Friday, May 29, 2020

What We Lose When We Learn/Teach Remotely

I am a high school teacher living in unprecedented times. While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everybody’s daily lives, it has sent me into a whole new virtual reality – the world of remote learning (and teaching). Though it has its challenges, I am grateful that remote learning has allowed many educators, like myself, to continue impacting their students’ lives.

When remote learning was first proposed as a realistic possibility, I was intrigued and excited. Some of my colleagues were nervous for the change, but I must admit that, as an introvert, the prospect of teaching from my couch was appealing in some ways. But, after a few weeks, the novelty wore off, and I started to notice some changes in my students’ behaviors and attitudes.

I noticed that my students had become easily irritable and withdrawn. While I encouraged students to speak out and to answer questions, more often than not, I would end up talking to myself. When I asked my students about this change, probing them to share the most frustrating parts of remote learning for them, a theme emerged. They were frustrated with the repetitiveness of their classes. As it turned out, every teacher was starting every class with some version of, “How are you doing?” or “What have you been up to?”. These questions, while well-intentioned, became monotonous and frustrating after the students had been asked them 5 times a day, every day, for two months straight.

This small monotony was just a microcosm for their entire remote academic experience. 
Monotony on a larger scale had led to stale classes in which students struggled to engage and couldn’t enjoy themselves. Their inability to comfortably interact with each other caused them to retreat emotionally and avoid social interactions.

While we have been able to replicate the academic elements of face-to-face learning through remote classrooms, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the social elements.  In its current implementation, remote learning is solely focused on the continuation of the academic elements of school. Remote learning often seems to remove all student-to-student interaction, and severely inhibits or removes any student-to-teacher interactions, as well. Asynchronous assignments allow students to continue their growth academically but do not create opportunities to grow socially or emotionally. And, unfortunately, I don’t believe that the in-person interactions in students’ day-to-day lives which prompt social and emotional growth can be fully replicated via remote learning, even with the implementation of Zoom and other video conferencing platforms.

If you surveyed a sample of educators, regardless of their background, to determine why they became teachers, I would presume that most would say some version of “I want to contribute to students’ well-rounded development.” Regardless of our field of expertise, the element of teaching that makes it fulfilling is most often what happens beyond the academic. Most teachers use their platform as an academic teacher to encourage young people to be comfortable in their own skins, and challenge them to grow, not only as learners, but as people.

In order to continue teaching our students in a well-rounded manner during this pandemic, we must think creatively to minimize the differences between face-to-face and remote learning in terms of social and emotional development. If we do so, not only will we see happier and healthier students, I imagine we will also see improved academic success and classroom engagement!

After taking the time to understand my students’ fatigue with the monotony of virtual classes, I made a promise that I would try to ask more interesting questions to start class every day. For a time, I found success with goofy questions. One of their favorites was, “Would you rather have a pet Zebra or a pet Ostrich?”. Students that hadn’t spoken for weeks chimed in about their preferences, sparking a lively debate about which animal would be the best pet. While the interactions were not entirely the same as they would have been in-person, there were familiarities that I found encouraging.  The comradery was back, my students were joking and disagreeing, and speaking freely. I saw more smiles in that class than on any previous day of remote learning. And, while that conversation took 20 minutes out of a 50-minute class, for the remaining 30-minutes, the students readily engaged with the material!

Guest blog author Nick Manfreda is a high school math and economics teacher at Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why We Need “Science Citizens” 
Here are excerpts from a guest essay in Scientific American that is very timely.  Written shortly before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, its message resonates strongly now, given all the misinformation and mistrust of science surrounding COVID-19.  Reprinted with the authors’ permission.  Read the entire piece here. 

A public that doesn’t understand what science is and how it works can’t form useful opinions about public policy. 
More than 11,000 scientists recently urged swifter action on climate change, but polls show that 16 percent of the U.S. public continues to deny that climate change is real, and 63 percent of Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with their peers. A rigorous Danish study recently demonstrated the overwhelming safety of vaccines while documenting recurrent threats from measles and other preventable diseases globally. Yet the “anti-vaxxer” movement remains strong. 
When misunderstanding of science and a willingness to believe scientific misinformation affects not only individual welfare, but also key government policies that affect everyone, a new systemic educational approach is needed. We need to do a better job of teaching everyone to be “science citizens.” 
Science citizens should be able to apply scientific reasoning and critical thinking to inform their personal decisions, and to navigate the frenzy of modern news cycles. They should be equipped to use and analyze scientific information to make informed choices at the ballot box and to participate effectively in government decisions about environmental policy, health care and a wide range of other issues. Science citizens should also have an innate understanding of and trust in the institution of science. We do not mean that citizens should blindly believe anything labeled as science. Rather, they should understand that science is a rational and evidence-based schema for understanding the world, and that scientific institutions hold their members to rigorous standards of care and honesty in their work.  
To educate a population of science citizens, science education must improve at all levels. Although the recent focus on STEM education demonstrates that the American education system is working toward improved science literacy, we miss the mark by targeting only students destined for careers in science and education. Science education should foster and encourage critical thinking skills in all students, starting at an early age. “Science citizen” curricula would prioritize the application of scientific thinking to “real-world” scenarios in lieu of rote memorization, and emphasize experimental design, hands-on experience with rigorous data analysis, critical thinking and an understanding of scientific ethics. 
Given past failures in science education, however, efforts should not be limited to current schoolchildren and future generations. We also need to develop and improve continuing education initiatives for non–school-aged citizens and utilize public campaigns to improve widespread science literacy. Particularly given the disproportionate impacts of climate change and other environmental degradation, efforts to create science citizens should also prioritize programming in underprivileged and highly impacted communities. We should offer science education opportunities for all citizens, regardless of circumstance. 
And science is too important to be left to scientists alone. Just as we need to reinvigorate civic education to help restore democratic governance, we need to ensure that everyone receives sufficient training in scientific reasoning and analysis to participate effectively in the increasing array of important societal decisions involving science. A population of science citizens is one that can thrive, both communally and individually, through evidence-driven and value-inclusive progress. 

Robert W. Adler is a Distinguished Professor and former dean at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law. He specializes in environmental law and has written extensively about the intersection of law, science and policy. 
Sierra Adler is a writer with a master's in science communication from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her work focuses on public perception of science, the use of SciArt for science communication, and scientifically informed community-based decision-making practices. 
Robert and Sierra are a dynamic father-daughter duo. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

More Free Online Edutainment Resources – The Bounty Never Stops

When the coronavirus first began claiming the world’s attention, I wondered whether the increased exposure to online learning would create new habits that outlive the pandemic. 

In multiple blog posts since then, I’ve shared edutainment resources that have been made available for free during the time of coronavirus.  The time of pandemic continues to provide valuable online resources for free use during these days of shelter-in-place and physical distancing.  Here’s a sampling of what’s come to my attention over the past few weeks:

Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative:  Coursera is offering 3800 of their courses and 400 specializations for free to all levels of government to help their unemployed residents re-train and gain meaningful employment.  Enrollment is open until 9/30/20 (government agency has to enter into agreement with Coursera, Coursera then makes courses available); learners need to complete the courses by 12/31/20.

Udacity is offering free online re-training programs for one month:  data science, programming, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, cloud computing, business..

Robot tours of museums:  The first museum to offer this is Hastings Contemporary Museum (Hastings Old Town, Sussex, England), but maybe it will catch on elsewhere.

Read books for free from multiple sources:
·      Check your local library for their e-book selection
·      Google books
·      Project Gutenberg
·      Librivox audio books

Open Culture:  1,150 free movies, including great classics and multiple genres

Vienna State Opera:  free performances of full operas, streamed one per day

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater:  past performances available to stream online

Cirque du Soleil:  60-minute videos from past performances, special content videos, videos just for kids

When you’re not indoors bingeing on all the free online content, please wear a mask and wash your hands often.