It began with absence and desire (quote A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness) or to be rephrased as "there is a problem or gap in our current practice, and we would like to solve it".

"But there are already so many virtual learning platforms out there!", but are the many virtual learning platforms that are designed to support and enhance learning experiences for a group of learners really transforming how we teach and learn these days? Technology should be able to do so much more to help, no?

I have been taught to always consider users-first, and in the education field, the ontology, the learning theories, and the pedagogical approaches we want to support our users on.  This post will be a scribe of my readings, thoughts, and ideas on the what to consider before designing a virtual learning space.

Should I think of virtual classroom like a physical classroom?

Classroom is a learning space. Lesson is the space-time & process of imparting knowledge.  On top of being just a space to impart and receive knowledge, a classroom also functions as a social space, where conversations happen.  However, with an online "classroom", sounds, sights, gestures, and social intuition are usually absent, causing conversations to be harder to control and learning goals harder to achieve.  This also means the power [im]balance usually held by the teacher is now tipped towards the learners, a rearticulation of classroom power relation (Anagnostopoulos, D. et al, 2005).  With that, there is a potential for developing independent and curious learners, while modifying an educator's role to be a supporting character to facilitate students' exploration and application, and provide relevant and timely feedback to ensure continuous learning.  Therefore, virtual classroom should not be emulating a physical classroom, as it is similar but not the same.

If so, what should a virtual classroom be like?  Participating in a virtual classroom or online learning does not actually mean synchronous learning, as many would think.  Synchronous learning will require simultaneous availability of access and resource by all of your students, which many of us would know first-hand is nearly impossible.  Moreover, this practice will also require time to be normalised as both learners and educators will need time to pick up the basic digital skills and familiarise themselves with their own devices. Not all millennials are actually as tech-savvy as you think they are, even if they know how to get to their games or videos easily.  Furthermore, synchronous learning has shown value for relationship and community building, but not for deep learning actually.  So to encourage deeper learning, it is recommended to utilise asynchronous interactions to give time for learners to research and/or reflect (Falloon, G., 2011).  This may mean that a virtual classroom should be designed to support more asynchronous learning than synchronous learning, and enable learners and educators to follow each other's paces in the process.

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All that said got me thinking of the SAMR model of technology use for teaching and learning, and also the impact of (or rather the lack of) reflective learning. From my personal experience, questioning is not done frequently enough in class to enable educators to personalised learning for each student.  Moreover, there is also insufficient time and capacity in a class by a teacher to attend to each students' needs, even with lots of questioning.  Hence all the standardised national or grade-wide assessments and class-wide evaluations.  However, the quality of questions may not be as high as the quantity of questions asked.  Then, technology was introduced in hope of improving teaching and learning.  So far, most technology has been utilised commonly as a substitute for face-to-face practices, perhaps providing also minor enhancement to the process for knowledge transfers.  Many has gone from physical books to e-books, handwritten notes or assignments to digitally typed notes or assignments, and perhaps from use of just static images to videos.  But, is that changing our education experiences for the better?

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.  ~Mark Van Doren

How can a virtual classroom add value to education then?

In my opinion, many of these conversions from physical to digital teaching and learning have yet transformed teaching and learning practices and experiences.  Everywhere, a physical classroom or space is still necessary to bring learners and educators together in one space to "complete" the lesson.  Rather than "completing a lesson", why not "complete a human" instead? Why not use this physical space and time to supplement academic learning with non-academic ones, since learning to be human socially and emotionally is best done through modelling and story-telling.  Why not utilise technology to enable students to self-explore all the other subjects or topics, and bring their discovery back to be shared in the physical space, human to human. Why not incorporate prompts in the digital space for learners to reflect and critique on what they have discovered so that face-to-face discussion can bring about deeper conversations.  Leave the academic evaluations to digital assistants, and focus on providing in-time and necessary feedback to the learners instead, cikgu, what say you?

We all need people who give us feedback. That’s how we improve. ~Bill Gates

Feedback has been a common denominator among the top most powerful influences on learning and achievement (Waack, S). It shifts the learners and the educator's focus from I-need-to-get-good-grades-even-if-I-cheat to I-can-grow-and-be-better-so-it-is-okay-to-"fail"-for-now (The Graide Network, 2019). When paired with reflective thinking, a more active feedback loop could be formed.  Learners can take the initiative and ownership of refining their knowledge construction and skills development by asking themselves "what, so what, now what?" (Rolfe's framework for reflective practice).  This will enable deeper learning through self-inquiry, and nurture curiousity and growth mindset.  Furthermore, it also supports the concept of design thinking, where learners keep iterating on their understanding of themselves and the world around them, with 'learning' being the problem they are solving. Not only that, it will also help boost teacher-student relationships (Dana Di Pardo Leon).

Sometimes, a question could lead to a hundred more questions, and that can be a good thing.

Alright then, what is good feedback?

Feedback is provided for regulation and is essential in behavioral and cognitive change (Hattie, J.A.C. and Yates, G.C.R., 2014).  For learning, feedback is provided to guide an individual how to proceed towards betterment of self.  There are many guidelines or checklists to remind us on what a good feedback should be, but more importantly, any misconception that feedback is always positive and focuses only on the strength should be managed.  Negative feedback can be delivered through constructive criticism (but that's a topic for another post). Corrective feedback can be (and should be) given provided there is a positive teacher-student relationship and errors are welcomed in the learning environment (Hattie, J.A.C. and Yates, G.C.R., 2014).  

scrabble, scrabble pieces, lettering, letters, wood, scrabble tiles, white background, words, quote, letters, type, typography, design, layout,  i trust you, trust, integrity, faith, love, belief, credence, confidence,
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

But did you know that many classroom-based research showed that there is a classic empathy gap when it comes to feedback-giving and receiving? i) Teachers think they provide plenty of feedback to their students, ii) Students don't feel like they have been given sufficient feedback, iii) Lesson observers shared that feedback hardly occurs in the classroom (Hattie, J.A.C. and Yates, G.C.R., 2014).  How can this be managed better then?

However, back to the scope of what is good feedback, it is said to be good if it is goal-oriented, specific, actionable, and consistent. Goals are necessary to enable the observation of gap between the current and end state, allowing tangible outcome, thus providing an individual with the motivation and sense of control. With a goal in mind, it is easier to then give specific feedback on what and how to improve on oneself.  Moreover, specific and prioritised feedback are easier to digest and internalise compared to a huge scope of things one needs to work on. Then, to ensure that the feedback is actionable, it should explicitly describe their strength or weakness, and guides on what can be tried next (The Graide Network, 2019).  Feedback-giving should also be a consistent practice as the loop is required for both educator and learner to progress.  

Not all feedback need to be provided immediately.

Another element that makes good feedback in timeliness.  Knowing when to provide the necessary feedback and intervention is crucial for learning as learners would need ample time to try to reconstruct their learning before advancing to the next subject-matter or topic.  Not all feedback need to be provided immediately.  Feedback should be given according to the learning phases the learner is in (i) initial knowledge acquisition phase, (ii) applying knowledge phase, or (iii) advanced mastery phase). The phases progresses from high memory load (building of foundational knowledge and vocabulary) to more elaborate conceptual application (applying a knowledge beyond the standards required to be achieved).  Beginners will benefit from feedback given soon after their actions or responses, while advanced learners will have developed strategies to review, reflect, and revise, thus benefitting from the space and time to implement those strategies before any evaluation and comment is provided (Hattie, J.A.C. and Yates, G.C.R., 2014). In short, in-time feedback differs as the learning phases progress. Initial knowledge acquisition will need faster feedback compared to advanced mastery level, as the latter would learn better through more reflective practices.

So, how can I encourage reflective practices in myself and in my learners?

There are many ways one can reflect and encourage others to reflect. There are so many frameworks and guides out there to help.  I will mention a few here, but do go forth and discover more on the world wide web yourself too!

Lifted from: http://travelinedman.blogspot.com/2008/07/r2d2-book-is-out-may-force-be-with.html

R2D2: Read, Reflect, Display, Do. (Bonk, C. and Zhang, K., 2006) is one strategy to get students to reflect then showcase or apply their learning. There is also the Gibbs' reflective cycle (what happened, how you feel, evaluate the experience, analyse the experience, conclude, and plan an action), Kolb's reflective cycle (experience, reflect, conceptualise, experiment), and Rolfe's minimal reflective model (what, so what, now what) .  However, it is hard to begin practising reflecting alone, especially in young minds, as it requires a conscious effort to think about an experience and develop insights from them (Allen, W., 2016).  Furthermore, reflection actually requires awareness of self, inquisitiveness, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking (Framework, 2018).  Based on Piaget's research, kids develop a sense of self around 2 years old and subsequently begin to appreciate and empathise the emotions of others. Therefore, with appropriate guidance and questions, reflective thinking should be able to be cultivated/developed from 2 years old onwards.

https://abc-ld.org/download-abc/part1-introduction/

Discussions are a crucial activity to catalyse learning (alongside 5 other learning types).  I mentioned discussion because it is also one of the strategies to encourage reflections, alongside questioning and journaling (Costa, A.L. and Kallick, B., 2008).  Discussions usually require more than 1 person, making a classroom-full of learners (be it physically or virtually) a fitting setting to start one!  But to ensure discussions are active and meaningful, it is important that there are modelling of what appropriate engagement and conversations could be.  To ensure modelling is successful, trust is essential to be nurtured between the model (i.e. educator) and the follower (i.e. learners). To do so, rapport building should be done early on in the classroom interactions (be it physical or virtual). And one key value across all these is 'Consistency'.  To simulate and practise this virtually, a transparent interface that enables learners to easily access their learning space and keep to a routine out of where things are and what to do when, is required (Swan et al, 2000).  This will provide them with a sense of safety and belonging (powerful and simple needs that should be catered to before unlocking students' potentials).

What do you think of this post after reading it?

Key is, reflective practice is a habit that should be honed frequently and consistently.  If what we (and our learners) require is timely prompts and reminders to reflect, wouldn't technology be a good mediator to do so?? *Set a reminder mode activated* As long as we make sure to scaffold the building of trust and modelling towards nurturing the habit of reflecting, we can definitely design a learning space to support that.

Summary & Key Takeaways:

Based on my opinion and intention to transform teaching and learning by redefining technology integration in educational practices, it seems like what learners could use more of is the art of reflective learning and also sufficient personalised feedback from educators.  To support that, a virtual learning space should be designed to encourage reflections and surface learners' responses and relevant data to enable educators or even peers of the learners to provide timely feedback.  By enabling these 2 aspects of learning, I believe we would have initiated a space and time to enable educators to provide individualised feedback and learning to their students, redefining an activity that is supposedly common yet hard to accomplish.  Moreover, nurturing reflective learning through digitally prompted questioning (be it personally or in mass) would have also reduced a cut of an educator's task to cater to each and every learner they have to manage in an (usually) unreasonable teacher:student ratio.

Unfortunately, Rome isn't built in a day, and definitely isn't a virtual learning space either.  The prerequisites to enable this includes i) making learning goals and assessment rubrics accessible and transparent, ii) provide a space to enable curating and sharing of learning resources to be used as a baseline content for learning, reflections, and discussions, iii) ensure platform enables variety of assessments and recording of its data, and most importantly, iv) ensure there is space to build and maintain rapport between teacher-student and student-student.

Student-teacher bond is at the heart of learning ~Gates Foundation

I'm pretty sure there's more to this than the above, but let's use this as a start and iterate from here, eh?

p/s: Just learned that personalised learning, differentiated learning, and individualised learning is another 3 terms to explore that may support the idea above.

There is always Hope

References:

Allen, W. (2016). 'Reflective and reflexive practice'. Available [Online] at: https://learningforsustainability.net/reflective-practice/. [Last accessed 19 January 2021].

Anagnostopoulos, D., Basmadjian, K.G. and McCrory, R.S. (2005). 'The Decentered Teacher and the Construction of Social Space in the Virtual Classroom.'. Teachers College Record, 107 (8), pp.1699–1729.

Anon (2018). 'Reflective Practice'. Available [Online] at: https://www.framework.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Reflective-and-critical-template-signed.pdf. [Last accessed 19 January 2021].

Bright Knowledge 'What is reflective practice?'. Available [Online] at: https://brightknowledge.org/medicine-and-healthcare/what-is-reflective-practice. [Last accessed 18 January 2021].

Costa, A.L. and Kallick, B. (2008). 'Chapter 12. Learning Through Reflection'. In Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Available [Online] at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/108008/chapters/Learning-Through-Reflection.aspx. [Last accessed 18 January 2021].

Dana Di Pardo Leon-Henri (2020). '12 Benefits of Reflective Teaching and Learning'. Available [Online] at: https://reflectiveteachingjournal.com/benefits-of-reflective-teaching/.

Falloon, G. (2011). 'Exploring the Virtual Classroom: What Students Need to Know (and Teachers Should Consider)'. MERLOT Journey of Online Learning and Teaching, 7 (4).

Hattie, J.A.C. and Yates, G.C.R. (2014). 'Using Feedback to Promote Learning'. In Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Society for the Teaching of Psychology, pp.45–58. Available [Online] at: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php. [Last accessed 19 January 2021].

Johnston, J., Killion, J. and Oomen, J. (2005). 'Student Satisfaction in the Virtual Classroom'. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice, 3 (2).

Swan, K., Shea, P, Fedrericksen, E., Pickett, A., Pelz, W., and Maher, G. (2000). 'Building Knowledge Building Communities: Consistency, Contact and Communication in the Virtual Classroom'. J. Education Computing Research, 23 (4), pp.359–383.

Tanner, S.J. (2020). 'The SAMR Learning Model'. https://samueljtanner.blog/. Available [Online] at: https://samueljtanner.blog/2020/12/07/the-samr-learning-model/.

The Graide Network (2019). 'The Importance of Feedback for Student Learning'. Available [Online] at: https://www.thegraidenetwork.com/blog-all/importance-of-feedback-student-learning. [Last accessed 15 January 2021].

Waack, S. 'Effective Feedback in the Classroom'. Available [Online] at: https://visible-learning.org/2015/02/feedback-in-the-classroom/. [Last accessed 15 January 2021].