Teachers and educators can usually decide to which extent a teaching and learning model is going to be blended, mixed or hybrid, and determine which parts to be in-presence and which ones online and when they are going to be carried out. The pandemic has challenged even the blended or hybrid models, as we could not be able to plan when in-presence moments will be unexpectedly impossible. So what should we do to be better prepared for such eventuality?
Although the answer to this question would ask for a wider space, in this text we have synthesized it in 5 basic strategies:
- To prepare a contingency plan to reduce uncertainty when facing periods of discontinuous or intermittent attendance of students and considering the risk of inequalities.
- To design the in-presence and online moments fluently and in a way that they could be reversible.
- To integrate a sustainable use of synchronous and asynchronous moments especially harnessing the potential of the latter.
- To diversify the strategies and mechanisms for collecting information for assessment.
- To redefine an organization that could support teachers to better cope with such situation.
Preparing contingency plans: towards a discontinuous or intermittent in-presence teaching model
In the next academic year we will have to face the concept of "discontinuous or intermittent in-presence teaching". It is possible that the academic year starts in-person, but educational institutions must be ready to give full support to the students during an entire year, in which we will have intermittency moments in which we will have to do it online.
We do not know the levels of adoption of the online modality in the new normal, but we do know that they will probably be higher than they were before 2020. Institutions must have new and higher levels of digital infrastructure -technology and support- to give reliable support to the students.
Schools and universities, as well as the Administrations, have to start developing contingency plans that include programming the achievement of each competence in two different environments –physical and virtual - and establish the links that will allow linking the activities carried out in any of the environment with the other one. The discontinuous in-presence teaching model is forced by the impossibility of coinciding in space in a given period, probably of an indeterminate duration. We will have moments of "blackout", which we will have to make bright. Our teachers are capable of dealing with if they have the appropriate support and training. In these plans, a well-designed communication strategy must always be added, aimed at families so that they have all the information to find it easy to understand their role in this modality of discontinuous attendance.
Although many of the aspects that have generated along these last days a situation of educational inequality could be greatly alleviated by the application of the strategies discussed in this text, it should not be forgotten that there are a series of requirements that are essential to obtain a good performance of the online part of the discontinuous attendance model. Specifically, it is necessary to make Internet connection accessible by all families, and also the possibility of using different digital devices among all family members. In the same way, it is necessary to guarantee the teaching staff to have the required tools at home to be able to teach online with quality.
Designing in-presence and online teaching moments so that they could be reversible
We should not design separately in-presence moments and online ones. It is about designing them all as if they were a continuum, although we do not know when the different moments will arrive. We should apply the concept of 360º environment also to digital reality. Only in this way will we be able to make sense of the whole. It is necessary to link in-presence and online moments between them, to make them flow with naturalness when we should transition from one to the other.
It is very important that this design makes it easier to teach and learn how to use virtual environments efficiently, both by teachers and students (learning digital competence) during in-presence teaching. Keep in mind the principle that learning is not just what happens when the teacher is watching.
The usual result of putting this principle into practice is, for some, the concept of a flipped classroom. But it is not exactly that. It is a great limitation we create to ourselves to think that in online periods the basic activity of the students should be reading or viewing content. There are many other learning activities that can be carried out virtually, either individually or in groups: synthesis exercises, case analysis, virtual role-playing, debates, projects... The criteria for deciding what activities to use should be given by their possibilities of interaction (face-to-face or virtual) and the motivation that they could generate among the students to get them involved. Obviously, in order to apply these methodologies in an online environment, teachers must be trained.
Integrating a sustainable use of synchronous and asynchronous moments especially harnessing the potential of the latter
Online or digital environments are highly underused, especially with regard to the value they can bring to the teaching and learning process. To get the most out of it, you should make your design from a situation of non-attendance. When done the other way around, the lack of experience in the fully online modality greatly limits the design and execution of activities and resources that the digital environment provides us, because we think about it from in-presence and, therefore, limiting perspective. The use of synchrony and asynchrony is a good example of what we have just said.
The interaction will cease to be permanently synchronous because keeping it that way is simply unsustainable. The use of asynchronous mechanisms as closely interwoven parts in the flow of the teaching and learning process should be discovered, valued and applied in the design of the teaching and learning programme. As well as we have said before, as the in-presence and online moments should be designed simultaneously, we have to do the same with the synchronous and asynchronous moments.
We should find out the potential that asynchrony has for learning, and value it as a mechanism that can provide more agility and flexibility, for us as a teachers and for the students, as it allows them to use the digital devices they have at home at different times, contributing to the redistribution of these resources within the family. In addition, it is very important to carry out activities in the in-presence teaching moments for making the students learn how to use it properly, to make the transition between environments easier, in a more fluid way.
Diversifying strategies and mechanisms for collecting information for assessment
Assessment mechanisms must be diversified. For assessing, you have to accumulate information that should come from different sources. If some cannot be used at a certain time because of any lockdown, others can be activated and assessment is not going to suffer of inaction.
Betting for a formative assessment model is a must. This will make moments of purely summative or qualifying assessment becoming just a few ones. The diversification of strategies and mechanisms should allow us not to depend on the physical identification of the student, as we usually do. Assessment has to be able to be face-to-face and not online; synchronous and asynchronous; individual and group-based; in addition to implementing self-evaluation, hetero-evaluation and co-evaluation (peer-based) systems and exploring, too, the contribution that learning analytics can provide in the system as a whole.
A very important aspect is to take into account the degree of sustainability of the assessment models in the discontinuous situation, which will let us to be able to face it without jeopardizing our entire resources, both temporal and personal.
Redefining an organization that supports teachers to better cope with this situation
Some of the teachers say they are currently oversaturated with the tangible and emotional workload that the high amount of hours that they have had to be in front of a camera or answering students’ messages in real time has produced. Many felt as if they were dedicating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to attending their class groups. This should not happen again.
It is probable that by learning and practicing the strategies mentioned above, teachers’ workload will have to decrease. But only this will not be enough. There is a misconception that online education is cheaper because it works with fewer resources. It’s not true. If you want to offer a quality online education, or a quality online modality in a context of discontinuous or intermittent attendance, you have to assume certain costs that are strictly necessary, as well as to assume a certain level of new organization of learning.
On one hand, it is clear that ratios should be adjusted to this new situation, so that teachers' working hours are redistributed taking into account that there are two spaces (virtual and face-to-face), and that both must be attended and served. Ratios are a key element to guarantee a good support of the learning process in online education. While some models go in for the "industrial" model of traditional distance education (Peters, 1973) -where the idea was to reach, under any circumstance, "everyone"-, technology and the current situation recommend adequate ratios for ensuring that teacher-student and student-student interaction can take place in a meaningful way in the virtual environment. Likewise, it would be necessary to rethink the functions of tutoring and counseling in this dual context.
The use of support teaching staff in these circumstances would be a resource that administrations should value. This, in turn, would allow teachers to be prepared and trained for the future development of compulsory education in an increasingly digitalized society. For example, the possibility of creating new teaching assistant figures in virtual contexts. In some countries, teachers who are in a waiting list for having a teaching position in a school, or those who have only short periods of work when substituting some colleague for illness or any other reason, could do this task. Of course, this task should be adequately remunerated, at the level of the important teaching work they should carry out.
In the same way, students who have to do internships could also do online teaching internships, supporting teachers who, in those certain periods, have to work from home. In this sense, it is very important to point out that future teachers have to be the digital dimension well internalized and experienced, and this probably has to be done by a kind of immersion during the initial teacher training period that qualifies for the exercise of professional practice.
Also a part of the current “teaching hours” of teachers should be allocated for a more intensive training in teaching and learning in digital environments (teaching digital competence). Not in the way it has understood so far (how I can bring content to my students), but with a more realistic, complex and efficient understanding of the discontinuity of periods and methodologies to make learning possible. This should be combined with the participation of other teaching figures that support and fluff up the teaching dedication of faculty.
Finally, we should observe how some countries have already set to work not only in the present, but, and we have to celebrate, to prepare for the future. On April 21, the Council of Ministers of the Government of Portugal approved resolution 30/2020, which establishes, from the national educational policies, the need to provide "children and young people with the digital skills necessary for their full personal and professional fulfillment, as well as equal opportunities to access quality digital educational equipment and resources and investment in the digital skills of teachers and trainers in the context of the training modalities of the National Qualifications System." It is a good sign of the way forward.