Online teaching: Meeting the challenge

By Yvonne Mason.

Yvonne Mason is an historian and freelance English and History teacher and tutor. Having gained a B.A in English Language and Literature, she later gained an M.A in Medieval Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London. In 2001, she established her own practice as a tutor of English and History which has grown into a successful online teaching business delivering KS3, IGCSE and A level courses to home educated students both in the UK and abroad. In addition, she tutors English and History with Wolsey Hall Home Education College and teaches History with Dreaming Spires Home Learning. Yvonne also home educates her own daughter and has plans to study for a PhD in Medieval Studies very soon. Yvonne writes……..

Two years ago, I attended a conference for History teachers and spent the day joining a range of training workshops given by some of the most outstanding teachers in the UK. In between sessions I spent time wandering around the resources exhibition talking to publishers, exam board representatives and sellers of a myriad of different resources aimed at History teachers. All day, I asked one key question – ‘How could that lesson idea/ resource be used in an online teaching context?’ All day, I was met with a mixture of answers from ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that’, to ‘Well, you could use this part of it but it’s really designed for the school classroom’, to an outright ‘You can’t’. It became very clear that online teaching, and provision of lesson resources for home educated students or anyone else ‘educating otherwise’, was way down, or not even on the list for most CPD trainers and resource providers. Representing two minorities – the home education community (I am a home educating parent) and online, independent class teachers (ten years and counting), I came home frustrated and resigned to doing what I usually do – adapting physical, school classroom based lessons and resources to the online environment myself.

Fast forward two years and how different the educational landscape is! No-one could have predicted the unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in. Due to the global spread of Covid-19, schools across the world have shut down and I have watched as schools, publishers, museums and a whole myriad of other educational providers have scrambled to find a way of adapting their resources to help parents and teachers cope with delivering online learning to families and teachers under lockdown. Suddenly, it’s become very important.

Furthermore, I spend a lot of time in Facebook groups for History and English teachers and tutors (I teach both subjects) and run two large groups myself. Over the first month of lockdown here in the UK, the main plea from school colleagues was ‘How do I actually go online?’ the basic challenge of actually finding a teaching platform being the main issue. Then it was ‘How do I issue and return homework?’ followed by ‘Does anyone have any lesson plans for……that I can use online, or adapt for my students to complete at home?’ I was starting to hear echoes of those very same questions that I had spent the day asking at the History teachers’ conference two years ago.

Then I watched teachers expressing their anxieties about doing that first lesson online, how daunted they felt and then the sheer elation when they reported when it had succeeded (and demoralisation when it hadn’t!). I was also surprised to see my colleagues reporting the level of sheer exhaustion they were experiencing, and how the level of work needed had risen exponentially – from marking, to admin and fielding emails, to the much larger volume of preparation necessary for this very different approach. I was struck by the comments coming from school teachers, and parents now supervising education at home, along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you home educating parents do it!’ or ‘I can’t wait to get back into the classroom – it’s much easier!’ They’re right! The online or home education context can be, in many ways, much more demanding than classroom teaching. For example, during an online lesson with fifteen students, I can be simultaneously delivering lesson content, fielding a constant stream of questions and comments from the students, dealing individually with those needing extra support, monitoring and changing powerpoint slides, supervising debates, writing tasks and other activities, while also managing the online platform and frequent glitches and technical problems. Phew!

Time and time again, I and other online teachers and home educating parents have done our best to resource, guide and encourage our school based counterparts and I have found myself saying ‘Welcome to my world!’ This completely different paradigm is actually our daily bread. I have been teaching independently for around twenty years, have taught online for around ten, and exclusively so for four. I have also home educated for ten years. And yes, the workload is huge, and the mental exhaustion a daily companion. My world, and that of thousands of fellow home education tutors and parents is the one that our school based counterparts are now striving to adapt to. And the need for good, online and home adapted resources has suddenly been upgraded to the forefront of educators’ attention.

It’s somewhat ironic, I feel. The minority are now the majority. From being the obscure, poor relation two years ago, teaching and learning at home and online is now the daily experience of everyone in the UK and for many across the globe.

I wonder, as I prepare to go back to that History teachers’ conference later this year, how different the conversations will be when I ask that key question – ‘‘How could that lesson idea/resource be used in an online teaching context?’.

Perhaps the answers will be very different this time. I hope so.

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