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Reflections on Online Learning

2 July 2020

Liam Goodacre (UWC Atlantic, 2002-2004) taught at UWC Mahindra College for five years and now heads the Humanities department at UWC Dilijan. Here he reflects on his experience with online teaching and learning over the past few months and shares some of his lessons learned, as well as some thoughts about the new academic year that is fast approaching. 

In March 2020, in the midst of the fear and uncertainty of a coming pandemic, online learning was
thrust upon us. It wasn’t what we planned for, it wasn’t what we wanted, but it was what we got, and as
professionals it was our duty to design and execute workable online classes within a matter of weeks.
Expect to cover about half the material online you normally would in class” was the advice that I heard
and took to heart when I began planning my new curriculum. I was therefore very surprised (and just a
little mistrustful) when, two months later, half of the class responded to a feedback form saying that
they felt they had learned more in an average week online than they did in my regular classes! The other
half said that they had learned about the same, and nobody reported having learned less.
The best advice came from a colleague at the start of the crisis: now is not the time to innovate with
online learning. Keep things simple, and stick to what you know. Teachers were already spread thin and
many students were traumatized by the uncertainties they faced — not the time to learn new skills! So I
set all of the distractions to one side and picked a part of the curriculum that I knew we could deliver
online (reading On Liberty by J.S. Mill). I came up with a reading schedule, uploaded the book into a
google document, and asked students to engage in online discussion in the document comments. Video
conference classes were held twice a week, where we could approximate the kind of discussion we used
to have in class. Timetabling is always hard, but it’s literally impossible when students are spread across
ten different time-zones, so I asked them all to try to come to one class per week, and then repeated the
same lesson in both sessions.
It all went quite a bit better than I expected. What most surprised me was that the students who
worked the hardest and shone the most were largely students who hadn’t stood out before we went
online. Correspondingly, many of the students who had been most enthusiastic during physical classes
seemed not to know how to engage any more. It seems that some students thrive when they have the
time and distance to work at their own pace, whereas others rely on personal interaction to stay
focused and be heard. While the new approach worked for most, it didn’t work for all, and those who
fell behind were probably worse off than they would have been were they on campus.
The last three  months of online education feel like a success, but I can’t say that I am excited by the
prospect of having to continue. When designing these classes, I picked the low hanging fruit, but in so
doing I have almost exhausted the content from my syllabus that can easily be adapted for online
learning. If we have to continue classes online next year, or worse, if some students are on campus
while some are in quarantine, I will have to completely rethink my approach to teaching. Most IB
curricula have a strong emphasis on students learning new skills, and teaching skills online is very
difficult. To teach skills, most of us depend on intuition and spontaneity, but in an online forum these
characteristics come across as confusing rather than enlightening. To teach skills, we ourselves will have
to learn new skills, and we will have to be more organized in our delivery and goal setting than ever
before. While we all wish to be back in the classroom, I fear that this may not happen any time soon, so
it seems wise to invest some time into evaluating these things before August.