Keeping Students Engaged

Old-school methods still work to help students learn during online teaching.

A little over a decade ago, a biology teacher in the high school I taught at incorporated videos in her classroom. The videos were made by the teacher and included lessons for the week. Most of the videos were over an hour-long, almost the same length as the class at that time. When students arrived in class, they watched the videos or did the lessons and labs on the videos. The videos replaced the instructional duties of the teachers. She became more of a facilitator or maybe less. The students did not enjoy the class. The instruction delivery of uninspiring, and they were not engaged. Providing information is not the same as providing education.

Like many other teachers, I also incorporated videos in my computer applications class. But there were two big differences in my approach. First, my videos were no longer than 10 minutes. Second, my videos were made by other students. The videos were meant to enhance instruction, not become instruction. The videos only served to supplement instruction. As for the students that produced those videos, they received grades for their how-to videos. This gave them incentives to make the videos, and the other students enjoyed the videos made by their classmates. Many other students opted to make the videos for grades. Some of the videos I posted, some of them I didn’t post, if the quality was not high. However, behind this idea was a real purpose; I could tell how much students learned by their video content. It was a win-win situation: students learned from other students. And by making instructional videos, students were actively reinforcing what they have learned and actually learning as they were doing.

It did not seem to be a big deal. I did not have a grand plan. It was just something that grew out of the classroom organically. I noticed how well it worked, and I incorporated different versions of this method throughout my other classes. During the pandemic, I often think about that biology teacher. If she is still teaching, she may be teaching over the internet, like many teachers are doing. I am curious about the methods she uses for distant learning.

During the initial school closing due to the pandemic, I asked a teacher how he was handling teaching online. He told me he was doing very well. When I inquired about his methods, it boiled down to him putting assignments online, and the students assessed them, completed the assignment, and turned it in. That was not my idea of online teaching or instruction.

Most classrooms still look like this

Ever since the computer entered our world, experts made predictions that computers would take over teaching and change education as we know it. That has not happened. As Sanjay Sarma stated in his book, Grasp, “Despite the onrush of technological changes that have come to education since the middle of the 19th century, most of us still teach and learn in the classrooms that remain remarkably similar to those of 150 years ago.”

Technology alone will not make a student learn easier or better, and technology alone cannot make a teacher a better teacher. We do not have the type of technology that would allow a teacher to hide behind it while it teaches everything the students need to know. Teachers still need to apply to old-school methods to ensure proper instruction.

The same things that make face-to-face teaching effective are the same things that need to be done with distance learning. Learning has to be user friendly; teachers have to keep this in mind. Why should learning be difficult? I know of a history teacher who grades papers as if he was an English professor. Making it extremely difficult for students to get the proper grades. But he totally ignores the substance of the paper itself. This sends the student down the wrong path in pursuit of a good grade and ignores the reasons why the confederate states lost the civil war. All of this because of some dangling sand misplaced modifiers. This is not a method that promotes. As Sanjay Sarma states, …” it’s like requiring Olympic sprinters to first quality in a karaoke competition.”

With the limitation that distance learning presents, we have to do all we can to make learning easier, not harder. As we learned in the past, new technologies are not likely to change the way humans learn. For now, we still have to keep a firm footing on known instruction methods that have proven to be effective in the traditional classroom. One of the ways to make learning easier is to keep students engaged. An example: Learning the technical concepts of cybersecurity is one thing. But learning how cybersecurity affects society is something else altogether. Looking at technical subjects as humanity courses allow conversations to come into play, such as history, politics, finance, economics, and sociology. This conversation will be much more fun, engaging, and topical than to simply explain how packets travel across a network. In other words, to use common core courses as an example, we cannot teach reading and writing as empty skills that are independent of the world around us.

Incorporeal subjects that represent the real world cannot be separated from that world when teaching. The organic connections must be added to all instructions. I do not want to teach how to perform the technical instructions of a network penetration test. That is not the holistic way to teach. For a fuller, more engaging method, I want to speak about why. I will add a scenario and speak about recent headlines that include some sort of pen-testing. As a teacher, I sit in front of a screen with students looking and listening to me. Many of them are home and have endless distractions. Just as in a regular classroom, I have to do my best to overcome the problems of teaching over the Internet. I call on them, ask questions, look them in their eyes, and encourage them in front of their peers. No autopilot technology can take the place of human interaction.

Teachers are under a lot of pressure. Teachers are frustrated, parents are frustrated, and some students are left behind during this sudden transformation to online learning. Even with the limits of the newest digital medium, educators are expected to produce at least pre-COVID-19 results. Any decent teaching method has to deliver knowledge, of course. However, it must also be very engaging, especially in a distance learning situation where the teacher does not have control in a virtual setting that a traditional classroom affords. Teachers are doing much more than putting assignments online; they are still going through the teaching process and must keep this in mind during this challenging period.

As distance learning becomes more prevalent, we will eventually adjust and improve the efficiency of this method of learning. We will adjust to technology and make distance learning more harmonious. It will take time and patience. As a person in the trenches of this massive shift to distance learning, as both a teacher delivering online instruction to high schoolers and a grandfather helping his elementary grandchildren with their online studies, I am in the middle of this whirlwind change. However, I believe in people. I know that the parents, teachers, and education administrators are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Meanwhile, with a little old-school methods, we will make it through this transitional stage.



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