Despite the welcome shift back towards face-to-face learning in schools and colleges, many teachers and sector leaders are recognising the benefits of a blended approach to teaching, learning and assessment. One of my educational heroes, Bob Harrison, often says, “We cannot put the genie back in the bottle!” The team at Acer Education suggested, in May 2020, that there was a place for blended learning beyond the pandemic:
“Will school ever be the same again now that this prolonged period of forced closure has pushed educators all around the world towards a more extensive use of technology to grant their students continuity in the face of adverse circumstances? This is where blended learning comes in. A hybrid of in-person lessons and distance learning, blended learning is one of the many proposed models for the future of the technology-assisted classroom.”
Add to this the predictions about how many people will desire to continue to work from home post-pandemic. Indeed, Chris Herd from Firstbase suggests this might be sooner than we think:
“Make no mistake, remote work is exploding to prominence right now. We are living through the inflection point today. Shortly, workers will realize their power and influence to demand remote work. I actually think I’m being pessimistic when I state that remote work will be the dominant form of work within a decade. If the right tools exist it will be more like 5 years.”
This means that the learners in our classrooms now are potentially preparing for a very different world of work than what any of us have been used to - surely our teaching environments will need to continue to reflect this monumental shift? With that in mind, and the increasing need for a less ‘sheep-dip’ approach to education (see later for an explanation!), I would love to suggest ten ways to motivate and engage learners online, whether we face future lockdown challenges or whether we embrace this as part of a wider blended strategy.
1. Cultivate choice
I have mentioned previously the ‘sheep dip’ approach to teaching. This is where learners receive identical learning episodes and teachers hope for differentiation by outcome. This method, which tends to be easier for the teacher, is not the best approach to ensure all learners are motivated and engaged to learn, especially online. The choice board has become a popular tool in education over recent years and probably for good reason. The notion of differentiation - that ‘there’s more than one way to cook an egg’ - can counter the insistence that students all must write an essay or make a Powerpoint, for example. Not only can we give choice as to how students present their findings; furthermore, the confident and competent teacher might even take the (calculated) risk of letting students choose how and what they learn.
I can hear the voices telling me that the curriculum is too tight and the deadlines for exams are often too pressing, and that this approach might not lead to guaranteed results. All of these are all too true but that can often be the safety net excuse that demotivates and disengages learners. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and Simon Armitage poems in my English classes but I wasn’t in the majority! Imagine if teachers allowed learners to choose their own poets or novels. Imagine if we allowed them to think about the science experiments they wanted to try or the field trips they wanted to go on. Co-constructing learning experiences with the learners is a powerful message of intent; one which Rebecca Alder wrote so eloquently about even as far back as 2014.
2. Allow competition
Competition is often a great motivator for learners and when used appropriately can enhance motivation and engagement, especially if it is coupled appropriately with collaborative working. An EdCentral article suggests that competition “teaches respect and improves standards,” but must be used carefully.
There's a whole heap of tools out there to incorporate this technique into the online classroom, not least Kahoot!, ClassDojo (whose collaboration with Astra Nova School on Conundrums is a brilliant way to address critical thinking in a low-risk manner), Quizlet, Spelling Shed and Times Table Rockstars, the last two of which my two young girls really love! Add some of this into your online lessons to see an upsurge in activity.
3. Champion compassion
Adding this element to a list about pedagogy is somewhat controversial but I have deliberately added this because we are currently seeing young people being the spearheads of real, lasting, meaningful change around the world. I really like how Kelly Miller, psychologist and coach, puts it:
“Since the higher the level of compassion in a classroom predicts higher levels of student engagement; having teachers who regularly practice compassion is vital. With 40% or more reporting compassion fatigue, a problem arises in our education system. It all starts with teachers as examples of the type of behavior that our education system should elicit in children. Since teachers are under great amounts of pressure to produce higher test scores, some of the stress has reduced the levels of compassion in our classrooms. Alleviating the compassion fatigue in teachers is an important step in improving the Education System.”
Not only is it vital for teachers to practise compassion; we also must champion this trait in the learners we serve. I have seen this done brilliantly as schools work with aid organisations like Oxfam, Compassion International and UNICEF to look at a world beyond their own. Now, more than ever, with access to the internet, our young people can see, learn from and respond to global challenges - make this a feature of an online classroom, one that literally acts without borders.
4. Strengthen community
The need for togetherness has never been more poignant. In a time where many learners have been isolated from their school community, the need to rebuild this, even in a virtual way, is upon us. Whether this is by using local case studies in the history reports, or raising money for the community library through a virtual gameathon, building strong communities needs to be high on the agenda for school leaders. Indeed, Dr Karamat Iqbal, an education and diversity practitioner, wrote a blog post with the key in the title: Community in the school and school in the community. He gives examples of where the schools have become the heart of the community and the research showed:
“Partnership with the local community played an important role on this journey of transformation. The council and schools worked closely with community organisations. A number of the schools became informal community centres, providing resources and recreation for children, young people and adults.”
In the virtual space, this might mean we can’t visit the local nursing home to sing Christmas Carols but we can sing with them over Zoom and we can listen to the community elders’ stories of growing up in the war without them ever leaving their homes! This level of collective motivation is essential because of online learning, not despite it.
5. Prioritise celebration
And so, I finish with my favourite way to motivate learners: the art of celebration. I have never met a person who does not like to be congratulated on great work or making progress. True, many of us don’t like this being done publicly, but nevertheless, there is something special when someone recognises what you have done and celebrates you for it. This was the motivation behind the Edufuturists Awards that I host each year: we wanted to recognise the great work that teachers and institutions are doing despite the obstacles we all face. In the virtual classroom, celebration might look like a private message on Google Classroom, or a praise postcard that arrives at an email address, but whatever it looks like, we must do better at letting people know when they have done well.
And in the spirit of celebration, I wanted to finish by showcasing some of the amazing work of educators from around the UK who have done great things to support, engage and motivate learners over the past 12 months. This presentation I did at the Association of Colleges Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference in March this year has loads of these examples. Bravo to all those making a difference!
For a related article by Ben, please see 5 Ways to Engage Learners Online.
Ben Whitaker is a Google Certified Trainer & Innovator who delivers training across the UK and Europe on behalf of a number of providers. In June 2019, he was appointed as a Curriculum Manager at Burnley College after working as Chief Education Officer for Project Digital, a dynamic partnership between Burnley College and +24 Marketing to deliver digital apprenticeships in the North West. Their aim is simple: to plug the digital skills gap. Ben was previously Assistant Principal: Head of Sixth Form, having taught Religious Studies & Sociology for 12 years. He is an experienced examiner for four of the main examination boards and writes articles across the education spectrum. Ben is co-host of the Edufuturists podcast. One of his proudest achievements is that he trained his own parents on G Suite and they actively use this in their own classroom practice.