What are the restrictions of teaching remotely and what benefits does it bring?
In Autumn 2020 Signals partnered with Braintree LCEP (Learning Cultural Education Partnership) and Essex 2020 to pilot a series of creative digital workshops taught remotely online. The sessions would be teaching Scratch coding skills to key stage two students, delivered via video calling software Zoom and into the classroom.
In this blog post Signals’ Education Co-Ordinator Frazer Merrick reflects on his recent experience of “Zooming into classrooms”, and unpicks the pros and cons to highlight best practice.
The key objective of this project was to introduce students to creative coding and the software Scratch, a website where young people can get creative with code. Each lesson was only an hour long, so I prioritised a rewarding and engaging experience vs teaching specific computing theory. The idea being if people enjoyed the session they may go back in their own time and develop specific skills further, using the resources I sign posted them towards within the session.
The workshops took advantage of Scratch’s remix feature, allowing the students to customise the code, artwork and music of existing games rather than having to build their own from the ground up. Meaning everyone was experimenting, tinkering and customising code in no time at all, a definite positive when not being in the classroom to provide technical support.
Through delivering these sessions remotely I quickly developed some top tips for “Zoom-ing” into classrooms, ensuring the best experience was had by all:
1. Test your setup
It goes without saying, but having a decent internet connection is vital for both the presenter and the attendees. A hard-wired ethernet connection is always preferred, so grab a dongle if you need to. Since I was teaching the whole class, the teachers were putting my video feed on the big screen at the front of the class, which meant I was also coming out a bigger set of speakers and all the students could see my code nice and big when screen sharing.
After some tests I found that some school networks prefer Microsoft Teams to Zoom, and some schools have specific policies over what software they can use (for safeguarding reasons) so doing a test call prior to the first workshop is always useful. But as an educator I find its good to be well versed in all the major contenders so you can be flexible to the needs of the participant(s).
2. Teach collaboratively
When teaching remotely in this way, it’s vital to have the teacher in the room on board and up to speed. They’ll be crucial in maintaining student engagement, helping selecting people to answer questions, repeating any quiet students answers not picked up by the laptop mic, and providing the inevitable on-hand technical support when students work independently on computers. Whilst some teachers can be nervous of this last part, they almost always know more than they let on. I also include any solutions in the main presentation itself, so the teachers know how to fix problems should they arise (e.g a familiar software bugs, where to find a resource etc).
3. Whitelist your links
Since I was pointing students towards specific scratch games, it was important links were sent out prior to the workshop, or that they were easy to navigate to via a search. Depending on the ability of the class, asking them to type of long URLs might take up valuable time. Another alternative is to put together a Link Tree page, a free utility which allows you to put multiple URLs behind one link – although make sure any links are checked by the teacher as they may need to be whitelisted (unblocked) on their school network.
4. Video calling etiquette
Classroom specific advice aside, general video calling advice still stands. As a presenter its important to have good audio (headphones are a must, a separate microphone ideal but not imperative). Get setup with good lighting, a desk lamp is good for lighting your face, just avoid being backlit (e.g a bright window behind you will silhouette you).
Lastly, if you intend on screen sharing then you may wish to turn off any email or text notifications to avoid anything unwanted popping up on screen.
Upon reviewing this project, the feedback from teachers was really interesting. By designing the session as general ‘how to remix in Scratch’ it allowed the teachers to consider how they might apply it to other areas of the curriculum. In the CPD session I went into some specific details about particular useful scratch features e.g how to make interactive posters, how to add a start screen etc. They noted that this gave them the confidence to experiment with Scratch further themselves and explore how else they can use it. One teacher even went onto become an advocate and share their new found knowledge with other teachers in their school.
One struggle I had as a educator was being unable to see the screen/code of the children. Losing the ability to walk around the classroom and check code over the shoulder was tough, however I dealt with this by inviting children to bring the computer to the front and show me via the webcam. Obviously less than ideal, but easier than having 15 to 30 individual children using zoom and hitting the schools bandwidth and trying to coordinate screen sharing with a highly restricted school network.
Technology manufacturer Microbit (in partnership with Microsoft) seem to have cracked this issue by creating an online classroom environment whereby the students code via a website and the teacher can view their code remotely. Fingers cross Scratch can implement this feature.
The ability to ‘zoom into schools’ does rely heavily on the technical facilities of the school itself. Do they have enough laptops for the class? Do they have a stable enough internet connection for a video call? These facilities vary wildly from school to school, so this must of course be considered when planning.
Whilst myself and the teachers on the project all agreed that remote teaching will never replace the benefits of face-to-face teaching, their are definite benefits to be considered e.g. no travel for the presenter, no visitor admin for the teacher. I can now deliver three or four school workshops in one day which would’ve been impossible before. The ease and ability to reach more people from more places cannot be ignored and I’m excited to explore this way of working in the future.