At the height of Covid-19 in 2020, Singapore went into circuit breaker (aka lockdown).
As an adjunct polytechnic lecturer then, the first question that popped into my head – how are we going to conduct classes, with social distancing in place, and interaction minimized?
The answer was delivered fast and furious – via online classes by leveraging on various video conferencing and Edtech tools.
At home, I’m not the only one climbing the steep learning curve. I have two kids – one in kindergarten and another in primary school then. Together, we plunged into the world of Skype, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and more.
Soon enough, we discovered “HBL” – Home-Based Learning was the new “cursed” word – at least for parents.
Playing the role of parent, teacher, and working all from home as an educator is no fun.
But to fulfill my role as an educator, mastering hybrid teaching, combining face-to-face and virtual classes, means getting accustomed to this “new” mode of education, by hook or by crook.
It has been nearly two years – my kindergarten boy is now in Primary 2 and the elder one in Primary 5. They had experienced entire semesters conducted through online classes and I have also delivered the seemingly impossible hands-on modules like “Advanced Single Camera” through a combination of hybrid classes.
Not to mention – the latest batch of A-level students pulled through in this pandemic landscape and produced spectacular results!
We have certainly evolved with times, earning a new pair of lens to see pedagogy in a completely different way – the online way.
Learning has evolved and transformed, to say the least.
Online classes can be as effective, if not more effective, when it’s crafted with CLEAR learning outcomes. In fact, some students relished the new independent asynchronous learning mode. Some of them used to be the quieter ones in a face-to-face class. But for learners who thrive on social interactions, they had to make bigger adjustments.
Disclaimer note here – I do not profess to be the know-it-all for online teaching, and I certainly welcome feedback and ideas – but here’re some consolidated techniques from personal experience and online research, which we apply to the learning experience at Vitamin M.
TECHNIQUE #1 – Humanise the relationship with the right EdTech tools
“In all forms of distance teaching, the ability to humanize the relationship with distant learners is important”, Micheal G. Moore writes in Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning, echoing the conclusions of other visionaries in the field, like Khan Academy founder Salman Khan.
Teachers would know that teaching goes beyond delivering content and knowledge. In fact, no substantial learning can take place, if there is a lack of trust and rapport. Online learning may be virtual and conducted over a “distance”, but the human relationship between the teacher and student is still omnipresent. Whatever technology employed MUST first serve the human-centered needs.
During online classes, we strongly believe that students need to interact and be active in their learning rather than passively listening to the teacher. And EdTech tools are there to replicate and strengthen their participation – just like how face-to-face classes are conducted.
When designing Vitamin M’s online lessons to teach primary school students Mandarin, we integrated the use of Classpoint to enable live class participation, while delivering content through PowerPoint. Flipgrid and Vocaroo are also Edutech tools we have selected to enable audio and video submissions – students get to practice their oral skills at their own pace and select their best take.
TECHNIQUE #2 – Design lessons with engaging and clear learning outcomes
There are two questions we constantly asked ourselves when designing every lesson
1) What interests the kids?
2) What are the learning outcomes?
An interesting hook to the lesson with fuzzy learning outcomes will render the lesson ineffective.
A lesson with clear learning outcomes but without a hook would have also failed to deliver a “fun experience”.
To meet both ends, our lessons are crafted with synchronous and asynchronous learning outcomes in mind.
Firstly, students log onto Vitamin M’s LMS platform and watches the weekly new video releases, these videos are crafted with our “GamiStory” approach – a blend of dramatic storytelling and gamification.
We have spent many man hours to design mind boggling mysteries and puzzles for students to solve, uniquely Singapore choose-your-own-adventure series and interactive quizzes that are very relatable to our learner’s day-to-day lives!
For example, the story on a particular week had the main character falling out with the mother, and he travels through time to meet a few Primary 4 students in the 90s who could be his mother. Our learner is teased and prompted to decide – who is most likely to be our main character’s mother younger self.
The story premise hooks the learners with an itch to participate and we encourage them to make speculations – it’s only human to do that, and that’s how conversations are initiated anyway! Our kids really want to know if they got it right!
And once their learning interest is piqued, that’s when we deliver Chinese vocabulary learning, guiding the students on how to describe their mood, feelings and thoughts. We level up in classes too – to debate on the “whys” of the characters’ actions– higher cognitive learning.
One of our students feedbacked after attending the class on this lesson – “it’s tough to be a mum”. And we think, that’s a homerun in lesson design!
TECHNIQUE #3 – Keep Learning Asynchronous
With Vitamin M’s learning design, the lesson doesn’t start and end with Vitamin Hour (our online classes) – learning is an ever ongoing process within our Vitamin M story universe (just like Marvel).
With our centralized LMS as the backbone system, students can review the published videos anytime and playback as many times as they need – learning is self-paced and there is absolutely no pressure to understand everything at one go.
And with these videos published ahead of time, students can also prepare themselves ahead of class.
When their online classes end, students are directed back to our platform discussion board to reflect on their learning – by jotting down some of their thoughts and questions. Our coach will then respond, giving individualized feedback.
Furthermore, the LMS discussion board and Flipgrid video submissions are open to their classmates – it’s like pinning up student’s work on the classroom noticeboard. There’s visibility and more importantly, other students can see and learn from their peers!
One of the reflection questions requires the student to jot down a question with regards to the lesson that they’ve just attended– and it’s our humble hope that the question raised will help develop their inquiry skills, outside of the virtual class too.
TECHNIQUE #4 – Promoting engagement through rewards
With primary school learners, their attention span is naturally shorter and in an online learning environment, it becomes even more challenging.
To cope with this – we have structured the live class learning into blocks of 20mins, with a variety of activities and bite-sized learning blocks.
Much like the story beats we write when crafting dramatic story scripts, we are so afraid the kids will get bored, so that keeps us on our toes.
And on top of that, our coaches are armed with reward points to dish out in every class. Fastest fingers to answer MCQ questions with leaderboard earns them points via ClassPoint. With a good question asked or a thoughtful response delivered, they are also generously rewarded.
This points system is also linked to the LMS’s lessons – students earn points for completing a video exercise – and finally through consistent efforts, they get to accumulate and redeem these points for small GIFTS!
From what we have observed so far – the reward system is working!
Thanks to the new gaming world that our kids grew up in – they thrived on dopamine hits!
TECHNIQUE #5 – Make the students and teacher’s presence felt
Vitamin M’s online classes are capped at 6 students. For each 55min class, each student should have at least 7 minutes of airtime to participate. You may think that’s not much. But consider this – the kids are also listening to other 5 classmates’ responses for 35min, so it all adds up!
In comparison to a traditional classroom setting, the Chinese teacher is trying to manage a class of 40 odd students and grappling with a to-do list or scheme-of-work (syllabus to complete by end of the class), I would assume, a student will be lucky to get any chance of speaking up.
Vitamin M students not only enjoy more airtime with us, they would have experienced an adapted form of flipped classroom – quite unlike their usual face-to-face textbook and worksheet driven teaching style.
The video story sets up a premise for discussion, and students take center stage, to make their presence felt. Our coaches are perfectly happy to retreat to the background as facilitators – playing the devil’s advocate, or directing their questions to other students.
But it doesn’t mean our facilitators are not doing anything. Facilitating is about asking the right questions to further the conversation, to rectify wrong concepts, and also to provide the summary needed to close a discussion.
In a physical class, some students may be afraid to ask questions. We do recognize that, and in fact, in a remote learning environment, without seeing their friends physically, some learners may feel isolated and distant, they may need more help.
And this is where the chosen EdTech tools and LMS platform comes into play – there is always an open channel to raise the flag and ask for help.
Ensuring an easy access to the coaches is our way to show commitment. We’re always there, when you need us, before or after class. Presence is important!
BONUS – as with all learning, it is always better with more FUN! We encourage our coaches to inject their personalities into the lessons, to talk about scriptwriting, acting or singing, or simply share their interests – because discussing about what you’re passionate about, feels invigorating and alive, it bridges the distance between the teacher and the students, and that’s the way virtual classes can come to life!
Co-Founder Vitamin M