “off the shelf” to just get through the next few weeks.  I had a lot of things planned, but again, without that classroom environment I wasn’t sure they would work or maintain interest.  Thankfully, I did.
  5. I wasn’t worried about guidelines that might be installed ‘ex post facto’.  We had a ‘surprise inspection’ where we had to take a snapshot of our class meeting online. Luckily I had planned to be online with my group that day.  I know a lot of people probably got caught with their pants down, though.  

A new path forward:  I am going to change a few things to make the classes more dynamic. As I have no official guidelines yet, I will have to anticipate the university’s expectations for online instruction.  I will also have to rethink how these classes can work. I imagine I am going to keep a limit on the face to face time, encourage more responsibility from my students and to coax them to work collaboratively a little more.

As for the activities, I am working on VR. See the video link.  I tried it out yesterday with my high school students and they seemed to be engaged and were thrilled at the novelty of the environment.   I have also checked that all my university students have access to Netflix and will be able to use documentaries as part of the class activities.  

The action inside the Mozilla Hubs environment

I would also like to re-design my courses so that in the future, I can make use of the online systems in an efficient way that enhances in-class instruction. The ad-hoc nature of what we are using here in Mexico isn’t really online learning, so much as putting your course bits on line.  I think I would like to make the online experience as unique as its promised potential will allow. It can be done.