Virtual concerns

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

In the past week there has been a flurry of activity among schools and educators as they prepare for the likelihood of schools closing, and students (and teachers) being required to work from home as the strategy of social isolation is enforced to combat the thread of COVID-19.

On a daily basis I see examples of collections of resources being published to support teachers to work with their students online. Here in NZ I’ve been assisting our Ministry of Education to develop exactly this sort of thing which is due to ‘go live’ in the next few days.

It’s often been noted that in times of adversity we see people working together more closely and with more unified purpose – and it seems now is one of those times. Having been very involved in a similar situation as a resident of Christchurch after the earthquakes there, I saw the same thing happening and was encouraged by these examples of generosity and resilience – the things that make us human.

That experience has made me wary, however, of some of the pitfalls that present themselves as we are focused on the immediate needs and take our eyes off the bigger picture. There are two key concerns I have as we prepare for this time ahead, planning for working remotely with our students:

Quality teaching and learning

Effective online/distance education requires specialist knowledge and skill, and the traditional classroom-based strategies don’t always easily translate – in fact, in delivering online often amplifies the worst of what we do in face to face settings. It’s very easy to do online learning badly, and so end up reinforcing existing prejudices about its value and impact. There’s already evidence of this happening, as some have simply rushed to overwhelm students with lots of online resources with little thought about the process of motivation, engagement, support and feedback that needs to be considered – and is really the primary role of teachers – we mustn’t see ourselves as simply ‘deliverers’ of ‘stuff’. Having the resources available online is great – but understanding how to make effective use of them requires a great deal of additional learning on the part of educators. Through this time ahead it will be imperative that school leaders consider this and provide opportunities for their teachers to access and participate in quality professional learning on how to become an effective online teacher. Some tips from my experience that may be useful here:

  • seek the support of someone you know who has actual experience and knowledge of online teaching and learning (not simply someone who has done a bit of sharing online). Enrol in any programmes they are offering – or invite them to provide something specifically for you and/or your school
  • collaborate with like-minded educators and share/learn from each others’ experience. Use this as your Professional Learning Group, pursuing professional inquiries together and building your experience in this way.
  • become an online learner – experience what it is like to be on the other end of an online course or programme and reflect on what makes this work for you. Are the materials easy to navigate? Can you find help when you need it? Are the objectives clear – do you know what is expected of you, timeframes etc? How are you supported to address any technical issues you may encounter? What is the quality of feedback? What motivates you to remain engaged? etc.


In the rush to put everything online and ‘deliver’ education to our students, we must remember that not all will have the same level of access to the online environments and tools required to participate. In NZ around 100,000 of our 800,000 students don’t have internet access at home. Fortunately addressing this issue is a priority in our Ministry of Education’s planning at present, and we should see some announcements on this in the very near future. However, it will require support at the local level to ensure any connectivity and/or tools provided are set up well and used to best effect.

Further, we can’t guarantee that all of our learners will have the same level of support from parents or caregivers at home, so attention will need to be given to how we provide for that need – perhaps through supporting small groups meeting in neighbourhoods (within the constraints of social isolation advice) in churches, marae, kohanga etc.

Perhaps even more concerning, there are groups of learners in parts of our country for whom school is a ‘safe refuge’ for them, and home not so. For an increasing number of students in some areas the breakfasts in schools programmes are the only place they receive adequate nutrition for the day. These are national concerns requiring local solutions.

These are vexing issues when planning for a country-wide response. It’s easy to become focused on ‘planning for the middle’ – but in an age of ‘personalised’ learning we are challenged to ensure that we take into account the context and needs of every learner – and their family/whānau.

So as we are planning our response to the challenges of the next few weeks or months, let’s ensure we support each other across the country in finding and sharing solutions to these two key areas of concern. “They” can’t solve these issues – “we” must work together to do that.

2 thoughts on “Virtual concerns

  1. Derek, I have been very careful to refer to what is happening now as remote teaching. The situation we currently find ourselves in is one of triage. It isn’t online teaching; it is remote teaching in an emergency situation.

    Online teaching takes preparation and planning. It requires the careful consideration of various pedagogical strategies, and which are best suited to the specific affordances and challenges of delivery medium(s). Finally, it takes a purposeful selection and adoption tools based on the strengths and limitations of each of those tools.

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