Lockdown in Italy: What one teacher’s experience shows us about teaching online

“Where do
you want to do your lessons today?”
“Erm, well,
I was teaching in the spare room yesterday so perhaps we could do a swap
today?”
“Well, what
time’s your first lesson?”
“I start at
10am and then I’ve got three lessons later on from 3 to 7pm.”
“Ok, so
maybe it’s better if you stay in the dining room because I start at 2.30 and
don’t mind doing the lessons in the spare room. Plus, I’ve managed to work out the
best position for the desk in there now. But perhaps we can do a swap before
your last lesson so I can come in and start to prepare the dinner while you’re
teaching.”
“Ok, yes, we can do a swap at 6.15 then. That works out ok actually because for the first 2 lessons I want to use the piano too. Look. I’ve stacked the coffee tables up so if I put the laptop on here, the kids will be able to see me play and we can do a song in English to lighten things up a bit.”
Each day under lockdown in Italy, my partner Roberto and I spend breakfast negotiating over who takes which room in our small 2-room apartment in Piemonte, so we can teach our lessons online with some degree of professionalism. So far, it seems that our small town doesn’t have any cases of people with Coronavirus, but even so, the strict regulations imposed by the Italian authorities require us to spend most of our time indoors, with time outside restricted to getting groceries, walking the dogs and going to the pharmacy, should we need to. Aside from that, we spend the best part of the day planning our lesson and teaching online – our new normal until the restrictions lift. Which, as you can imagine, we hope will be sooner rather than later.
Prior to the
spread of Covid-19 restricting our lives in this way, education and training
organizations had been pushing a generally accepted belief that one day in the
future we would all be forced out of the traditional classroom and have to yield
to an online teaching model. “Online teaching is the future”, we would inform
our young university students who nodded sagely, safe in the knowledge that
neither of us ever imagined it would really be our concern. Online teaching has
certainly been a growth industry for at least 10 years now but teachers have
been able to choose that career path or dabble in it rather than have it blanketly
imposed on them. Furthermore, most of us in the over 40s bracket felt that the
online teaching model was more likely to be a concern for Generation Alpha –
and possibly Generation Z but that at the very least they’d be prepared for it.
The fact that we’ve all, regardless of our generation, been plunged headlong
into this, even if temporarily, where teaching online has become a must for all
teachers is all at once unnerving, stressful, motivating, and driving us to
change. A classic ‘VUCA’ moment in current leadership theory speak—this 1980s U.S.
military acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and
Ambiguity could not be more apt to describe what we are going through now.
So how have
we managed this sweeping change? Well, the first thing Roberto and I had to get
to grips with was the array of video/web conferencing and learning platforms
that our various employers chose to use, including Zoom, Webex, Google Meet,
Moodle, and Kaltura. And because we were also dealing with the rapidly changing
rules of “social distancing,” we had the added challenge of conducting various ad
hoc online training sessions with our colleagues. Combine this all with a large
dose of hesitation at the outset because everyone believed we would be back in
the classroom after just a couple of weeks, and then the eventual realization
and acceptance that this is not going to be over any time soon.
So, here’s
what I’ve learnt so far about teaching online.
It’s as important to keep to a routine online as offlineGet up and get dressed as if you are going out to work and
keep to your lesson timetable as far as possibleStart with general housekeeping stuff – ask your students how
they are, give them key information about any changes, messages for parents, check
they’ve done homework, ask if they have questions and do general group feedback
on the previous lessons written workEstablish procedure – in Zoom meeting settings click on
‘waiting room’ so that you can let the students in all at the same time or even
speak to individuals before you speak to the whole class, asking students to
mute themselves until you invite them to speakMake sure your materials are clear, in big enough fonts so
everyone can read them and you have the right balance between too much and too
little information Make your teaching as interactive as possible – students have
told me that they find it difficult to follow lessons online that are purely
teacher directed. I use videos, audio files, screen sharing, quick polls, the
‘breakout rooms’ feature on Zoom to vary the pace of my online lessons and
involve the students as much as possible.Add pace to the lesson by speeding up and slowing down the
activities, varying the tasks and interaction patterns.Take regular breaks (schedule in virtual coffee breaks with
colleagues!) and consider if it’s more appropriate to do shorter lessons with more
frequent breaks since working online requires different levels of concentration
both for teacher and students. There may be distractions in the background for
you and the students making focus more challenging especially when everyone is
working from homeStay in contact with the students by email so you can collect
written work. Get them to appoint a class representative to whom you can email
the lesson invitations and deal with questions and updatesAs well as
getting familiar with the learning platforms, I’ve also spent time searching
for useful teaching aids to create engaging, pedagogically focused lessons. And
here are some of the resources and websites that I’ve found to be good sources
for materials:
A wide collection of colorful, engaging kids’ resources by
publisher Harper Collins

https://www.harpercollins.com/childrens/at-home-resources-for-kids-and-families-during-coronavirus-2020/
Free
downloadable ebooks for kids at World book Kitaboo
https://worldbook.kitaboo.com/
New York Public Library is offering free access to over
300,000 ebooks and audiobooks including kids’ books and bestsellers
https://www.nypl.org/about/remote-resources
Great for using in lessons with university students and
adults, Google Arts & Culture platform is giving access to virtual museum
tours in museums across the US, including the MoMA and The Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston. Similarly, in France, Europe you can visit the Louvre galleries with
their virtual tour to add visual stimulation and pace to your lessons.
https://artsandculture.google.com/search/partner?em=m09c7w0&categoryid=place
https://www.louvre.fr/en/visites-en-ligne
Another cool site is the NY Land Marks video series which
allows you to be a virtual tourist in your own town. Great for creating online
lesson that involve students in stimulating tasks.
https://nylandmarks.org/explore-ny/
What I’ve
found is that there are literally loads of online tools out there to help us. It
can be a bit overwhelming so I reached out to Digital Learning Manager, Marieke
Guy, a colleague of mine at The Royal Agricultural University, UK who gave me her
top 5 tips for some great learning apps when I was desperate for suggestions
earlier last month.
1 Microsoft
Teams – teams allow students to collaborate on work in a shared space. There’s
a lot of core functionality, like the ability to chat and organize meetings, as
well as tons of connectors so you can add in extra activities like mindmaps and
polls.
2 Zeetings –
you can give presentations online and share them with your students. They
follow along from the app
3 Kahoot –
all students love this! The interactive quizzes are exciting and bring out the
competitive side in everyone.
4 Answer
Garden – a great way to crowd source the answer to a question. It takes minutes
to set up and the end result is a fun word cloud.
5 Padlet –
you can create a shared board of student ideas and questions. Think of it as a
virtual post-it note activity.
Some really
great stuff. But as we adapt to teaching online there is also the fear that
once we get back into schools and universities, a seismic shift may already
have taken place where, in the very near future, we will find ourselves being
required to do more and more online. Couple this with a sense of foreboding
that this trajectory might be used as an excuse to assign fewer hours, cut salaries,
and lay people off. This sense of trepidation is understandable. Needless to
say, if countries do plan to make online teaching the norm, the Coronavirus
experience is throwing some useful light on a number of urgent questions that
need to be addressed that could inform national curriculums and syllabus design.

1. Is online
teaching needed?
2. Who can
it best serve?
3. How can
we make sure that people actually learn?
Firstly
there would need to be some agreed understanding of what the educational
purpose to online teaching is; that it’s about more than just simply reducing
costs and teaching staff. Education is about acquiring knowledge but it’s also
about acquiring the skills, values and beliefs that are useful to the society
in which they are taught.
Once this is
agreed on, “governments would need to increase expenditure and IT resources for
this to happen,” points out Juliette Hyde, head of Humanities at DT Rose Bridge
in Wigan, UK.  
“Our IT
infrastructures would need to be overhauled, with massive investment to cope
with increased demand and back up strategies should the system crash, like it
is doing now. And how would online learning accommodate creative subjects such
as art, dance, gym class and food technology? How will pupils be tested
accurately to minimize cheating?” she asks.
“Online
teaching is good but one of the most critical issues to consider,” continues
Juliette, “is the increasing numbers of vulnerable children with mental health
and obesity issues, not to mention those who don’t have adequate parental
support to learn from home or access to computers and Wi-fi.”
Kari
Stunell, lecturer in Teacher Education at The University in Bordeaux, France
adds “In the last two weeks alone we have seen how online learning works but really
shows up social divides – between the haves and the have nots. In the Bordeaux
countryside, for example, they don’t even have access to 4G networks yet, so
countryside dwellers in France are currently at a clear disadvantage for online
learning.”
So, a
picture starts to emerge that the idea of constructing a society that depends
purely on online learning may yet be unrealistic. Furthermore, our societies
depend on socialization skills that are vital for learning how to interact with
others. These skills would simply not get learnt if we completely replaced
traditional classrooms with online ones which would have catastrophic
implications for workplaces and the way humans interact in the physical world.
What seems
to be clear, however, is that there is a general sense that online teaching has
its place and is a blessing for when we are faced with a crisis like Covid-19. “People
should just be glad that’s it’s available,” says Roberto Giambra, English teacher
with the British School in Piemonte, Italy.
We already
know that online learning is useful for adult learners especially in the field
of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and is an option for university
students who want to do distance learning. However, so far, only 5-10% of
people who take up MOOCS, the Massive Open Online Courses that have gained
popularity with adults over the last decade or so, actually complete them“…which
says a lot in my view says Kari Stunell, “because loads of these courses are
very high quality, have very motivational lecturers from Ivy League
universities like Harvard and are really interesting.” But it seems that in
spite of good intentions, a lot of us lack the willpower or time management
skills to see an online course through to the end. If adults lack the
organizational skills in online learning, what does that say for kids?
This raises the
question about which students can best benefit from online learning in the
school system and how would we know that learning was actually taking place?Clearly, most learners, simply don’t have that will power and dogged
determination to learn alone.
 “Online learning would be more effective for
secondary (middle and high) school up but for that to be sustainable online
teaching requires learning strategies training for both teachers and students.
Students can’t be expected to motivate themselves to get up in the morning and
do their online lessons. The temptation to do something else instead is too
strong. And we can’t pass the responsibility onto parents to make sure their
kids pay attention in online class,” explains Stunell.
Perhaps a
blended approach would work but training in “learning to learn” strategies is
already sorely missing even from traditional classroom environments. Therefore,
training secondary and high kids to take responsibility for their own learning
online would mean overhauling the whole education system. 
“Plus, adults
often assume that young people are tech savvy but even though they’re pros on
social media sites and gaming, they lack the working reflexes many adults have.
They don’t go and regularly check their email spam box and write documents. I
strongly believe that online learning is simply not suitable for kindergarten
pupils. A seven-year old isn’t an autonomous learner, they need to be
accompanied and supported by a parent or teacher.”
“In France,
we use an online communication interface between teachers, pupils, and their
parents where the parents can check what homework their kids have to do and
what their grades are. This creates accountability but could still be utilized
in more creative ways for video-based homework tasks, for example. That’s how I
see the online world being useful for primary.”
Throughout
the Coronavirus crisis, the priority has been to deliver the lessons to
students by whichever means possible and online has been the only solution for
many of us. What is more, the experience has had some surprising consequences
here in Italy. “The fact that teachers have rallied to the cause of ensuring
their students continue to have access to education is increasing students’
level of respect towards older generations, something that has been in decline
since the 90s.”
Personally,
I’ve learnt loads and I think that goes for everyone involved in this mass
online teaching experiment. However, despite the positives of acquiring a new
skillset, much of our online teaching has been more of a bandaid approach borne
out of an emergency, but on a wider scale it has also opened up a deep
conversation about the usefulness of online teaching as we go forward, which
students might it be most appropriate for, and crucially, where it will have
the most useful learning impact that is in line with our understanding of our core
educational principles and objectives.
Lara Statham
([email protected]) currently works at the Università di
Torino (Italy) in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literature &
Culture. She is also a qualified Life Coach and is interested in exploring ways
of improving learning outcomes for students using a coaching approach. [email protected]


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