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With SARS-CoV-2 completely disrupting our sense of reality, empty school buildings and university campuses serve as a stark reminder that education is no exception. What started out as a prolonged school holiday with the initial lockdown, has turned into an education nightmare with its extension. While many students still have no access to schooling in any form and the DBE scrambling to come up with some kind of reopening plan, some students have been fortunate enough to have access to a mixed bag of “offsite” (Lockdown Learning) initiatives from the DBE or their own schools. These vary from broadcast radio/TV lessons that are unidirectional to full-blown eLearning implementations, which include not only interactive lessons but also online assignments and assessments. Yet, even where schools were able to move to an eLearning delivery option, because they had some infrastructure in place, most were ill-prepared for the cognitive and emotional demands it places both on schools and students in a completely off-site learning environment.
As citizens, we have increasingly had difficulty in trying to make sense of some of the lockdown regulations. Similarly, parents have had to decipher well-intentioned (but poorly designed) slide-shows, obscure YouTube videos or seemingly haphazard instructions from educators who had to transition from the classroom to the screen overnight. What started out as a novel interim measure has lost its allure for students and parents alike. However, it seems we may not have a choice and that Lockdown Learning in some form or another will remain with us for the foreseeable future. If that is the case: What lessons have we learned so far and what can we do differently to improve what clearly is proving to be quite a challenging educational experience? What should we focus on?
Psychologists have confirmed what most of us have experienced by now – that the current situation brings with it an abnormal amount of continuous, underlying stress. Parents and educators need to recognise not only their own stress but even more so, also the stress of their children and how it impacts on their ability to cope with their workload. It cannot simply be business as usual – especially given that there is no 1:1 transition from a normal classroom to online learning. Homework should be kept to a minimum – especially given the fact that research has already shown that more homework does not translate into better mastery.
There are many factors that contribute to successful learning and even more so online learning, but trying to become online/eLearning specialists is not a realistic option in the short term. Instead, there are some core aspects to the learning process which can and will make a significant impact if taken into consideration by educators and parents. For instance, the brain has a relatively small working memory capacity and its performance is also severely constrained by continuous task switching (popularly called multitasking). Both these issues also limit the cognitive load we can manage at any given moment.
Despite its amazing capabilities, the human brain has a very limited working memory. What this means is that we can only manage a very small number of new pieces of information at a given time (about 4-8), depending on our age and mental abilities. Therefore, we can easily remember random short number sequences, but the longer they get the more difficulty we have recalling them. What alleviates this, is when we encounter new work and we can relate it to prior knowledge because this makes it easier for the new material to “stick”. Ensuring that new information is presented in small chunks and, where possible, linking it to prior work will make a big difference not only in normal classrooms but especially in online learning where the cognitive load caused by the medium is already significant.
Many people pride themselves on their ability to multitask – meaning their ability to do more than one task simultaneously while paying attention. Research has shown that, instead of multitasking, we actually do task switching, which is something entirely different. Task switching places a big strain on our mental resources and has been shown to be detrimental to learning. You simply learn less efficiently if you continuously switch tasks than when you don’t. However, it is also possible that the way in which we put together eLearning courses leads to constant task switching – and this should be avoided. For instance, mixing up different presentation mediums and tools which require students to constantly switch from one task to another during a particular lesson.
Closely tied to both the working memory and task switching is the concept of cognitive load. Cognitive load theory identifies three kinds of cognitive loads during a learning process – these are intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the load that is part and parcel of the learning material which needs to be mastered. The extraneous cognitive load has to do with how the material is presented (for instance – using a map rather than a description to teach the location of countries on a continent). Finally, there is the germane cognitive load which refers to the mental resources used by a student when they try to master content and commit it to their long term memory. What one ideally wants to do, is to limit intrinsic load by breaking up complicated units into the smallest possible units. Similarly, we need to limit the extraneous load by considering the best possible way to deliver content online. Sometimes (more often than not) less is more – avoid dense and wordy slides, use only functional images and avoid “embroidering”. When you explain – avoid rushing through information at all times – it not only increases extraneous cognitive load but also adds unnecessary stress and anxiety.
By limiting both intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load we afford students the ability to use as much of their working memory (mental resources) towards linking the new information to existing knowledge, to develop mental schemas, and to master and memorise content.
Once again, although these are all also important in normal direct instruction in a classroom, they become even more important in off-site learning. In a classroom, there are typically visual cues (facial expressions, restlessness, etc.) which indicate to a teacher/facilitator that students are not following their explanation. In online teaching, this is almost non-existent – even in video conferencing classes.
On an even more practical level, teachers/facilitators can address the challenges posed by working memory and cognitive load as well as prevent unnecessary task switching by doing a few simple things.
One of the biggest challenges for students is to have a clear understanding of their learning path for a particular subject, chapter or unit. More often than not, they are unsure of where a particular section fits into the bigger picture (if they know the bigger picture at all). They struggle to make connections between different sections, fail to understand the relevance of core foundational concepts for new material and as a result often cannot connect new knowledge to what they already know – making it even more difficult to master. Because good teachers/facilitators know this, they provide this kind of scaffolding almost in passing, even intuitively. However, in an offsite environment, where teaching happens remotely, this kind of scaffolding requires a deliberate and thoughtful approach. Too often s simply assume that by providing a list of resources, students will be able to figure out the context for themselves. However, this is not the case and besides the stress that this causes to students, the lack of a clear learning path with cues to prior knowledge and context just adds to the extraneous cognitive load of the material.
Fragmentation is the opposite of providing a clear, easily accessible and unified learning path to students. Just as a learning path can take many forms – from paper-based to technology-driven – fragmentation is also not tied to a particular medium. Fragmentation happens when well-meaning teachers/facilitators provide learning material on too many platforms or mediums without a proper key or tool which comprehensively ties them all together. More importantly, the chosen tool needs to enable seamless navigation between the different platforms so that students can focus on learning and not waste mental resources in trying to navigate their resources.
There is no shortage of tools and applications available to enable and facilitate lockdown learning. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a good thing because the use of too many tools and applications can increase the extraneous cognitive load on the students dramatically. A big reason for this is that it can lead to serious fragmentation of the learning experience. Rather than using their limited working memory to master material, students then have to use a significant part of their mental resources to navigate between different applications and tools. A good electronic learning environment should minimise fragmentation and provide students with a clear “learning path” that is easy to navigate. For instance, even though it is easy for a to use a messenger app to quickly send off additional resources, the experience may not be seamless for students if they still have to figure out where exactly it ties into the rest of their learning material and save it in a subject folder for access via a different application later. Similarly, video conferencing tools should allow for easy recording of sessions as well as seamless linking to students’ personal learning material. In normal classroom teaching, the problems caused by technology fragmentation become evident when students have to prepare for tests or exams, but during lockdown learning, it will prove to be even more challenging. Students will spend much needed mental resources to try and make sense of where everything fits in, they will struggle to keep up and have difficulty managing their stress levels. This is even before they started preparing for their assessments.
One of the biggest mistakes that subject experts make is to underestimate the extent to which their own vast knowledge base contributes to their understanding of a subject and how they approach and solve problems. In addition, because of their depth of understanding, what seems to be the logical and the easiest way to solve a problem, in other words, what seems to them to be “obvious” is simply impossible for their students. This does not mean that students are lazy, have not mastered their work, or are unable to solve a particular problem – it’s just that they cannot yet solve it like an expert. They may need a little bit more guidance in the form of one or two worked examples, or need reminding (and perhaps revision) of prior knowledge in order for them to make the connection to the new work. Whenever teachers/facilitators do not understand why students cannot solve an “obvious” problem, it probably means that they are underestimating the gap between their expert knowledge and that of their students. In online teaching attempts like the current offsite environment, this kind of judgement error is easily amplified.
During the lockdown, parents have the unique opportunity of observing first hand how their children experience lockdown learning. They are often the ones who are the first port of call if their children struggle to master the material or make sense of how teachers/facilitators have put their courses together. Although they are often but not always able to assist on an academic level, it is important to remember that their role in all of this is very different from that of the teacher or the facilitator, but is still extremely important:
Perhaps the most important of all is for parents to ensure that their own anxiety about how this will eventually play out, does not spill over to their children. Of course, it is healthy and necessary to have dinner table conversations where we share our own doubts and concerns about the effects of the coronavirus on the future or the economy with our children. However, we should not allow our own fears and anxieties specifically about the new lockdown learning environment to become an additional burden on them. Remember your child is not the only one trying to make sense of this new environment – their peers are in the same boat and teachers/facilitators are aware of the challenges that this poses to students. When the technology seems overwhelming, it is sometimes a good idea to slow down, just step back from the details and try to look at the bigger picture. Eventually, most children will figure out the technology and find ways of working with it – even if it is not used optimally or implemented properly – provided that they have proper emotional support at home.
On a side note – just like many children make use of tutoring services during normal school, some subjects (or s) may require an online tutor service to manage during this time. What they do not need, however, is a fretful parent contributing to their already significant stress levels…
Children are not born with an inherent time management capability. When they are small, their prefrontal cortex is simply not developed enough to do this but as they grow up and mature they learn time management from experience in line with their cognitive development. During ordinary school, their time management is often managed externally via homework and assessment deadlines – and even then they struggle to manage. Most implementations of lockdown learning do not provide a strict daily roster. Students have to self-allocate and manage their time. This is where parents can and should play a pivotal role – especially with younger children. Ensure that planning centres not only around tests and assessments but include ample time for teaching material. The most important aspect here is to ensure that there is a fixed routine. It should not only include generic “school time” but also include details for each subject.
With all the uncertainty around the end of the lockdown and also what the future looks like in the “new normal” – not only adults – but teenagers and adolescents find it equally hard to imagine that they are working towards a “future”. In a time like this, it is extremely difficult to remain motivated. For most teenagers, their whole life centres around their friends and the many social interactions they have. If ever they needed convincing that social media was not enough – this is probably it. The side-effect of the isolation caused by the lockdown means that learners’ motivation suffers. As a rule, children have difficulty seeing beyond the next year or two. They lack the wisdom that comes from experience. Adults, on the other hand, have many experiences to fall back on. And even if nothing has prepared us for a time like this, most of us remember times when the future looked bleak, when a lost opportunity seemed to close out our futures – and yet we survived and thrived. Parents need to draw on these experiences to find ways in which they help their children look beyond the immediate future to find motivation despite the immediate uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.
On a final note: despite all we know about the coronavirus at the moment, it seems clear that there is still a lot to learn and that the “new normal” will include some kind of lockdown learning for a long time to come. We are slowly coming to grips with the reality that as much as we wish for it to be different, schooling has become a lot more complicated than we would prefer and what it used to be. It is also clear that in order for us to navigate this future, we will have to rely on technology much more than before. However, it is also clear that technology brings with it its own challenges. For our ongoing educational initiatives to provide education that is on par with pre-coronavirus standards will require more than the emergency measures which make up current lockdown learning solutions. Going forward, education institutions will have to think carefully about implementing technologies that enable and support rather than inhibit learning. If sanity prevails those technologies that seamlessly support learning should win the day.
Dr J Liebenberg is the Chairman of the Optimi Academic Council. Optimi provides accessible home education and after-school solutions for parents, tutors and learners.