People first. Content second. Technology third.
This is the way to handle the shift to remote teaching that is happening due to COVID-19.
Instructors who are nervous about shifting online for the first time, students who chose to be campus students, not online students, and people who are feeling unsettled and/or isolated during this crisis: I see you.
In the midst of our educational response to a public health crisis, it’s easy to fixate on the technology. I’ve seen lists of tools that are available to use for teaching online. I’ve used several of them in the past, and they’re good tools. I won’t dispute that. Several of the tools are already available for free in some form, and many technology companies have offered their tools for free in the midst of this crisis. That’s very generous. But it still doesn’t mean that our primary job right now as educators is to learn how to use tools.
In the midst of this time, our response as educators should focus on the people first. Per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we know that it’s difficult for people to focus on tasks like learning if their basic physiological and safety needs aren’t being met. Many of us are worried about our health right now. Finances may also be a struggle, and nothing feels quite normal. Plus social distancing is not easy. We cannot make these issues go away for our students, but we can provide them with safe people and spaces to discuss and process their feelings. We can also consider each student’s ability to learn under the current conditions. For some, learning may be a respite from worry, and our classes may provide a helpful social connection. For others, the distraction may be too great, and keeping up with courses may be an additional stressor.
Of course, we have an obligation to support learning whenever possible, and in that sense we need to focus on the content second. In our courses we already have learning objectives related to that content. Look to those objectives to determine what the teaching obligation is at this point. In other words, the question right now shouldn’t be “How do I put my class online?” Instead, it should be “How do I best help my student meet these learning objectives during what’s left of the term?” You probably can’t take your class as it was originally designed and put it online. Maybe you can do that with parts of it. However, right now the key is to do whatever works.
With people first and content second, technology is third. Technology can provide a means of connecting people, delivering content to learners and facilitating assessment, but it can also be a barrier. When I design an online course, I want the technology to recede into the background so the people and content can connect effectively. If my students are focusing on how to use the technology, then they’re not focused on learning. What we’re all doing right now isn’t even designing online courses. We’re just figuring out how to help our students meet the learning objectives while we’re all social distancing and trying to keep ourselves and others healthy. So, while the Internet and apps can help, they’re not the only way we can make this work. I say this last part with great confidence; as a high school student in the 1980s I took a correspondence course, communicating with my instructor via Canada Post. I learned.
With this philosophy in mind, I’ve been writing this series of blog posts, all of which are being rounded up here. Some of these posts focus on people and their needs, Others on figuring out what to do with the content. And yet others on the technology, because we are using it. I love to geek out on the technology, but I am not doing that right now. Instead, I want to keep stressing how important it is to keep in perspective that it’s okay to use the technology imperfectly right now, and to use as little of it as possible and in the simplest of ways. If you have great ideas, save them for later. Propose properly designed online classes, and seek development assistance and funds to accomplish that goal. But for now? Keep it simple, and use just what you need to help your students learn.
Finally, as an instructional designer, I should point out that “people first, content second, technology third” is not just a statement for getting through COVID-19. It should always be our mantra as educators. It is only after we find out what people need and are ready to learn that we can determine what content should be learned. Then technology should just be brought in as a support, not as the showcase itself.