We’re all in it together – (at a safe distance, of course)

There is no doubting that education is looking a little different at the moment.

Today I have attended two different meetings, and taught three different classes, all from my sofa. I have met students through video conferencing software to demonstrate new concepts on a mini-whiteboard, have checked work submitted as photographs attached to emails, and have contributed to the writing of a shared document.

This is not what life looked like, even one month ago.

What is so rare about this current situation is that we really are all in this together. Certainly for the first time in my lifetime, schools all around the world are facing the reality of home-learning. This is not a one-off, caused by bad weather in a single location, but a longer term reality across much of the globe.

As a doctoral student, I am currently researching the use of a Virtual Learning Environment in offering students opportunities to give peer-feedback to one another.

When I started the research, it was simply a personal interest, one of those “what if?” moments that regularly permeate the teacher’s mind.

What if students gave feedback to one another?

What if the teacher didn’t have to do all the work?

What if formative feedback could be done without taking up lesson time?

These questions seemed worthy of investigation. The chance of a qualification was a bonus.

My research brought me to Lave and Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice. The idea of a group of people who shared a common circumstance (domain), who came together as a group (community) to work on solving problems or improving situations (practice).

This seemed to fit my research as I wanted my students to come together to develop their learning of mathematics through being able to give one another feedback.

In my research, through regular stimulus questions, students did indeed start to build community, posting solutions and commenting on each other’s work, and found that as time went on, their feedback became more focused and directed and more useful to each other for improving work.

Students also found that by offering feedback to their peers – they were also improving their own work.

Best of all, this was happening online, with no face-to-face contact and minimal involvement of the teacher.

During interviews, students talked of a sense of belonging and community. Of course, as you would expect, students chose to be more, or less, involved. Some students began to take on a leadership role in the group, while others were simply observers. This all fitted with Lave and Wenger’s theories.

In today’s rather different world, those students are continuing to share responses, to support one another online, helping one another in their learning, and in doing so, moving their own learning forward at the same time.

In this new context, it is much more difficult for teachers to be giving that regular individual feedback. We cannot walk around a classroom and direct ‘one-liners’ at students and move on. Having students support one another without the teacher allows feedback and learning to continue. It makes feedback, as David Carless would say, “sustainable”.

Maybe this is what we should be doing as educators too, sharing our experiences, and offering suggestions to each other, building that sense of community.

As we offer suggestions to one another as to how we can improve our teaching in this new online world, we can also improve our own practice.

After all, we are all in this together.

Trevor Hughes

EdD student

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