Not all Content

Fits in all Containers

Teachers at all levels have learned a lot about teaching online this year. The good and the bad. When it worked well, we knew it, and our students did too. But I worry that many teachers took away some negative conclusions, which might have been built on faulty ground. I’d like to try to unpack that idea this week.

Because we had to move all or most of our teaching online, we never had a chance to think about which parts would benefit from online instruction, and which would not, or at least needed to be modified to thrive when technology-enabled. If we are honest, we occasionally knew things that needed to be modified... but we just didn’t have time to do it.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how we were, for much of the year, “stuck at substitution.” That is, we were stuck on just getting through the week, and often substituting what we used to do in a classroom, and porting that whole cloth to an online space.

There were two common forms of this that were practiced this year by teachers far and wide. One was some version of lecture capture, the worst form of which is standing in an empty classroom and teaching as if students were there and recording that for later playback. But there were other forms of what was effectively lecture capture, including synchronous classes hosted on Zoom when the class session was a lecture with little interaction from students. Both of these methods of instruction lead to “Zoom fatigue” and, it seems likely, a concomitant drop off in effective learning. At least with a recorded lecture, students could speed it up. I recently saw this tweet from a student in which she said she wasn’t sure she could listen to a lecture at 1X speed ever again:

Here’s a similar tweet from another student:

The second form of “stuck at substitution” was what has become known as “HyFlex” teaching. This method of instruction is a compromise - allowing some limited in-person instruction but including some students only online. It might use a form of technology such as the Owl conferencing video/audio solution, which is a device designed to bring online students into the classroom. The problem with HyFlex is that it privileges the students in the room, and puts the teacher in an essentially untenable situation. Teachers in HyFlex environments must teach two classes at once - because they are teaching students in the room and students who are looking at them walking around a physical space on a small screen - that is, teaching their classmates in the room. Teaching two classes at once is much like trying to be in two places at once, and just as impossible. And so you are essentially teaching the class you would always teach to the students in the room, and you are stuck at substitution again for the students who are online. Worse, if the technology is not working well, or the bandwidth is up and down (on either end) - god help you. I had a colleague say to me yesterday that a better term for this kind of teaching in the past year was “WonkyFlex.”

On some level, all teachers know that whatever form of “substitution” they might have fallen back on - even if only occasionally - was not the most effective teaching they hoped to do. But we missed the opportunity years ago to learn how to teach online well, nor were we given the support to redesign our courses for online instruction (see We Were Unprepared). And when our schools committed to the HyFlex mode under admittedly emergency conditions we were essentially doomed to doing yet another impossible thing - at least for certain courses. And the fundamental reason why that is true - I think - is found in a concept I have been propounding for some time:

Not all content fits in all containers.

It is probably obvious, but let me start unpacking this concept by defining my terms. By “content” I mean course material and its learning outcomes. 10th Grade Math, Freshman English, AP Biology. Ask any teacher of any course, and they will tell you what the generally accepted “content” for that course is (with no doubt their own preferences or modifications, which they can defend in detail). When a teacher says “I have the following topics I need to cover in my course” - that is what I mean by “content.”

By “container” I mean, in part, the class schedule. This is often expressed on a syllabus as something like this: M/W 1:15 - 2:30; twice a week for 75 minutes; 3 Credits. For more than 100 years, we thought in terms of time and place based containers. But the online teaching environment brought us many new forms of containers. Such as Synchronous, Asynchronous, HyFlex, and Hybrid teaching modalities. If part of the course content can be taught on an asynchronous schedule, the container takes on a very different dimension. So now “container” refers to the class schedule and the primary modality of instruction, and so to be clear: I am using the term that way.

When we switched to online teaching, we made a big assumption - that all course content could be made to fit in any container. It’s stuff, right? It’s content - get it out there as best you can and students will do what they will with it.

But my thesis is the opposite of that assumption: not all content fits in all containers. There are some courses, by their content, that work best in person. Others that work very well in a Hybrid format. Others that are completely suitable to well-designed asynchronous instruction formats - in whole. And the other side of that coin is the one we have been avoiding addressing, in large part because we were unprepared and we didn’t have time:

Some course content does not fit well in some containers. Even a great teacher couldn’t make it work as well as they would hope, and they exhausted themselves this year trying to get it to fit, and still are not sure why it didn’t work well.

If you are willing to tentatively accept the concept that “not all content fits in all containers,” the obvious next question is - OK, so which is which? And here’s the thing: I do not know the answer to that question. I believe we are still collectively figuring this out, and we will be for some time. I would like to hear from you - my readers - about this. For example, can we say yet that a skills and experiential-based course needs mostly in-person instruction, while an intensive “basic knowledge” college course - such as Anatomy & Physiology - works well in a mixed Asynchronous and Synchronous fully online teaching environment? Please share your thoughts in the comments, or write to me privately by replying to this email directly.

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Letters of Recommendation

Last week, I encouraged you to consider journaling as an intentional renewal practice. And while it doesn’t matter what sort of journal you use, I do think it helps to elevate it with a small investment in something nice. So I can recommend the journals made by a small company in Istanbul, Galen Leather. They make beautiful journals in many different styles, and send interesting lagniappe with each purchase.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Alexandra K. Trenfor.

The best teachers are the ones who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.