We are all used to the traditional mode of professional learning – face-to-face, with possibly a presenter and some interactive elements. We may also be pretty au fait with synchronous virtual learning from video conferencing, such as in Skype/Google Hangout sessions or webinars (again, some listening, some participation).
But how often do sessions incorporate learners in both media, at the same time?
For me, not often. But my recent CORE Breakfast, in association with Essential Resources, shone a spotlight on a model that we may see more often as educators become increasingly familiar with the idea of virtual learning. When people are geographically isolated, this might offer an ideal third way to access shared professional learning with schools elsewhere.
And my key point is this: A synchronous virtual experience, whether it is solely online or incorporated in a face-to-face session, shouldn’t be a ‘lesser’ experience for the virtual guest just because they are not physically present. As a friend asked me on Twitter recently: Should virtual learning have to be ‘sit on the mat and listen to the teacher’ style of learning?
I was booked to facilitate a morning session with a group of educators in the Invercargill region, face-to-face. In the deep South, there are schools scattered like seeds across a pretty remote piece of New Zealand. One teacher, ‘Tom’, from a school two hours’ mountain climb/an expensive flight away, wanted to join us for the morning. Having spent a lot of time preparing for the face-to-face session, I had, by comparison, not as much notice that Tom would be joining us. No matter.
To offer Tom a learning experience that was comparable with that offered to those in the room.
In my view, this was a great opportunity to walk the talk; I spend quite a bit of time, even in so called ‘e-learning’ sessions, talking with others about inclusion, and the need to start one’s learning design and planning from the point of view (needs/passions) of the learners that usually take more time to design for than others. The 'outliers'. Those traditionally on the margins.
What better way to explore this idea than to demonstrate it in situ? Tom, as he live-streamed in, could easily have just listened while everyone else participated. But that’s not inclusive. It doesn’t model the principles of Universal Design for Learning that I believe should sit at the heart of how we work.
What does the virtual, synchronous learner want/need/deserve?
- Equity of access to information: this means they need the same/similar visual and aural experience as those in the room e.g. powerpoint, demonstrations, the presenter, the others educators.
- To be motivated and goal-oriented: To engage in and be motivated by the same or adapted activities that work towards the same learning goal as those in the room.
- Access to the activities that are relevant to the learning goal: To share ideas and discuss thinking with participants who are also engaged – in the room, or with them in their own school.
- All visual materials – slides, notes, handouts, and links to sites and videos – were sent to Tom in advance, with notes on how the session would adapt to include him.
- Designed differentiated activities that allowed for choice of mode and pathway; in this case, incorporating individual inquiries at classroom and whole school level.
- Ensured that he had the same chance to introduce himself and to participate in activities – during a visual data creation, we ensured he had a physical ‘marker’ in the room, and that he could be heard by the others when it was his turn to speak.
- Deliberately addressed him specifically, frequently, and checked his needs as a priority at each transition to a new activity.
- Provided a learning partner who managed the internet connection and sound, and moved the camera so he could see the presenter and the audience whenever someone was speaking. I had a radio mic, which we also passed around.
- The learning partner was also vital during interactive, paired activities, as he was a sole teacher.
- Verbal and visual indications: I made sure I indicated what slide I was on, where I was in the presentation, and what we were all looking at. And I described things that he might not be able to see.
What I would have improved
- Provide specific guide/protocols both for those in the room and for Tom so that everyone was prepared and ready to work together.
- Position the computer camera in the room where the presenter can easily look to it while presenting to the room.
- Provide speakers, another mic in the centre of the room, and a large monitor so Tom could be seen and heard more easily by those in the room.
- Recommend Tom comes with someone else, or as a cluster, so as to make interactive sessions more engaging, immediate and sustainable.
- Provide materials well in advance.
- Incorporate an online learning environment (like a forum/wiki) so that Tom can connect with those present, and contribute at the session before, during, and after – and, of course, with each other.