Friday, 7 November 2014


People ask me what I do.

It's hard to explain what “instruction” looks like in distance education.

Alberta’s Teaching Quality Standards says that quality teaching occurs when teachers understand the contextual variables that affect teaching and learning and respond by making reasoned pedagogical decisions that result in “optimal learning.”
My great aunt Isabel Perry in her classroom in Beaverlodge Alberta.
For a traditional teacher in a typical classroom in Alberta, there are many contextual variables. Classroom teachers know that each class in a public school in Alberta will have, among other things, students with a wide range of reading levels, a few ESL students,  a few gifted students, children from a wide variety of income levels including those in poverty, children from broken homes, kids with mental illness, some with physical disabilities, a couple who may be repeating the course, some struggling with bullying, some with family issues, perhaps one or two with addictions issues, and a handful who have been coded with special needs. Yet once those students are in the classroom, the impact of many of those variables can be lessened because each of those kids is in a classroom, probably sitting in a desk, surrounded by his or her peers, receiving group and one on one instruction from a teacher and/or teaching assistant who can gauge the student’s learning through verbal cues, body language and interpersonal interaction. A classroom teacher will make decisions about how to teach these children so that all will learn.Those students also have, for better or worse, a community of their peers who may support or hinder their learning.

Now put that same teacher in a distance education environment. The teacher is faced with the same variables as the classroom teacher and more. For instance, at least 40% of my students are repeating Social Studies 10-2 and close to 60% of them have special needs of one kind or another. And because I am not in control of the daily learning environment, there are even more variables outside my control. Mary has a baby at home, Randy has crippling social anxiety, Jason is working on his own in the library, Jodi has physical disabilities so severe she cannot actually get to school, Siobhan is caring for an ailing parent, Rajan is looking after his grandpa with dementia and Saleem lives in Qatar. These students do not live in the same town and do not have a community in common.  I do not have control of the contextual variables of time and space that the classroom teacher has. Instead of all sitting in desks in the same room at the same time, my students are working in an almost infinite variety of settings. One may be completing a couple of question while on break at Mr. Lube. One maybe work from home with no English speaker in sight to talk to. Another may be wrestling with an elusive concept while changing a diaper or working late at night at the kitchen table after farm chores are done. Another may be on a sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico or working in a compound in the Middle East with limited internet access.

When teachers create lessons, they have pictured in their heads the students who will be interacting with the lesson contents.  Based on their experience, they predict what these students will put into their learning, and imagine what they will take away.  Distance educators are no different, yet the contextual differences mean that far more must go into the planning of lessons because teacher is not in front of students to fill in the gaps in learning, to check for understanding, to provide immediate classroom or individual instruction when a lesson goes wrong, or to reteach a concept when formative assessment reveals the lesson taught did not achieve the desired learning outcome.

As distance educators, we try to predict every possible way in which our students might read or misread what we create, the mistakes in completing an assignment, the errors in thinking they may exhibit, the shutdown that may result from material that is too complicated and from directions that are hard to understand. We constantly remind ourselves that we are not there face to face with our students. We cannot hear the little comments made under their breath or out loud that show they just don’t get it. We cannot judge their body language, or observe the moment when the student is no longer engaged in the task at hand. We also know that our students frequently work in isolation. A student cannot turn to his seatmate and ask “what did you get for question 3?” or “how long is your paragraph? or “remind what page the teacher said that tutorial was on”. There is no adult nearby to gently nudge the child in the right direction or assist in the review of a concept or restate the task to be accomplished in a different way. We know that if our lessons are poorly crafted, there may be no “do over” the next day. Our students may easily become lost to the point of no return.

Far beyond being  simple lesson plans, for a distance educators like me, the materials we create become our voices, reaching out to our students and speaking to them in a language we hope they will understand. While I may use Dreamweaver and Photoshop and html and a myriad of other software programmes, I still try to engage my students and capture their interest with my words. I endeavor to scaffold instructions so that my students experience success by learning in increments with as much positive feedback as I can provide, to keep them motivated and interested and achieving. I tell my students that when they read their materials they should think of them as me talking to them.

Yet despite this careful scaffolding of instruction, despite our carefully worded and planned lessons, our focus on formative assessment, our encouragement to phone or email or Skype for extra explanation, despite our meticulously written, peer edited, revised and rewritten assignments, our use of images, audio and video, our students make errors. They do not always exhibit a full understanding of the concepts. They must be retaught. In the classroom, the teacher can discuss these common errors with the entire class. The distance educator, however, must reteach one child at a time. While we do try to automate some feedback, in many cases, the comments we make to our students take the form of mini lessons that teach a prerequisite skill the student has not obtained, or ask guided questions, or explain a concept again in another way, sometimes with video and/or audio explanations. "Marking" assignments in this way is a very different process than that practiced by classroom teachers. 

Another area in the realm of the distance educator is nagging. Distance education programmes have notoriously high attrition rates. Trying to keep students moving forward when they are at a distance is a challenge. We phone and email and video-conference and instant message and use the built-in online pager and contact parents and partner schools. We even send letters by postal mail.We track down lost exams and missing phone numbers and lost kids and assignments gone astray. We encourage and cajole and try to pique interest.

In all of this, what is considered "teaching"? What is considered "lesson planning"? What is "marking?  What is "clerical work"? 

There are many similarities between what a classroom teacher does and what a distance education teacher does. But there are many differences.

People ask me what I do. It's a complicated question. But it has a simple answer.

I teach.