Social Considerations-and-Constraints of Online Teaching-and-Learning: A Digital Native’s Reflection

The COVID-19 outbreak has, in less than a year, disrupted the way we interact, learn, and teach. On the one hand, this disruption was expected. The outbreak merely sped the use of advanced information-and-communication technologies to support learning beyond the physical classroom quicker than envisioned. Just a year earlier in 2019, Institutes of Higher Learning in Singapore partook in the preparation of the Singaporean workforce for the demands of the Industry 4.0 digital economy by offering courses related to, for instance, machine learning and data analytics (Teng, 2019). This endeavour was preceded by years of experimentation with and implementation of learning technologies to steer learning in varied ways. On the other hand, Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) has also placed debates on the purpose of schooling in a digital economy on hold as immediate demands to ensure teaching-and-learning (T&L) continues in the absence of physical face-to-face interaction mounts in the face of increased movement restrictions

This reflection aims to foreground the difficulties faced by “digital-native” educators in their implementation of computer-supported learning in a pandemic situation. It also hopes to inspire more discussion on the social context of Emergency Remote Learning (ERL). In particular, the paper will compare personal experiences with computer-supported learning with empirical data on the affordances as well as limitations of learning technologies. This will be achieved through a consideration of the purpose of schooling and ERT possible influence on learners’-and-parents’ as well as educators’ response to fully remote lessons.

Purpose of Schooling: Lessons from the Pandemic

The presence and use of technology in the classroom are no stranger to most Singaporean students. The exposure to technology in the Singaporean classroom is not only a textbook example of how computer-supported learning (CSL) has evolved, but also, how widespread as well as uniformed technology use has been amongst schools (Yang , 2016; Seow, 2018). Indeed, my earliest contact with technology was in my first year of elementary school in the late 1980s. It was not unlike watching a concert where students observed the images and sounds transmitting from a desktop computer. It was what learning scientists would have referred to as learning-around-the-computer (Chee, 2016). Learning activities took place literally around the computer but not necessarily needing the students to perform tasks or solve problems together on the computer. This ‘learning-around-the-computer’ was significant both as a social event that occurred in school and an introduction to the possible skills that could develop through a purposeful use of technology in the classroom.

While I grew up witnessing every technological turn and advance, my learners were born into a digital era. This difference has perhaps influenced the way my learners approach learning in computer-supported environments on three key grounds. Firstly, for many of them schools may not be the initial place or institution where they encounter the use of technology. As such, learning may not be the only social activity which they would utilize technology for.

“How could the classroom be brought into our learners’ homes with the help of technology?”

At the peak of the pandemic and during the period of heightened movement restrictions, the shift from school-based to home-based learning brought to the forefront questions on the design and adaptation of technology for learning in a beyond the physical classroom setting. For instance, how could the classroom be brought into our learners’ homes with the help of technology? Would the use of different communication tools or platforms significantly change the way learners communicate outside of the classroom? How would our learners or their parents respond to learning in a fully computer-supported environment? The questions came fast and furious as attempts to ensure learning continued when schools had to shutter their physical operations on short notice albeit temporarily.

If we consider the classroom as a microcosm of broader society, then learning are opportunities to act out and perform or practice systems of belief and rule on expected as well as accepted interaction norms. This suggests that schools and, essentially, learning should be situated in the society or in the social context in which learning occurs. Learning scientists are split on how this might be carried out in the classroom. On the one hand, leading researchers on Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) such as Frank Fischer, Armin Weinberger and Pierre Dillenbourg have experimented extensively how discussions in computer-supported environments could be encouraged through scripting (Weinberger, Stegmann, & Fischer, 2007; Kollar, Wecker, & Fischer, 2018; Frank, et al., 2013). Their researches provided learning designers with a theoretical framework on which learning activities and actions could be sequenced such that collaboration could occur as naturally and meaningfully in computer-supported environments as it would in the classrooms (Weinberger & Fischer, A framework to analyze argumentative knowledge construction in commputer-supported collaborative learning, 2006; Dillenbourg & Jermann, 2007; Fischer, Kollar, Stegmann, & Wecker, 2013).

On the other hand, Puntambekar and Tabak, delved deeply and widely into the supports needed to assist learners’ development of skills beyond their existing capabilities (Tabak, 2004; Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005). This includes guidance from experts or more learned peers, teaching materials and technological aids. They have also argued, through their research on learning scaffolds, for the need to consider cultural appropriation (Tabak, 2004; Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005). Indeed, when ERT and ERL came into full force, some of the concerns I had as a parent and educator concerned ‘modelling’. Are we modelling how professionals communicate in the workplace, in the future digital economy or only how they would respond to economic disruptions? In addition, what communication skill and learning attitudes do we want our learners to develop as a result of ERT and ERL. In other words, it is more than just a mastery of content. It is an identity transformation process of learning what experts in the field do as well as thinking and performing like them.

Above all, this implies that for authentic and meaningful learning to occur in computer supported environments, it would require not only a careful planning of learning activities but also deliberate consideration of the social context in which learning should take place. In other words, it is both a matter of learning locality-and-experience. Understandably, all such planning was shoved aside as ERT took priority against the backdrop of a burgeoning pandemic. Schools had a short runway to take off their ERT and ERL plans, and, learners as well as their families had to adapt to learning in isolation almost immediately. This made ERT and ERL so different from previous instances of blended or technology-support learning which was experienced mostly in school with guidance from the teaching team, support from peers and school administrators.

What Schooling Is

This leads us to the second point on ideas or perceptions of what schooling is (Packer, 2001). My response to this is less than straightforward. For one, I am caught in a bind with the hats I wear as an educator, a parent, and a post-graduate student. I first confronted this question in a seminar on learning theories and emerging technologies. A professor had sought to have the class debate on the purpose of learning and schooling, only to have been met with a deafening silence. While I am a fervent supporter of learning as experiences in knowledge construction and through social interaction, during ERT, my immediate concern was, unfortunately, on knowledge transfer and retention. This seems almost like a total regression from my preferred Participative learning metaphor, i.e., learner-centric and with learners participating actively in meaning making through interaction and collaboration (Sfard, 1998) as well as with learning situated in the society in which it occurs (Svend, 2011).

This supposed change of heart, however, is not without a caveat. Singapore society came to a near standstill during the Circuit Breaker period, from 7 April 2020 till 1 June 2020, with the majority of businesses, services and its residents either shuttering their physical operations (some temporarily and some permanently) or operating fully from home. This inevitably places great limitations on how, who and when we could interact as well as where learning could take place. These were on top of a cacophony of learning expectations from various stakeholders, that is, students, parents, school administrators and colleagues, and, dedicated learning outcomes (e.g., completion of examination and assignment) to meet.

Singapore safe distancing measures see tables and chairs closed off with tape during the circuit breaker period.

In this instance, the summative assessments or tests-and-drills that are often associated with Acquisitional learning metaphors (Sfard, 1998) seems to lend some certainty and alleviate learning anxieties in a crisis setting especially when assignments or activities could be repeated and designed as routines which learners could visit-and-revisit daily independently or with teacher-and-parental guidance. It provided a means to quantify how much could be taught and memorized, if not mastered, in the absence of face-to-face interaction with teachers, with peers and with the physical learning environment. Indeed, when home-based learning was first implemented, I found it less frustrating when I had a fixed set of assignments to complete with my child. Likewise, it was also less daunting to teach remotely when there were dedicated tasks or worksheets which students could practice doing with minimal guidance. In other words, the predictability and consistency of daily drills reduces the pressure or even need to adapt to new communication styles, habits, and technologies immediately.

However, after a month, both the emotional and social aspects of being in isolation hit hard and never had the rhetorical questions about the purpose of schooling and what schooling is been closer to reality – it was felt and lived out. If ERT and ERL were all about memory work and preparing for the impeding final semester or national examinations, and, revisions could be done at home by accessing online learning material, why the need for physical schools? In retrospect and prior to the pandemic, when I was tasked with the redesigning of modules offered in an institute of higher learning in Singapore as fully remote courses, similar questions were raised by my counterparts. My colleagues literally counted the days when going-digital-and-remote would replace the classroom and eventually face-to-face teacher-student interaction. As such, there was some apprehension towards what remote T&L truly meant and entailed.

ERT and ERL seemed to have quickened the arrival of this fearful day, bringing forward concerns that, post-pandemic, majority of classes could be delivered or taught entirely online. What could be done during pandemic which cannot be replicated during peace time?

The Use of Technology Resources

This brings us to the final point of this commentary on the use of technology resources. Are we using highly advanced technology only to reduce its use to assessment or examination preparation? The near total reliance on technology, in a crisis situation, to drill-and-support the memorizing of content, and, prepare for examinations, raises important questions on the affordances and limitations of technology-supported learning. Moreover, the pandemic has also taught us valuable lessons on the need for a purposeful consideration and design of how, when, and why technology may support learning while remaining both relevant and coherent to the society and the community of learners it supports.

On a personal note, these were also my main struggles as a parent and educator. While I grew up with technology use as a day-to-day norm, I have also failed on countless occasions to address questions on technological fit in terms of content, end-users experience, colleagues’ access and its relevance to the society as well as industry. Moreover, in an ERT learning environment, even educators who are supposedly digital natives must navigate learning needs-and-spaces and negotiate learning-outcomes on their own.

Perhaps, these were also the reasons why it was way simpler and, admittedly, more practical to resort to the usage of technology for acquisitional learning-and-instructional delivery during a crisis – quicker response. In the process, we may have created a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation where on the one hand we champion for the need, on a broader scale, for computer-supported learning to be dynamic, engaging and socially relevant. On the other hand, the buy-in for more specific remote learning may have been influenced by the way we have modelled technology use and T&L habit during a crisis. The challenge, thus, is how do we undo this when the crisis is over? How do we break out of the pandemic “social context”?

The way forward, interestingly, may require us to return to the question on the purpose of schooling (Packer, 2001). Perhaps, it is not a straightforward case of technology replacing physical schools after all. The pandemic was but a reminder to seriously ponder, whither learning and schooling in a digital age?

Sue Chia Ng

Sue Chia Ng is a polytechnic lecturer from Singapore. She has more than ten years experience to-date with the coaching and facilitating of learning in computer-supported classrooms. She has held lecturing positions with the Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NAP) and Singapore Sports School (SSP). At the NAP and SSP, she was taught modules on current affairs and critical thinking. She was also tasked with the implementation of remote learning in modules offered in the NAP. Prior to her teaching appointments with the NAP and SSP, she was an associate research fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies where she researched on socio-politico issues. Currently, she is on a work sabbatical and a doctoral pre-candidate with the National Institute of Education, Singapore.


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